Talking Jewish Circumcision (Especially When You Aren’t Jewish)

By Rebecca Wald © 2014
Support Wald's upcoming book, Celebrating Brit Shalom, here.

Jewish circumcision is a touchy subject to say the least. It involves religion, sex and politics—the “sacred cows” that are generally not spoken about, even among friends. However, advocates for genital autonomy (the concept that all children are entitled to keep their natural sex organs) often put educating others before the conventions of polite conversation.

As publisher of Beyond the Bris, I find myself talking about (and listening to others talk about) Jewish circumcision frequently. Is there a right—or better—way that all of us can talk about this highly charged topic? I feel there is.

Let me start off by saying that it’s much easier to talk about routine infant circumcision (RIC). The act of performing a painful, sometimes life-threatening and arguably damaging procedure is easy to assail when its being done simply as a matter of “routine” or because Dad is circumcised. However, Jewish circumcision isn’t routine. It’s been practiced (and is still protected) as a parent’s fundamental religious freedom. Whether it should be is another matter. Regardless, Jewish people have have fought and died to protect this parental freedom, as well as because of it.

Routine Infant Circumcision vs. Religious Circumcision

Not long ago in the anti-circumcision community, RIC was the term used and the primary focus by nearly everyone. Many felt it was unnecessary to get into the thorny issue of religious circumcision since it accounted for such a small percentage of male infant circumcision in the U.S. However, awareness about the harms of all forms of gential cutting has grown and there has been a shift away from talking just about RIC. Principles of genital autonomy assert that every child—whether male, female or intersex—and regardless of religion or culture, is entitled to the body they are born with, absent medical necessity. In the past 5-10 years, talk about RIC (which is more narrow) has evolved into talk about genital autonomy (which is more encompassing).

With this shift, vocal circumcision critics will inevitably find themselves in the tough position of criticizing the time-honored religious or cultural practices of a group to which they don’t belong. This is often a recipe for misunderstanding—or worse. The listener may be forever turned off to the concept of genital autonomy. The genital autonomy movement itself may sustain collateral damage should the matter become widely publicized. So how can Jewish circumcision (or for that matter any kind of religious or tribal genital cutting) be discussed in ways that help to avoid this?

The Inside Advantage

First of all, my feeling is that religious circumcision is best addressed by those who come from within the particular circumcising religion/culture, or are otherwise very familiar with it by virtue of extensive study and/or firsthand experience. Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., first made this assertion and it has always stuck with me. This doesn’t mean that if you aren’t Jewish you should never talk about Jewish circumcision, but understand that you’re at a strong disadvantage when it comes to such a conversation. Every religion (in fact every generation and every culture) has its own lingo—and getting the lingo right is vitally important.

This is why the thoughtful genital autonomy advocate will turn a discussion of Jewish circumcision in the direction of Jewish resources. The Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, Beyond the Bris and Dr. Mark Reiss’s Brit Shalom Providers Page are all good websites to mention. (Brit shalom is a bris-without-circumcision ceremony for intact Jewish boys.)

There are also a few good books. Dr. Goldman’s Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective remains relevant and invaluable. My own forthcoming book, Celebrating Brit Shalom, will be available this fall and can now be pre-ordered via our current Kickstarter campaign. With the anti-circumcision activist in mind, my co-author and I have included a “multiples pack” as a reward for backing our project—perfect for sharing with others as a component of outreach. The campaign lasts just 45-days, beginning on June 17, 2014, so please consider supporting us!

Improving the Conversation

Overall the treatment of Jewish circumcision within the intactivist community is respectful. However, there are times when I cringe at Facebook threads and article comments. Anything that starts with “You Jews” is a prime example. “How can anyone belong to a religion that expects circumcision?” is slightly less offensive, but still unhelpful. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, this kind of talk reflects poorly on the whole genital autonomy movement and I wish it didn’t exist. Those who are wise enough to identify, stand up to, and redirect such conversations are worth their weight in gold.

There are certainly things that can—and should—be said about Jewish circumcision. Here are a few of them:

(1) Not all Jewish people circumcise; it’s a choice.
(2) The movement to question Jewish circumcision goes back a long time and includes many notable Jewish people.
(3) Brit shalom exists as an alternative to brit milah (religious circumcision).
(4) Infant circumcision actually conflicts with many aspects of traditional Jewish ethics and practice.
(5) Jewish ritual practice is diverse. Just because a family opts out of one aspect of it doesn’t mean they’re any less Jewish—or less valuable to the Jewish community.
(6) There are now many rabbis and other officiants who are willing to perform bris without circumcision (brit shalom).
(7) Some of today’s most vocal members of the genital autonomy movement are, in fact, Jewish.

Of course, one can never go wrong in pointing out the obvious—that all children, regardless of religion, have a right to their natural sex organs.

Rebecca Wald is the publisher of Beyond the Bris, a news and opinion website about the Jewish movement to question infant circumcision. Beyond the Bris has received widespread attention, and has been written about in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Village Voice, Tikkun, The Jewish Daily Forward, Haaretz, and The Times of Israel, among others. Rebecca is a graduate of The George Washington University and of Brooklyn Law School.

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