The past century has been marked by the declaration and protection of universal human rights, as well as a marked increase in the quality of life, both in the United States and worldwide. With these improvements, higher expectations regarding a child’s right to bodily autonomy have become socially accepted and legally mandated. Many argue that since female children in the U.S. are protected by a 1996 law banning female circumcision, this law should be expanded to include the protection of male children as well.
There are a growing number of Jews who are becoming increasingly vocal in questioning both the ethics and the legality of circumcision. Jews in the Reform Judaism movement have already been advocating for an end to ritual circumcision during the past 180 years. What follows is a collection of statements from Jews who question the ethics and legality of forced under-age circumcision.
"I am a Jewish mother against circumcision and in support of passing Bill 1777. For years I was a certified childbirth educator and now a journalist and filmmaker. I continue to educate people that childbirth is a natural event rather than one filled with unnecessary drugs and other medical intervention, and circumcision is an unnatural event. These are two clear-cut examples of interfering with nature."- Katherine Mora, Jewish Mother
Testimony before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary
“In Massachusetts, two Jewish mothers testified in favor of a law making circumcision illegal. Moreover, several Jews and Jewish organizations throughout the country are backing a proposed national law against circumcision. Jewish groups such as Jews Against Circumcision and the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation have endorsed the proposed American MGM bill, which would rewrite the U.S. Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 so that boys are also protected from genital mutilation.”
- Questioning circumcision, by Shani McManus and Sergio Carmona, Florida Jewish Journal, June 06, 2011
“Jewish baby boys are human and have rights too, and those rights are violently trampled by his (and my) religion, in the case of brit milah. We must all learn to take the blinders off and somehow stop this heinous practice -- yes, by a law, if necessary.” - Tina Kimmel, PhD, MSW, MPH, Director of NoCirc, East Bay Area
Letter to the Bay Citizen
“I’d heard how my uncle had fainted during my bris and what a horrible event it was. This was the thing everyone would talk about at the Passover seder… The ban on circumcision that’s on the ballot in San Francisco is a triumph for intactivists… I'm totally for it. San Francisco has often lead the country in elevating our consciousness. It has already helped spread awareness of this human rights crime to other states and hopefully will lead people everywhere to be more compassionate, thoughtful and rational not only towards their own fragile newborn children but to other fellow men and women as well.”
- Jason Paige, Jewish Singer
Blood, Sweat & Tears Lead Singer Protests Infant Circumcision, by Rebecca Wald, J.D., BeyondTheBris.com, July 1, 2011
“The human right to body integrity would, in this instance, override their religious right.…non-fundamentalist Jews, who constitute a very large number of Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox Jews, believe that human ethics are an essential element in the Jewish tradition. …there is a Jewish tradition practiced by virtually all Jewish parents today that is morally wrong. This should give pause to any non-fundamentalist religious Jew, and it is a black eye for the liberal movements that they have not taken this issue more seriously. Perhaps a law prohibiting circumcision is just what these Jews need to start a serious discussion about the problem of brit milah.”
- Eli Ungar-Sargon, Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews?, Forward, the Jewish Daily, May 20, 2011
“I happen to agree with you that foreskin removal should be illegal. It is a mutilation… I agree with you that men should not be circumcised. . . I don’t know where this circumcision came from, some people feel it’s a religious thing, it’s about health, it’s about cutting off the foreskin makes your penis less likely to get cancer. There’s been all kinds of myths. I think it’s nonsense. That if you’re born that way, it seems to me it’s a mutilation to cut it off. The same way in Africa they sometimes cut off a woman’s clitoris and they think that’s justified. I think our foreskins were cut off in order to desensitize us, and I think it was a bunch of religious nudnicks who decided they didn’t want us going around fornicating so they cut off some of our penis skin.”
- Howard Stern, Talk Radio Host
Howard Stern, Jewish Intactivist by Rebecca Wald, J.D., BeyondTheBris.com, March 31, 2011
"Laurie Evans, the Jewish director of New York's National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), told the Committee that under Jewish law, the son of a Jewish mother is Jewish, whether circumcised or not, and that despite great pressure she had kept her son intact. She said that many Jewish mothers confide to having been horrified by their boy's circumcision ceremony. She said that initially the ceremony involved removing only a small amount of foreskin, not all of it, and that several Jewish organizations recommend a peaceful birth ceremony instead. She urged the panel to watch a circumcision and raised the issue of botched circumcisions. The second Jewish mother to speak, Kathryn Mora, testified she had been devastated that her son was taken from her in the hospital and circumcised without her consent."
- Peter W. Adler, A Bird's Eye View of the Hearing On the Massachusetts Bill to Outlaw Genital Mutilation
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child Newsletter, Summer 2010
“What about religious freedom? Certainly, the ability to freely practise one's religion remains a vital component of any liberal democracy. But should this trump an individual's right to their bodily integrity? And shouldn't such a principle be extended to all those who, by virtue of their age, are too young to decide on which body parts they would or would not like to keep?...
"Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights outlaws the kind of "harm" that circumcision can cause; article 14 forbids the discrimination that prevents baby boys from enjoying the same protection of their genitalia as baby girls. In the 21st century, it is time to remember that men, too, can be victims of unjust hegemonic systems tolerated in the name of tradition, culture or religion. If we oppose female genital mutilation, has the time not come for us also to oppose male genital mutiliation?"
- Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld, Time to ban male circumcision?, Guardian UK, June 14, 2011
Rebecca Steinfeld, is a PhD. candidate at Oxford University and has served as an under-35 director and as an associate of the Board of Deputies for New West End Synagogue.
“It seems to me that for liberal Jews the choice comes down to this. Do we want to in some way circumscribe the sexual possibilities of our sons by performing a body modification when they are infants so as to bear witness to the covenant? Are there not other ways to bear witness? Are there not other ways to maintain our distinctiveness from the society around us? Despite having circumcised my two sons, the more I think about the issue, the more likely – were I a resident of San Francisco – I would support the referendum.”
- Sandford Borins, Ph.D., The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective
Sandford Borins, Ph.D., is a professor of Management at the University of Toronto.
“I am a Jewish filmmaker and I have been invited by the Council of Europe to its Parliamentary Assembly next week. By screening my television documentary It’s a Boy! for European parliamentarians I aim to help shore up their commitment to protection of children’s right to physical integrity – a key step toward ending ritual circumcision of boys….From a very young age attending Jewish schools my personal preoccupation was the Jewish thirst for justice and our empathy for suffering. Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Jewish injunction to heed the distress of living beings, became the wellspring of the filmmaking I’m most proud of, including films about Israeli society, its past, present and future.…Had I known such facts earlier, my son would have remained intact, as is the case with increasing numbers of Jewish boys today, including thousands in Israel… Parents like me know from our remorse that it was wrong to make such an irreversible, painful and dangerous decision for our children. We owed our children protection, and we owe it to our communities not to be silenced when we have erred as parents. …boys from all backgrounds need the protection of the rule of law – secular law – wherever they may live. The necessity for this now in Israel is obvious. To deprive children of Jewish and Muslim descent in any country of full legal protection because of their lineage amounts to a most perverse kind of prejudice against those children. As for any attempt by real anti-Semites to latch onto this issue, that would be denounced publicly. But then real anti-Semites are not usually the people keen to protect Jewish children from harm, and real anti-Semites would probably like nothing better than continuance of a practice that stokes anti-Jewish feelings and for generation after generation inflicts suffering on Jewish boys. Children’s right to physical integrity should be what Israeli parliamentarians defend – rather than a brutal anachronism.”
- Victor Shoenfeld, Circumcision – defending the indefensible, Jerusalem Post, 01/22/2014.
"Hard though it may be to hear, irreversibly removing a healthy body part – in this case, part of a boy’s genitals – without consent, violates a person’s right to bodily integrity, a cornerstone of post-Holocaust human rights law. It also undermines that child’s right to an open future....
Supporters of circumcision also say it’s an ancient, meaningful practice. But neither longevity nor meaning is usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of."
From a Jewish perspective, there are other issues. First, circumcision does not confer Jewish status. As Shaye Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explains, “Male and female offspring of a Jewish mother are Jewish by birth under Jewish law; the male offspring are Jewish by birth even if they are left uncircumcised.” Second, biblical circumcision was not as extensive as today’s variant, which is actually an innovation of rabbis in the Hellenic period trying to stop Jewish men from restoring their foreskins. Evidently, definitional Jewish practices can and have evolved.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that some Jews are questioning the practice. A 2006 online survey reported in Haaretz found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Israel is now home to the intact support group Kahal, while in the United States, Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision have sprung up.
Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should be respected, not demonized. But all critics of circumcision must be vigilant about the company they keep, distancing themselves from anyone not exclusively motivated by child protection. There is no place for anti-Semitic arguments or imagery...
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe should stand firm. If it backs down and denies some children their rights because their parents adhere to the Jewish tradition, it would single out only those children for lack of protection. Now that really would be anti-Semitic.
Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld, It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision, Haaretz (Israel), Nov. 26, 2013.