Khitan and Milah

18 U.S. Code § 116 – Female genital mutilation

“(b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.”

As all Jewish males, during my eighth day of life, I was involuntarily circumcised by my parents – Brit Milah. Within the Muslim faith male circumcision – Khitan, is a religious rite, although not as invasive as Brit Milah. The exact age at which the circumcision should take place varies among its adherents. Judaism bases this religious rite upon a commandment in the Torah G-d presented to Abraham:

Chapter 17 –

“10 This [is] my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which [is] not of thy seed.

13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

Islam bases it upon various passages in the Hadith – a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad that, with accounts of his daily practice (the Sunna), constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran.

For example:

Bukhari: Book 7: Volume 72: Hadith 777, Narrated Abu Huraira:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Five practices are characteristics of the Fitra (generally translated as common sense): circumcision…”

Unlike Judaism however, Islam, it is generally conceded, requires female circumcision as well.  Again from the Hadith:

Dawud: Book 41: Hadith 5251, Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:

“A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace be_upon_him) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”

The World Health Organization separates the female circumcision procedure into four separate categories. Type I circumcision is the removal of the clitoral prepuce, which is very similar to the prepuce of the penis, which is removed during male circumcision, the basic procedure of female circumcision employed in the Muslim world. Many in Islam modify this procedure by not removing but rather simply nicking, similar to what Judaism refers to as hatafat dam brit, a procedure utilized by a Bet Din when a convert to Judaism has already undergone a medical circumcision. The other procedures which are constantly cited when discussing this subject, types 2 and 3 which are far more invasive, in which the labia minora, labia majora and clitoris may be extracted, are practiced by a minority of Muslims seemingly in concert with the directive of their Prophet in the Hadith, “Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman.”

Why should Jews concern themselves with Islamic circumcision, with Khitan? It behooves us as American Jews who practice the rite of circumcision and who believe in the free exercise of religion citing this American value as protecting our religious practice, to consider what exactly constitutes female circumcision in Islam. For as has happened in Europe, the outlawing of Muslim ritual slaughter, Halal, necessarily brings with it the outlawing of Jewish ritual slaughter Shchitah. In the United Kingdom for example, in attempting to ward off those who would outlaw Shchita, British Jewry was required to, in some manner, defend Halal.

In recent months, as a result of a number of American Muslim physicians being charged for performing female circumcision, the issue of this religious rite being performed among the Muslim faithful in the United States has become a major topic in the media. Described as “female genital mutilation.” it has been roundly condemned. As is stated in the code above, any form of Muslim female circumcision upon a minor is forbidden and can result in five years of imprisonment.

Recently, Tucker Carlson of Fox News broached this topic on two separate programs. On the first, he expressed his utter contempt for the practice of “female genital mutilation” by Muslim doctors in the United States. On the second occasion he had a well-spoken, charming, female Muslim professor of anthropology, Fuambai Ahmadu, who was voluntarily circumcised as an adult to discuss this very hot topic.

The professor stated she wished to discuss the details of the actual circumcision procedure as Americans are generally unaware of the details. Carlson tried to stop her.  Nevertheless, the professor proceeded, stating the varied types of female circumcision recognized by the World Health Organization. Carlson, who is generally fast on his feet, when attempting to respond to her statement regarding male circumcision as being quite similar to female circumcision was left with no other answer but to state that he found this procedure unacceptable. One wonders what his view is regarding the involuntary circumcision of a Jewish boy, age 8 days, by his parents?  As some may recall, the very critique of the anti-Milah crowd in San Francisco was and is should be the decision of the young man in his majority if he wishes to undergo milah- defined by them as male genital mutilation.

Let us consider the following reason underpinning the free exercise of religion clause found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Free Exercise Clause states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“The Free Exercise Clause commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of it practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures… Accordingly, Legislators may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised to persecute or oppress a religion or its practice…Under the constitution, a law that is not neutral, but targets a specific action, and that does not apply generally to all people, but targets a specific group, must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored to advance that interest.” Justice Kennedy in Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye v. Hialeah

This famous case brought before the United States Supreme Court by the church in question, concerned the City of Hialeah outlawing the religious rite of animal sacrifice, the slaughtering of goats, practiced by the Lukumi-Babalu Aye. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Church with Justice Kennedy explaining the basis for that ruling. Simply, it matters not when considering another’s religious freedoms whether you find a particular religious rite employed by another bizarre or repulsive. You have, under our sense of the free exercise of religion, the right to practice the tenets of your Faith. How much more so is this the case when considering the religious rites of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam?  Is it no wonder then why, given the ever growing attack on our religious freedoms, President Trump issued his Religious Freedom order?

It is time code 18 U.S. Code § 116 – Female genital mutilation be revised to better reflect the realities of Islamic female circumcision and the free exercise of religion – a pillar of our American democracy.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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