Hayim Leiter
Rabbi, mohel, misader kiddushin, beit din member

Making the ethical cut

Circumcision is “morally impermissible” according to the latest publishing of the American Journal of Bioethics. “Accordingly, social change efforts […] should aim to protect all nonconsenting persons, regardless of sex or gender, from medically unnecessary genital cutting. We do not suggest that criminal sanctions are necessarily an appropriate mechanism for pursuing such efforts, especially insofar as such sanctions tend to be selectively applied to members of already-marginalized groups. Rather, clear ethical statements from professional medical bodies; social campaigns geared toward education and consciousness-raising; respectful debate and dialogue among interested parties; moral and material support for dissenters from within practicing communities; and non-hypocritical cross-cultural engagement will be important for making sustainable progress.” Since there is a call for respectful debate and dialogue, which is rare in the anti-circumcision movement, I feel compelled to answer the call.

This paper spends a great deal of time equating Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) with circumcision. But as the victims of FGM themselves will happily point out, the two are polar opposites and comparing them belittles what these women have gone through. Brit Milah is an attempt to elevate the child to full religious status, whereas FGM is intended to make the woman subservient to her husband and feel no sexual pleasure. The authors deliberately chose to ignore intent when analyzing the moral nature of these rituals. Just as there are different standards when one accidentally kills someone, as opposed to when one murders in cold blood, these rituals are different because of their intent and should be treated as such.

Another of the paper’s fallacies is that circumcision is morally wrong because of the individual’s experience and feelings towards it. 

[Circumcision is performed] on behalf of norms, beliefs, or values that may not be the child’s own and which the child may not adopt when of age. Indeed, such norms, beliefs, or values are often controversial in the wider society and hence prone to reevaluation upon later reflection or exposure to other points of view

Even if it were true that circumcision was “morally impermissible”, one’s experience of the event is irrelevant. If the ritual were wrong, then it’s always wrong, no matter what the community standard is or how the person feels about the procedure. Basing morality on these foundations is nothing more than moral relativity and undermines the case that the authors are attempting to make. It is for this reason that Judaism (as well as most religions) anchors morality to something beyond ourselves. The Divine imperative is irrefutable and has stood the test of time, for good reason. Anything less than this is always malleable and subject to change when fashions shift.

Another problem with this paper is that it is not just a reaction to circumcision. Even if the authors don’t realize it, inherent in the above quote is a bias against religion as a whole. The issue of circumcision here could easily be replaced with religious education and the statement would make just as much sense. This is because the groups who attack circumcision are just as opposed to religion entirely. When viewed in this light, it is easy to see that the attacks are a slippery slope. What will they come for next, our education? Would anyone argue that society should not educate their youth? What if one day the child, now an adult, wishes he or she had never been educated? This as just as much an irreversible act which the child may one day regret. But we never withhold education until a child is of age to choose.

[N]early 80% of American men are circumcised for religiocultural reasons, despite the health benefit remaining ambiguous”. 

This statement is just false. There is nothing ambiguous about the health benefits of circumcision. There is a multiplicity of evidence that circumcision is beneficial from childhood into adulthood. Circumcision reduces the risk of contracting cancer (for both partners), HPV, HIV, Syphilis (as well as other sexually transmitted diseases) just to name a few. 

This brings us back to the original quote of the paper that there should be “clear ethical statements from professional medical bodies”. Those statements already exist but they are not what these authors are looking for. Most medical associations have done thorough research and have concluded that “[The] benefits exceeded procedural risks, which are predominantly minor, by up to 200 to 1. We estimated that more than 1 in 2 uncircumcised males will experience an adverse foreskin-related medical condition over their lifetime.” Choosing to ignore the girth of documentation to arrive at your own ends is unconscionable.

But beyond all of this, what the anti-circumcisionists will never understand is that just as they have a visceral reaction to circumcision, we Jews have the exact opposite reaction. When someone in our community even mentions that Brit Milah is off the table, we react in a state of utter disbelief. It is our lifeline to our most ancient forefathers and what has sustained us as a nation for thousands of years.

These are issues that strike at the core of all democratic societies. Freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of a free society. Teaching our values to our youth, with the hope that they will teach them to their children, is exactly the campaign we’re involved in. No one is demanding that those who are in the opposition should circumcise their children –– and we demand the same freedom of expression in return. It’s the moral thing to do.

About the Author
Rav Hayim Leiter is a rabbi, mohel, wedding officiant, and member of a private Beit Din in Israel. He founded Magen HaBrit, an organization committed to protecting both our sacred ceremony of Brit Milah and the children who undergo it. He made Aliyah in 2009 and lives in Efrat with his wife and four children.
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