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The most unkindest cut of all? A modest proposal for the circumcision crisis

A modest proposal to resolve the circumcision crisis

A watch hangs in a shop’s display window.

A customer enters the shop and asks the owner, a bearded Jew, the price of the watch.

“I don’t sell watches,” replies the Jew.

“But you have a watch hanging in the display window!” replies the customer.

“Indeed. But here’s the thing: I am a mohel. I do circumcisions. Now what would the gentleman suggest I hang in the shop window?”

— Old Jewish joke

The German problem

Let’s just admit: Circumcision is a strange and slightly disturbing topic. (I’ve always imagined Abraham muttering, “He wants me to cut off my what?!”) However, its centrality to religious ritual and identity makes it difficult to discuss dispassionately.

Even stranger: It is now the subject of international debate. Who would have imagined that the Jewish world this summer would be in turmoil over an existential threat — coming from Germany rather than Iran? That’s all we need.

A court ruled that a Muslim family’s circumcision of its son constituted a violation of the child’s “physical integrity,” punishable on grounds of “bodily injury.” Muslims and Jews in Germany and Austria came together in protest, joined by coreligionists around the world (1, 2). German politicians (1, 2) hastily vowed to defend freedom of religion. The first prosecution against a mohel unleashed a new wave of protests (1, 2). Meanwhile German Jews complained that outside interference was worsening their situation. Clearly, things have gotten out of hand.

As UK Chief Rabbi Sacks pointed out, circumcision has epitomized the Jewish covenant with God since the time of Abraham, so even the non-observant see any attack on it as a mortal threat. A ban on circumcision helped to trigger the revolt of the Maccabees (1, 2). The founders of Reform Judaism readily discarded the dietary laws and even the Messiah — but did not dare touch circumcision (1, 2).

The easy way: Circumcision of Christ, detail from Twelve Apostles Altar (Zwölf-Boten-Altar). Painting by Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The easy way: Circumcision of Christ, detail from Twelve Apostles Altar (Zwölf-Boten-Altar). Painting by Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Clearly, this is serious business. In the Torah, when Shechem raped and abducted Jacob’s daughter Dinah, her brothers Simeon and Levi avenged her honor by forcing the Shechemites to circumcise themselves and then killing them.

The hard way: Simeon and Levi teach the Shechemites a lesson (1748)
The hard way: Simeon and Levi teach the Shechemites a lesson (1748)

Still, not too serious to preclude a classic piece of humor, at once sardonic and self-deprecating:

A man asked a famous rabbi why it was necessary to circumcise the Shechemites and then kill them? Couldn’t they have punished them without the circumcision?


The rabbi explained: If the sons of Jacob had killed the Shechemites as pagans, all the inhabitants of the land would have risen up and avenged them. But because they were circumcised, they counted as Jews, and when one kills Jews, nobody cares two hoots.


— Old Jewish joke

You knew the question of anti-Semitism would arise, sooner or later. But in asking whether the judges were aware of these historical sensibilities, Rabbi Sacks misses the point. In this age of “the new ‘uninhibitedness,’” the court and its supporters consider this irrelevant, believing they can view Jews and everything Jewish “objectively” rather than through the distorting lens of “Holocaust guilt.”

According to law professor Holm Putzke (an ironic name, under the circumstances), whose views underlay the verdict: “This decision could not only influence future jurisdiction, it could also lead the relevant religions to change their attitude with respect to the fundamental nature of children’s rights.” (Yes, he’s as modest as he is realistic.)

It is tempting to react harshly, but the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel sees misunderstanding rather than anti-Semitism at work. Indeed, circumcision differs from other legal accommodations for religion (1, 2, 3) because it involves the rights of a child.

Clearly, the crisis calls for a Solomonic judgment. Strictly speaking, I suppose, a Solomonic judgment would have been to cut the foreskin in half, dividing it between parents and child. The parents would have accepted this compromise (after all, it’s no skin off their… well, never mind). The infant, realizing this would hurt just as much as cutting off the whole damned thing, would have cried inconsolably, whereupon our modern Solomon would have declared: “Let the baby keep the foreskin!” Of course, the real Solomon was strictly observant (he even got to build the Temple), so his usual method of conflict resolution would have failed.

The Vikings to the rescue

The Scandinavians already consider themselves wiser than the parties to the Middle East conflict, so it’s not surprising they think they’re wiser than Solomon, too. The Norwegian ombudsman for children’s rights suggested that Jews and Muslims simply “replace male circumcision with a symbolic, nonsurgical ritual.” Voilà, she thought — but almost before she could toss back that celebratory akkevit, the head of the Oslo Jewish community drily observed that her mandate “did not extend to devising Jewish rituals.” Oops.

Still, bending over backward to be open-minded, I turn again to our rich folkloric tradition:

A very liberal Christian said to his Jewish friend: “You know, a common religion would be the best thing for all of us! You give up something, and we give up something — and unity would be achieved!”


“You have it a lot easier,” responded the Jew. “You have the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, so you could easily let go of one of them. But we have only The One: what is there for us to give up?!”


— Old Jewish joke

Quite. Judaism and Islam cannot give up their strict ethical monotheism. But circumcision? Perhaps what at first seemed yet another manifestation of Eurocentric condescension could in fact be the chance to create a truly multicultural global community.

The grand compromise: A modest proposal

Let us agree that religious traditions should indeed be judged by the modern standards of abstract rationality and universal human rights. We Jews and Muslims will give up child circumcision. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Elders of Zion and Islam (meeting at one of those joint Tisha B’Av/Ramadan break-fasts) therefore came up with a little list of necessary changes to your majority European Christian religion:

Infant baptism: Sprinkling a naked, shivering, bawling baby with cold water and smearing oil on its head? Even though no body parts are removed, it’s cruel and unusual. Verboten.

Adult baptism only from now on: and in sanitary, heated pools, not dirty ponds and rivers. European Union health inspectors will be vigilant. Have documentation ready in triplicate.

Communion: The language of the ritual — “This is my body… this is my blood” — is terrifying and cannibalistic. What is your toddler to think when mommy drinks “the blood of Christ?” Yuck. And you worry that circumcision causes lifelong trauma?! A clear violation of basic human rights.

• And the gruesome “art found in your churches (Calvinist excepted)! Crucifixions and torture of all sorts: saints beheaded, stoned, burned, boiled, shot with arrows — you name it. Your child would not be allowed to see that sort of graphic violence in a movie theater until the age of 17. Another lawsuit or big psychotherapy bill just waiting to happen.

• And as if that were not bad enough, there are the relics: skulls, bones, hair — even the Holy Foreskin of Jesus (of which there were once said to be up to 18 in various churches; you’ll have to work that one out among yourselves). Decorating with body parts? Shame on you.

• Speaking of relics, Jesus and some of those early saints were Jews. In keeping with modern archaeological ethics and respect for the remains of indigenous peoples, you will need to return those bones — and of course all the Holy Foreskins (we’ve got the list) — to Israel for a proper Jewish burial. Pronto. Sorry.

(On the bright side, you should really get rid of most of your religious art anyway. Did you not get the memo? What part of “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” did you not understand? The Bible is pretty clear about this. Fortunately, we’re not the Taliban or Timbuktu Salafists: feel free to donate the stuff to a museum. Enjoy.)

• That brings us to doctrine:

Leaving aside that Trinity thing (we admit we don’t understand it, and even you say it’s “a mystery”), with all due respect: Teaching that Christ was born by spiritual rather than sexual means, of a virgin, and came back from the dead? We’re sorry, but this is in complete conflict with all the laws of nature. Teaching such doctrines will harm children’s performance in the science classes so vital to success in our technological world: poor test scores, failed college entrance exams, low-wage jobs. Sound education and economic opportunity are also human rights.

And you can’t very well expect people to heed those weekly sermons about anthropogenic climate change when you in the same breath preach doctrines that patently violate the laws of physics and biology, can you, now?

• Finally, let’s consider the social consequences. World church leaders have called action on global warming “repentance in action.”

That’s all well and good, but we’ve reviewed the record and, oh dear: turns out you have an awful lot more to repent for, starting with centuries of teaching hatred of Jews and Muslims. The Crusades? Expulsion from Spain? The Inquisition? Colonialism and the slave trade in Africa? Forced conversion and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? Wars of Religion? Witch hunts? Why, the list just goes on and on.

You justified all those crimes against humanity on the basis of your religion. The charge of deicide against the Jews is enshrined in your New Testament (bet you wish now you could have a do-over on that one), so we’re going to have rather a long list of edits. We’ll get back to you about that.

Why stop there?

In fairness, both Professor Putzke and the Norwegian ombudsman’s predecessor said that they sought not to eliminate circumcision, and only to postpone it to an age when a child could make an informed decision.

That sounds very reasonable, but why stop there?

If a child cannot decide whether to undergo circumcision, he certainly cannot rationally choose a religion. Is imposing one upon him not a violation of his psychological and intellectual “integrity?”

All religions have beliefs and practices that seem strange to outsiders. Most are harmless. Which causes more lasting harm: Circumcising children or filling their little minds with doctrines that they cannot possibly understand and may leave them crippled for life by credulity or even bigotry? We see the results of religious fanaticism all around us.

In his “Treatise on Toleration” (1763), Voltaire (no great friend of the Jews) said:

But of all these superstitions, is not the most dangerous that of hating your neighbor for his opinions? And is it not evident that it would be much more reasonable to worship… the Holy Foreskin… than to detest and persecute your brother?

So, instead of obsessing over the foreskin, let’s focus on the head. Instead of banning one time-honored religious ritual, why not just ban all religious indoctrination of children? Let them study the natural sciences and comparative religion and make up their own minds when they reach adulthood.

Problem solved.

As the saying goes, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

A foreskin? Not so much.

About the Author
Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, where he teaches modern European cultural history, including the history of antisemitism and fascism, and the history of the book.