The Great Foreskin Debate

A debate erupted on Twitter yesterday about a German court ban on infant circumcision last week. This ban affects cultures that practice circumcision, particularly Jews and Muslims. The ruling received a fair amount of support from a number of people on Twitter who expressed views that circumcising an infant is cruel, anachronistic and, in one tweet, “evil”.

I’m Jewish so circumcision is part of our culture. The men in my family were circumcised as infants and so was my son. I didn’t agree with the harsh opposition to the practice and, particularly, associating all circumcisions with the tragedies we hear about in rural areas where adolescent boys die from botched circumcisions. I couldn’t really engage in the debate meaningfully because I just didn’t have enough information and because trying to have a debate on Twitter with a few other people included in the discussion is a little like I imagine trying to pee with an inflamed prostate feels lie: frustrating, constrained and painful at times.

I also thought that while the practice is couched in religious terms in our culture, there is probably an underlying medical benefit to the practice like so many of our customs. I asked my GP who is both a religious and learned man and a well regarded medical practitioner. What he told me surprised me a little. The only proven medical benefit to a circumcision is that there is a reduced HIV transmission rate among circumcised men. Other than that, there is no significant medical benefit. So why do we do it in Jewish culture? Essentially, because we were commanded to do it. We believe there are tremendous spiritual benefits to the practice but for an atheist, this has no significance at all and the practice probably looks pretty barbaric.

I don’t regret my son having a bris (one term we use for the practice) and, at the same time, I don’t have a compelling answer to criticisms that this is ritualised mutilation on infants who lack the capacity to make their own decisions about it and without consulting with them first. At the same time this is a fundamental aspect of our traditions and our beliefs and while I am hardly a religious Jew, there are times when I have faith in my traditions and customs and the people who guide us.

So, no, I don’t have an answer to the criticism Rich, Henk and others raised on Twitter yesterday. I respect their views and I am still comfortable with the practice in my tradition. That said, I was really relieved when we found out our second child is a girl so we didn’t have to go through that again!





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