Mindsets People

A few more thoughts about the circumcision debate

I have a few more thoughts about this debate and the arguments raised in the last few days. I am sufficiently cranky this morning and more than a little annoyed at some of the responses I have received to this practice which has become a central part of who Jews are and which has served us for millennia. And, yes, the longevity of an objectionable practice doesn’t legitimise it but it also doesn’t render it anachronistic.

Parents make decisions for their children all the time. It’s part of being a parent. These decisions range from where to live, what to wear, what to eat, which community to grow up in, which religion (or not) to observe and so on.

Making an argument that kids should be able to decide things for themselves is stupid. Trying to limit that argument to things like circumcisions is also stupid. That sort of argument leads to arguments that other decisions should be left to kids and the scope of the argument increases to the point of being absurd. Our son was also a little tongue tied so we took him to a surgeon who rectified the issue with a scalpel and local anaesthetic in about 5 minutes. I think I was more traumatised and yet it was a decision we took vey early on so he could express himself better as he grows up. We didn’t leave it till he was 18 to decide, at that point, whether he wanted it done. That little bit of extra skin/whatever that is could have impeded him as he grew up and unnecessarily so. We’re taught that a bris has certain spiritual and cultural benefits. If it can be done when he is so young he won’t remember it or even feel much pain, why leave him to go through his childhood singled out because he is different or denied whatever spiritual benefit he may have? Isn’t that a cruelty too?

The argument that kids should be left to decide to have a circumcision is overly simplistic, totally black and white and lacks an appreciation of where that argument leads and ignores some of the nuances of the practice. I’ve read, for example, that the process is far less painful (if at all) for 8 day old infants because the nerve endings are not fully developed at that age and therefore less experience of pain. I don’t know for a fact that this is true, I’m not a biology person, but if this is the case then doing a circumcision at this age is far better for the child than leaving it for later.

Yes, this assumes that a circumcision would happen anyway but that assumption is a fair one given the practice’s religious significance.

Another problem with the vocal opposition to a Jewish bris (I can only really talk about this although the stuff that goes on in local rural communities strikes me as crazy mainly because of how the practice is carried out and who does the circumcisions) is that the opponents of this practice are often speaking from a perspective outside the culture that has incorporated the practice and often base their arguments on dodgy references. Also, this is a faith-based practice. If you don’t share the faith, you don’t have the necessary conceptual and experiential framework to meaningfully argue against it. You are just railing against an alien practice using a largely irrelevant or incomplete basis for your argument.

Some of the arguments I have seen in the last few days are also somewhat self-righteous and hypocritical. I appreciate sincere concern for these kids’ wellbeing and the implication that Jewish parents callously disregard their sons’ wellbeing for the sake of an anachronistic practice (I can’t think of any other implication that argument makes) is offensive and patronising. It suggests that opponents to this practice know best and us yokels should stick to our fields and farms while the intellectual and moral superiors take over and mould our cultural heritage and evolution to fit their moral view of the world. What nonsense. Just because you don’t share a person’s faith or cultural practices doesn’t mean you have the right answers or the better model.

I keep thinking back to the Rowan Atkinson skit where he is the Devil and he points out to the Christians entering Hell that “the Jews were right”. You may believe your model of the world is the right one but you can’t possibly claim that you know it to be true as an absolute certainty. You are relying on a belief as a basis to dispute other beliefs.

Events and Life

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!