Brit milah: the phoney debate

By Jennifer Lipman, June 20, 2011

Since I am one of four female siblings, introducing me to Judaism through a ceremony carried out at the age of eight days was not something my parents had to consider.

Seeing circumcision as something for Jewish parents to consider is a relatively recent notion. In the past, the Brit milah was as natural a step for the average Jewish family as lighting Shabbat candles or saying Kaddish for a loved one; an integral part of our heritage, the original covenant between man and God.

But we live in sceptical times. This chimes with Jews. Challenging accepted wisdom is one of Judaism's greatest characteristics. Jews do like to debate. There are rules in debating, of course: times when you can intervene, limitations on heckling from the crowd etc. In a good debate, arguments are won on sound reasoning and hard evidence.

Come November, the people of San Francisco will have the chance to decide whether they want circumcision to be banned for males under 18, punishable with a fine or even a prison sentence.

In a country where religious freedom is not merely encouraged, but constitutionally inscribed, the idea of blocking parents from observing religious practice is bizarre. Individual states aren't even able to ban the burning of the American flag.

Jews love to debate, to challenge accepted wisdom

While they make up their minds, Californians can seek the guidance of a dubious Aryan superhero called Foreskin Man, sent to this planet to save Jewish babies from the clutches of monstrous mohels. Or they can look to the Tweets of Gladiator star, Russell Crowe, who urged his followers to desist from such a "barbaric and stupid" practice or kindly "F*** off".

Those calling for a ban call circumcision "an assault on children". Their websites are full of information about foreskin restoration and testimonies of men claiming that an operation when they were a baby left them incomplete as a man.

They claim it's not about religion but choice. But what if being physically "intact" leaves a man religiously bereft? Circumcision at eight days is surely far less traumatic than the same operation as an 18-year-old. I had my BCG jab as a baby and I remember nothing now, but the legacy of the protection against TB remains.

I'd find it hard to believe any man who remembers something that happened when he was just days out of hospital. It's what comes next that counts, the barmitzvah, smashing the glass under the chupah.

A circumcision ban might not close every door to a young Jewish boy but it would make them harder to push open, whether because they won't be the Jewish man the Jewish woman expected them to be, or because they will not be part of a tradition that goes all the way back to the first Jew.

As a Orthodox Jewish woman, I know about being banned. I never read from the Torah at 13 and I sit behind the mechitzah in shul and I am happy to debate these issues.

Given that around half of American men are circumcised, including Muslims, Jews and the non-religious, there is something unsavoury about the focus on one religious faith. And removing the future choice of an eight-day-old boy is no way to protect his freedom.

There are certainly sound arguments against circumcision of females, and there are also horror stories of botched operations and claims that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure (there are counterclaims).

In favour are medical studies that have shown that the removal of the foreskin lowers a man's susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

In the face of all this, a complete ban would be outrageous. But if there is to be a debate - in San Francisco or elsewhere - let it be by the rules. Comic book superheroes are unworthy opponents in any debate of such fundamental significance.

Last updated: 10:58am, June 20 2011