Open Zion

07.03.12

The Case for Circumcision

I wanted to ignore last week’s German court decision, which would criminalize the religious circumcision of infants. Which should be, as a circumcised man, my right. If I really was the victim of genital mutilation, as the court seems to believe, I’m at least entitled to some privacy.

But then a New York infant was hospitalized after contracting herpes from a bizarre variation on the ritual involving direct oral-genital contact. And arguments against circumcision were given voice, not only on the far Left, but also by Larry Derfner and Noam Sheizaf, Israeli writers I read and respect. 

As a religious Jew who wants my sons to be circumcised, I’m tempted to defend the practice tactically. How, after all, do you explain a covenant to someone on the outside? You just have to hold certain commitments to understand them. It feels similarly impossible to explain why I love novels or my partner.

And to be fair, there are tactical points to be made. It’s important to say that those few Jews who practice metzizah b’peh (oral-genital suction) are perverting Jewish law. The custom was originally added to circumcision, some two millennia ago, to protect the infant’s health. But ancient rabbis understood medicine as poorly as did all ancients. Had they known metzizah b’peh constitutes a danger to the infant, they certainly would have forbidden it.

And it is worth noting circumcision’s medical benefits, even if they have nothing to do with why Jews do it. According a large meta-study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2011, circumcision “decreases human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) acquisition in men by 51% to 60%,” and also provides protection against genital herpes and “oncogenic high-risk human papillomavirus (HR-HPV).” Studying men circumcised as adults, the authors also found, contrary to anecdotal reports from many “intactivists” (as opponents of circumcision call themselves), “no significant differences in male sexual satisfaction or dysfunction” among those circumcised.”

Then there’s the lousy comparison to female genital mutilation (FGM), rightly illegal and reviled in America. FGM comparison is the most viscerally compelling part of the anti-circumcision case, but it’s also the most disingenuous. In the first place, FGM as its performed is just horrific: short-term mortality is around 10%, and in the long term, another quarter of the victims die due to later complications. And those who survive are largely deprived of future sexual pleasure. Anyone who claims that circumcision has similar consequences is out of their mind.

But that’s not the only problem. FGM is frequently defended on the grounds that it reduces female sexual pleasure and increases male sexual pleasure. In other words, FGM is the result of sexism—gender-based violence. Jewish men, by contrast, are not oppressed (in fact, my main quarrel with circumcision is that it marks only men as part of the covenant.) If FGM were not incredibly dangerous, if it didn’t radically change its victims’ sex lives, and were it not part of pervasive, brutal discrimination, then we’d have an analogy.

All that should be said. But I don’t think it will make a difference to people like Matthew Taylor, who says, “I'm 37, and have been sitting on a mountain of grief and rage for 17 years since discovered what was stolen from me while reading a critique of circumcision,” and who believes circumcision involves “inflicting violence against an oppressed victim without regard to his/their wishes, rendering the oppressed a voiceless object, an 'It' as opposed to a 'Thou.'”

The war of statistics is secondary to those people, as it is to me. They don’t oppose circumcision because they think the health benefits are a myth, any more than I support it because I think they’re real. They believe that it is wrong to cut a baby’s foreskin against his will, because they believe a person has a right to make the choices about his body.

Judaism, at its core, posits that the central facts of a person’s identity, a person’s core existential commitments, are not chosen. You don’t get to choose whether you’re Jewish. This flies against an American tradition of radical autonomy, one that dates, if not to Roger Williams, at least to Walt Whitman.

But pace Whitman, the Jewish view has something to it. Your parents make all sorts of constricting choices for you. They choose whether you’ll go to good school or a bad, what language you’ll speak, whether you’ll grow up in a city or a country. Their choices determine whether you’ll be thin or fat as an adult and whether your teeth will be straight or crooked. Personalities and bodies are forged under all sorts of imposed necessities.

And even if you break your Brooklyn accent (which I’ve never been able to do), you can never erase it. Your past sticks with you, and not always for the better. Ask an elderly Jew, and they can tell a million “accent” jokes. If he’s under pressure to assimilate, a Jew can hate his consonants as easily as his penis.

A Jew learns to will what was necessity, to make a life from his or her familial and historical givens, rather than spurning them. Prayers I hated reciting as a child now form the emotional background for my peak spiritual experiences. Not fitting in at public school pushed me to find a home in texts thousands of years old, and friends in their authors. James Baldwin speaks (in the context of the somewhat weightier burden of being African American) of converting an inheritance into a birthright, the Orthodox theologian Rav Soloveitchik of moving from fate into destiny.

Either way, the point of Judaism is to make something of your past. If a Jew doesn’t have that past, she is missing out. If you haven’t been bored by learning Talmud, you’ll probably never be enchanted. If your grandparents didn’t practice Judaism, you miss out on local, idiosyncratic customs: this way of wrapping tefillin, that of making Kiddush. If your body hasn’t been marked as Jewish, you’ll never have quite the same identification with the Jewish people. None of these things are your choice, but they are crucial to making your choices meaningful. So if my parents hadn’t circumcised me, I’d feel they’d robbed me of my birthright.

I’m not asking secular Jews to circumcise their kids. They don’t have to like religious Judaism. But they should respect that circumcision is crucial to religious Jewish life. And they shouldn’t try to push their choices on me.