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Circumcision Alone a Jew Does Not Make

Of late, the question as to whether or not to circumcise a male child has been hotly debated in this country among physicians, parents and rabbis. A discussion of the health aspects, pro and con, lies beyond the scope of this article. I am a rabbi and, therefore, do not feel qualified to offer a definitive opinion on that matter. Let me just say that having read the numerous arguments on both sides of this question, it seems to me that it makes no difference to the health of the child whether or not he is circumcised. If he is not circumcised, the child simply needs to be taught to practice good hygiene so as to insure adequate cleansing.

There is another argument offered regarding enhanced sexual pleasure for the uncircumcised. Frankly, I do not know how anyone can definitively determine this. One is either circumcised or not; and if he speaks from personal experience, he cannot know the alternative experience. Of course, one may conjecture that the more skin one has, the more nerve endings and, therefore, the more sensation and more pleasure. But that is only conjecture. More sensation might also mean more pain.

A third argument has been raised in this controversy: that circumcision is unnecessary surgery. Members of the public have become increasingly sensitive to various unnecessary surgeries. They cite circumcision as one more example. One might argue that much of reconstructive surgery also falls into this category. The major difference in the case of circumcision is that the parents are making the decision for the child. Since the child does not have a say in the matter, the argument goes, it is unfair to the child. Some have used much stronger language, describing the practice as barbaric or inhumane or a case of child abuse.

A counter argument might be that parents frequently make decisions on behalf of the child; in fact, one might say that the most important function of a responsible parent is to make decisions for the child, at least until the child reaches the age when she he can make responsible decisions. It is true that parents, being imperfect, though well intentioned, make mistakes. But that is their prerogative. That is, they have more of a right to make such decisions, good or bad, than anyone else.

This leads me to the Jewish question. Do Jewish parents have the right to decide whether or not to circumcise their child? To remain consistent with my last point, I would say yes. Should these parents feel compelled to circumcise their child in order to insure his Jewish identity? Not in the opinion of this writer. However, those with a more conservative bent would object to this response by referring to the biblical law regarding circumcision, which reads:

God said to Abraham...you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations; and this is the covenant that you must keep: You must circumcise every male...this shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you. [Furthermore] throughout all generations, every male shall be circumcised when he is eight days old...this shall be...an eternal covenant. The uncircumcised male whose foreskin has not been circumcised, shall have his soul cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:9-14)

From the biblical perspective, circumcision takes on considerable significance, denoting a special relationship with God. One might wonder why compliance with this biblical commandment has been so tenaciously retained throughout the generations even among liberal Jews and self-described "non-practicing" or "non-religious" Jews (although they might not adhere to the eighth day requirement), while most of the other biblical commandments and later Jewish laws have been discarded by them.

Most of these liberal and secular Jews do not view circumcision as a sign of the covenantal relationship with God, but rather as symbol of their Jewish identity. In other words, it has a social rather than a theological meaning. (I am not speaking of the Orthodox or "traditional" Jews who unwaveringly adhere to Jewish law with its traditional meanings.) For example, most do not keep kosher, which in large part derives from biblical commandments and was also considered a mark of Jewish identity; neither do they comply with strict Sabbath observance, also biblically based and a mark of Jewish identity.

One might answer that neither keeping kosher nor observing the Sabbath was deemed a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. But that would not be correct, at least with regard to the Sabbath. In the Hebrew Bible we have: "The Jewish People shall keep the Sabbath, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant. It is a sign between me and the Jewish People..." (Exodus 31:16-17)

Since both the observance of the Sabbath and the rite of circumcision were considered signs of the covenant, there must be another reason why circumcision has retained its hold as a special mark of Jewish identity. I am tempted to believe that the practice of circumcision among Jews throughout the generations was an act of defiance in the face of attempts to outlaw its practice by oppressive regimes. This may in part be true, but it cannot be the entire answer because one tyrant or another throughout the centuries (the Syrian king, Antiochus IV, in 165 B.C.; then the Roman emperor, Hadrian, in 135 A.D.; and so on into modern times with Stalinist Russia) has decreed prohibitions against both Jewish Sabbath observance and the practice of circumcision, yet many Jews have given up the Sabbath, but not circumcision.

Perhaps the seductive influences of modern economic life have eroded Sabbath observance--the Jewish store owner who wants to keep his business open on Saturday to compete with his Christian neighbor--whereas circumcision would be untouched by concerns for one's livelihood. I think, though, that there may be an additional and more profound reason for the enduring practice of circumcision as a Jewish rite. It is practically invisible. Once performed in a private religious ceremony by a mohel (ritual circumciser) in the presence of family members, there is no visible sign of it in public. The Jew could "wear" this mark of distinction without drawing attention to himself from non-Jews. But every Jew would know that his fellow Jew was engraved with the sign of the covenant between the Jewish People and God.

As with many practices, the original reason for circumcision either has been forgotten or is simply not accepted by many Jews. No longer seen as a sign of the covenant, it is understood (or rather misunderstood) as being a necessary condition for being Jewish, if a male. If that were the case, one might well ask what are the necessary conditions for being a Jew, if a female? By asking such a question, we might begin to discover what is essential to being a Jew.

We may fully acknowledge the role this rite has played among the Jewish people for almost three millennia. For parents who wish to continue this practice for their children for religious--and even theological--reasons, they of course have that right. I would never advocate meddling with the beliefs of others if I do not see them as harmful; and I do not join with those who oppose circumcision on grounds of cruelty. For parents who wish to have this procedure for their children for other than religious reasons, they, too, have that right.

But to those Jews who feel that this rite must take place for their children to be considered Jews, I wish to emphasize that there is nothing in Jewish law that says so. A Jew is a Jew because of a combination of beliefs and behavior, which combination does not necessarily entail circumcision. It is the opinion of this writer that once the non-essential externals no longer serve to define the Jew, the important work leading to a definition of universal import will begin.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet."
Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant

Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant Familant received his rabbinical ordination and Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He served as Stanford University's first full-time Director of the Hillel Foundation and Counselor to the Jewish Students for ten years. He then became licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. In 1985 he founded The Interfaith Community in Palo Alto: groups.yahoo.com/interfaith-sfbay.

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