As a founding member of Bruchim, the new Jewish nonprofit advocating for Jews who hold critical views of brit milah, I seek to build bridges between those who continue to practice the traditional ritual and the growing number of Jews who have come to believe, as I do, that circumcision should be a personal decision. In this capacity, I enter into lots of Jewish discussions about the topic. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with a diverse group of Jewish thinkers — ranging from my own friends and family, to mohels, to world-class medical professionals and bioethicists, and to rabbis across the Jewish religious spectrum.

It’s fascinating to me that in many, if not most, of these interactions, the conversation turns out to be the first critical Jewish examination of brit milah for the other party, and in some cases, it’s even the first time they’ve thought deeply about it at all. Brit milah is supposed to be the covenantal act of the Jewish people. It’s supposed to be important; it’s an issue that raises ethical concerns, such as the nature of violence, children’s rights and the boundaries between religious and personal freedoms, yet many attempt to defend it despite the fact they’ve never given it a second thought. My intention is to bring these conflicts into the light and discuss them for what they are because if the liberal Jewish community wishes to continue justifying this ancient, yet controversial ritual, it must do so with much more honesty.

Below are four considerations:

  • Brit milah is just as open to Jewish reinterpretation as all other mitzvot:

Before getting into critiques of circumcision itself, a serious question: Why do we need to keep circumcising babies? Surely, it’s not because we, in the liberal community, believe that we would be violating a literal pact between a person named Abraham and all-powerful God?

According to the most recent Pew data, more than 70 percent of Jews don’t believe in God, at least not as a specific, personal deity like an old man in a chair.[1] Most Jews don’t believe in a seven-day creation story, or that Noah was a real person who built a real boat. And yet, when it comes to circumcision, even many progressive rabbis still treat this tradition as if they’re Bible literalists! As if circumcision on the eighth day is somehow an immutable tradition, while everything else is up for interpretation.

For the progressive Jewish community to cling to infant circumcision as static, as if there is no way to reconcile the serious ethical problems with circumcision, is a low-integrity defense. There are myriad commandments and concepts in the Torah that have been drastically reinterpreted in progressive spaces.

Judaism can be said to value questions more than answers. This ties back all the way to Abraham, Rebecca and Moses questioning God in the Torah, and to the Mishnah and Talmud, wherein Rabbinic Judaism cemented itself as an interpretative tradition. No matter the generation and no matter the issue on the table, the Jewish people have never limited themselves purely to the customs of the prior generation. While the Jewish people have proved throughout the ages to be quite stubborn when it comes to retaining our distinctive cultural identity, on the other hand, we have also proven quite flexible when it comes to defining for ourselves what that cultural identity actually looks like. We have lived up to our namesake Yisrael — One who wrestles with God.

It is difficult, it takes courage, but if we have a problem with a tradition, we can change it.

  • Placing extreme significance on maleness conflicts with egalitarian values.

I was recently at a Shabbat dinner with a group of very progressive friends where the discussion centered around gender specifically, the recent trend of gender reveal parties. Everyone at the table agreed that they disliked these events. In fact, several friends even thought they were unethical since they are based on a warped sense of gender that assumes that the genital characteristics of the baby are determinative of what they will be like and how they will be raised. Pink for girls, blue for boys, etc. This group of friends agreed they did not want to gender a baby in such a way.

“Well,” I said, “what do you think a bris is?”

Stunned silence.

We need to be honest about what brit milah literally is — a religious ritual that sanctifies penises, which sanctifies maleness at birth. And importantly, brit milah remains a distinctive marker of the traditional Jewish preferential status placed on maleness. For thousands of years, children born with penises were elevated in the community while those without received barely any welcome at all. As Jewish sociologist Michael S. Kimmel once reasoned, circumcision “is the single moment of the reproduction of patriarchy … the moment when male privilege and entitlement is passed from one generation to the next … ”[2]

Even when considering brit milah through the most charitable lens, it’s challenging to reconcile this with modern egalitarian values — values the liberal Jewish community has come to champion in spite of the traditional Jewish patriarchy in which men are the ones who count. As much as it may be a physically harmful sacrifice, brit milah is also a ritual that places penises at a premium. Baby boys are brought into the covenant of Abraham. Not girls. Ceremonies that have been developed in the last few decades for those assigned female at birth, such as the brit bat or simchat bat — while crucial in elevating those who were formerly left out entirely — are too often still viewed as secondary and also remain bound to traditional gender norms. As long as we practice infant circumcision, it means we are looking at our children’s bodies, specifying that one type of child is a candidate for our traditional covenantal act while another is not, and we are assigning which-is-which based purely on what type of genitals they have.

If we’re serious about unwinding ourselves from patriarchy, then we need to reckon with the ways in which this inherently gendered practice creates a barrier to change. In my view, the best way to promote egalitarianism in this area would be to move towards a totally gender-neutral, non-genital focused ceremony such as brit atifah, a covenant of wrapping (developed by Rabbi Elyse Wechterman).[3]

  • Minimizing the harms is disingenuous and willfully ignorant.

Circumcision hurts the baby.

The foreskin is a healthy body part. It is no more “extra” to the penis than the pinky is to the hand, or as Jewish novelist Gary Shteyngart recently noted in The New Yorker, than the eyelid is to the eye.[4] In a brit milah, we are cutting off part of a child’s genitals in an ancient religious blood ritual, yet our collective reaction in the Jewish community most often takes the form of jokes jokes that serve to minimize not only the permanent loss of a body part, but of the child’s immediate suffering. If you’ve been to a bris, then you know the jokes; they’re often the same.

“Does the mohel get paid a fee? Or does she just get to keep the tips?” “After my circumcision, I couldn’t walk for a year!” “I asked the rabbi when the bris was starting, and he said, ‘It won’t be long now!’ ”“Looks like the kid is taking it like a man.”

I’m all too familiar with how natural it can feel to make these kinds of jokes, since I used to make them myself. During my time in Kaskeset, Binghamton University’s Jewish a cappella group, I even had a solo in which I sang the lyric, “Abraham’s really famous, no he ain’t no yutz! He even circumcised himself and that takes guts!” And it always got a laugh.

We tend to joke about genital cutting because it is uncomfortable. And in an attempt to address that discomfort, we also minimize the act in other ways. It’s common to hear that the surgery is “just a quick little snip,” and that “the baby barely cries.” But what is heard from the child nearly every time is a brutal, primal scream of pain, which almost always occurs at the moment when the mohel inserts the probe or hemostat into the genital opening. In a 2020 Tablet article titled “Why We Didn’t Circumcise Our Second Son,” Jewish mother Yagi Morris described it as “a scream you never forget.”[5]

And what about the permanent loss of the body part itself? In the Jewish community, the physical significance of the human foreskin is perpetually trivialized to the point that most Jewish people have no concept of what it is, does or even looks like. This is a major problem. If one can’t answer the most basic question of “what is a foreskin?” then how can one confidently discuss this topic at all?

The difference between a circumcised and a whole, natural penis is significant. There are several plainly apparent differences in the mechanisms and attributes of the natural penis compared to the circumcised one. And I’m not talking about some speculative quantification of nerve endings; I’m talking basic functional differences, noticeable to the naked eye. One striking example: the natural, intact penis’s glans head is self-lubricating, much like its analogous anatomical structure, the clitoral hood. A natural penis’s glans appears glossy and red, like the inside of the human cheek. Circumcision causes the glans to permanently dry out, which leads to chafing, and which more often requires synthetic lubricant for comfortable masturbation and sex.

The baby experiences excruciating pain and trauma at this event. The penis is permanently modified from its healthy, intact state. We leave a scar on the baby’s genitals for the rest of their life. Denying this is dishonest.

  • Infant Circumcision Challenges the Value of Consent

If we vaunt the importance of non-consensual circumcision, then we are making a statement, as a community, that we are anti-consent.

There’s common misconception about the traditional Jewish circumcision. It’s not that the commandment is for a person to be circumcised; it’s specifically for the parent to circumcise their child. The father receives the mitzvah on the eighth day and keeps the covenant, not the baby.

This is not just in conflict with the values of consent and bodily integrity, it’s actively opposed to those values, saying that, when it comes to our own bodies, informed consent is not a Jewish value. And to be honest, from a traditional perspective, it isn’t. In the Torah, women and children are considered property; it is encouraged for men to take wives, to take slaves and for everyone to obey the man as the head of the household. All that awful stuff that no one in the progressive community thinks anymore … by adhering to brit milah on the eight day, we’re still enforcers of it.

Last year, the State of Texas enacted the Texas Heartbeat Act, which makes abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat can be detected in a pregnancy. In response, the liberal community was driven into a fury. The vast majority of Jews support personal autonomy when it comes to abortion — that the person whose body will be impacted is the ultimate decision-maker.[6] I, too, am a fervent supporter of a person’s right to choose when it comes to reproductive rights, so I struggle when it comes to reconciling this value against the community’s adherence to infant circumcision — the act of permanently modifying another person’s body without their consent.

How can the progressive Jewish community remain committed to vaunting gender equality, to fighting for reproductive rights, to opposing sexual abuse … while continuing to forcibly alter our children’s healthy genitals?

Conclusion

As the popularity of in-hospital circumcision declines,[7] the ethical debate around the religious practice will only grow in intensity. At present, many official Jewish responses to reasonable criticisms have been outright dismissive, which is disappointing, and increasingly lacks integrity. Going forward, the progressive rabbinate will have to contend with the ritual for what it is: not as a medical or cosmetic procedure, but as the foundational act of Jewish patriarchy marked by a blood sacrifice performed on a child.

I offer the following challenge: Get together with someone you trust and have an honest conversation about this topic.

Do a parent’s religious beliefs outweigh a child’s right to genital autonomy, or should everyone be free to make this decision for themselves? Is the commandment to cut a child’s genitals the word of a literal deity? Does the fact that we’ve been doing it for thousands of years justify its continuation? How do we relate to circumcision through an egalitarian lens? When these surgeries are botched, leading to further injury and sometimes even death, then what does this mean for our conception of piku’ah nefesh? [8] These are the relevant complex questions.

Read more about the work of Bruchim here.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/10-key-findings-about-jewish-americans/

[2] Michael S. Kimmel. The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son’s Foreskin. Tikkun, 16(3), May/June 2001.

[3] https://ritualwell.org/ritual/brit-atifah-jewish-baby-naming-home

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/10/11/a-botched-circumcision-and-its-aftermath

[5] https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/belief/articles/why-we-didnt-circumcise-our-second-son

[6] https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/

[7] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/circumcision_2013/circumcision_2013.htm#:~:text=Over%20the%2032%2Dyear%20period,dropping%20to%2041.0%25%20in%201989.

[8] Though rare, death is among the surgical risks present in circumcision. The rabbis were aware of this, as noted in Yevamot 64b: https://www.sefaria.org/Yevamot.64b.9?lang=bi&namedEntity=%D7%A8%D7%A9%D7%91%D7%92-(ambiguous)&namedEntityText=%D7%A8%D6%B7%D7%91%D6%BC%D6%B8%D7%9F%20%D7%A9%D7%81%D6%B4%D7%9E%D6%B0%D7%A2%D7%95%D6%B9%D7%9F%20%D7%91%D6%BC%D6%B6%D7%9F%20%D7%92%D6%BC%D6%B7%D7%9E%D6%B0%D7%9C%D6%B4%D7%99%D7%90%D6%B5%D7%9C&with=Lexicon&lang2=en

[9] In a more recent case in December 2021, a toddler in Australia died due to complications incurred during their circumcision. This was a preventable death since there was no medical indication for the child to receive surgery. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/dec/09/toddler-dies-and-baby-brother-in-serious-condition-after-circumcisions-at-perth-clinic#:~:text=Australia%20news-,Toddler%20dies%20and%20baby%20brother%20left%20in,after%20circumcisions%20at%20Perth%20clinic&text=A%20toddler%20has%20died%20and,not%20being%20treated%20as%20suspicious.