Brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision) may be uncomfortable to watch, and naturally makes many of us ambivalent in a time of celebration. But is it cruel? Living in California, where calls for the outlawing of circumcision have recently proliferated, I have not heard anyone make the moral case for circumcision. The Shulkhan Arukh says that “this commandment (milah) is greater than (all the) other positive commandments,” (Yoreh De’ah 260). As someone who believes strongly that mitzvot have an ethical foundation, I will attempt to make the case for the moral benefit of brit milah.
1. Health—The New York Times reported that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may consider advocating for circumcision as a tool in the fight against AIDS. It turns out that circumcision can reduce the risk of the transmission of HIV by at least 60 percent. We are talking about millions of lives. This is why some governments (e.g., Uganda and Kenya) recently started mass circumcision campaigns. Researchers at The Johns Hopkins University have shown that foreskins are more susceptible to sores and have a high concentration of certain types of immune cells that are gateways for the HIV infection. Daniel Halperin, an AIDS expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that low circumcision rates correlate with high HIV rates, and vice versa. This is just HIV, not to mention human papillomavirus, chlamydia, cervical cancer, genital herpes, and syphilis, to name a few. These health risks, of course, affect not only an uncircumcised man but his wife as well. Is it fair to avoid giving a boy protection when it is available? It’s not only Jewish law to maintain one’s health but also Jews should serve as a model for this important health practice.
2. Sexual Morality—For centuries many have claimed that the removal of the foreskin reduces male sexual pleasure. Maimonides wrote “As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcomings…. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:49). According to Philo, in the first century, the purpose of circumcision is not just to curb lust but also pride. Many empirical studies have put this into question. Circumcised men may not have less sexual desire or more self control but teaching a value of sexual moderation may be one pedagogical goal of this ancient ritual. We have many sexual wrongs in society to be reminded of such as rape, adultery, impropriety, and molestation. Perhaps circumcision can serve as a sacred reminder for men, in our over-sexualized world, to cultivate self control.
3. Utilitarian—If an uncircumcised man chooses to have the procedure done later in life, it will be much more painful (even with anesthesia) and dangerous than it would be for a newborn. It is the responsibility of parents to shield their children from unnecessary pain.
4. Parental Values & Social Acceptance—Parents make health- and aesthetics-related value choices that affect their children’s bodies all the time. Should their child be vaccinated, receive orthodontia, get his or her ears pierced? Passing down these values is an important moral relationship parents have with their children. When a parent makes decisions about the bodies of their young children, it can serve as another form of care, a moral necessity for parenting. Not circumcising a Jewish boy may hinder his social acceptance and his chances of finding a Jewish spouse. The overwhelming majority of Jewish women look for a mate who is circumcised. It would be cruel to prevent a man from potentially finding a suitable mate. The Talmud says that a father is obligated to circumcise his son and find him a wife (Kiddushin 29a). These two are connected obligations.
5. Modesty—In the Greek bathhouses, it was reported that men with foreskin felt clothed whereas men without foreskin felt naked. Circumcision according to some provides an extra layer of nakedness to men requiring them to provide more modesty in covering themselves. In cultures where modesty is a value only prioritized by women, brit milah should serve as a reminder that men too must be extremely attentive to developing this moral attribute. We were made just a little bit more naked to ensure our extra cognizance of this virtue.
6. Symbolic Reminder — The Ramban compares the "pruning" of men to the pruning of trees, suggesting that both acts symbolically have the goal of enhancing fertility. Once again, this is not an empirical fact but a symbolic point. The Midrash teaches that Adam was born without foreskin but once he sinned in the Garden of Eden, the foreskin grew since he had created the possibility of succumbing to temptations for all men. Removing the foreskin serves as a symbolic reminder that one can live to their ideals resisting temptations. The Kabbalists thus describe circumcision is a tikkun (a repair) for the first sin suggesting that it can serve as a symbolic reminder that we can resist “eating the fruit” and we can and must live by our ideals.
Circumcision, of course, only applies to men. Jewish law is strongly opposed to female genital cutting. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in the 19th century, explained, albeit as a traditional apologist, that women don’t need milah because women are naturally more spiritual and religiously committed than men. “The Torah did not impose these mitzvot on women because it did not consider them necessary to be demanded from women…God’s Torah takes it for granted that our women have greater fervor and more faithful enthusiasm for their God serving calling…Thus, at the very origin of the Jewish People, God’s foresight did not find it necessary to ensure their bond with Him by giving women some permanent symbol in place of milah for men.” Judith Antonelli, a self proclaimed “radical feminist and religious Jew,” explains that “Circumcision does something to a boy to bring him up to the level of women. This is indicated by the fact that women are considered in Judaism to be ‘already circumcised,’ for one who is uncircumcised may not participate in eating the Pesach sacrifice, and this does not refer to women,” (Exodus 12:48).
Jews should consider circumcision because it is a holy ritual that Jewish men have performed for thousands of years, even at great risk of persecution. Since Abraham’s circumcision at the age of 99, thousands of year ago (Genesis 17:7), Jews have maintained the holy covenant by circumcising their boys. But even further, circumcision has a solid moral purpose. It should serve as a physical reminder of Jewish responsibility and our sacred task to heal the world as partners with God and that our spiritual and moral endeavors require human effort. The very human organ that is the source of life was chosen to be sanctified by circumcision to teach us that we can use every human desire for a holy purpose.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.