Male circumcision is known and practised in the cultures of many peoples. In Judaism it is a religious requirement, based on a Divine command: “This is My covenant which you shall keep; every male among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin” (Genesis 17:10-11).
The ebb and flow of medical opinion is not the criterion by which Jewish parents decide whether to have their sons circumcised. The argument that weighs with them is that it is a mark of dedication to the service of God and a sign of belonging to the Jewish people. It also symbolises the duty to control and direct physical desires, and it stresses the sanctity of the most intimate aspects of personal and family life.
As a metaphor it has been part of the Jewish vocabulary from Biblical times; to have an “uncircumcised heart” or “uncircumcised lips” was taken to mean that a person was coarse, unrefined and undisciplined.
The circumcision (in Hebrew, brit milah) is carried out on the eighth day after birth, or later if medical reasons make a postponement advisable. The operation takes place in the midst of family and friends, symbolising the community’s welcome to the newborn child. Prayers and benedictions are recited, a Hebrew name is bestowed on the child, and all present express the wish that he may progress from one sacred moment of his life to another.
In theory the father should circumcise his son, but the responsibility is usually delegated to a professional expert known in Hebrew as a Mohel. He must be a learned, pious Jew, with specialised training and experience. It is not religiously necessary for the Mohel to be a doctor, though some doctors act in this capacity. The training and skill of even a lay Mohel are such that complications hardly ever arise.
The procedure is simple and non-hazardous. Very little pain seems to be caused. The actual cut takes less than ten seconds; those present usually remark that everything was over before they noticed it. A baby who is properly fed and not hungry generally stops crying almost at once. Since he is so easily pacified after circumcision, even though no anaesthetic or sedative was used, hardly any pain seems to be entailed. With older children or adults, circumcision is done under anaesthesia.
There is no evidence that the procedure causes the child any psychological damage. One might even argue that the opposite is true; a Jewish boy or man who realises he has not been circumcised is likely to feel embarrassment, shame and distress.
Elijah the prophet is present in spirit at every circumcision. He is there both as the symbolic protector of his people and also to express God’s pride in the loyalty Jews have always shown, sometimes in difficult circumstances, to this religious duty. These days Elijah must be impressed to witness the determination of Jews from the former Soviet Union who, arriving in Israel or western countries, at once arrange to be circumcised, sometimes as old men.
All this is done for religious and cultural reasons, irrespective of fluctuations in medical opinion. Yet the clear medical benefits of circumcision reinforce the religious considerations. The California Medical Association endorsed in 1988 a resolution calling circumcision “an effective public health measure”. In 1989 the American Academy of Paediatrics reversed its earlier policy that there were no public health benefits associated with circumcision, by adopting a neutral stance.
In 1990 Edgar J Schoen, chairman of the task force responsible for the change of AAP policy, stated in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The benefits of routine circumcision of newborns as a preventative health measure far exceed the risks of the procedure”.
We as Jews are pleased when we read such statements, but our age-old commitment to circumcision is, as has been noted above, based on different (we would say “higher”) considerations. No matter how low their degree of observance of other Jewish practices, Jews maintain circumcision for its spiritual, moral and cultural benefits, and because they see it as the command of a wise Creator.
THE COVENANT OF ABRAHAM
“Circumcision is the abiding symbol of the consecration of the Children of Abraham to the God of Abraham. As the sacred rite of the Covenant, it is of fundamental importance for the religious existence of Israel. Unbounded has been the devotion with which it has been kept. Jewish men and women have in all ages been ready to lay down their lives in its observance. The Maccabean martyrs died for it. The officers of King Antiochus, the chronicler tells us, put to death the mothers who initiated their children into the Covenant – ‘and they hanged their babes about their necks’ (I Maccabees 1: 61). We find the same readiness for self-immolation in its defence when the Roman Emperor Hadrian aimed by prohibiting it, at the destruction of Judaism; when in the dread days of the Inquisition, obedience to this command meant certain death; yea, whenever and wherever tyrants undertook to uproot the Jewish faith. So vitally significant has loyalty to this rite proved itself, that even an excommunicated semi-apostate like Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) declared: ‘Such great importance do I attach to the sign of the Covenant, that I am persuaded it is sufficient by itself to maintain the separate existence of the nation forever’.”
– JH Hertz
Had the Israelites not been circumcised, they could not have been worthy to behold the Divine Glory (Bamidbar Rabbah 10).
Circumcision is something great, for with all the good deeds that Abraham had done, he was not called perfect until he circumcised himself, as it is written (Genesis 17:1),”Walk before Me, and be perfect” (Nedarim 31b).
Circumcision is something great, for no child is included in the census of generations unless he is circumcised (Tanhuma Vayera).
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Every precept which they accepted with joy, for instance circumcision, concerning which it is written (Psalm 119:162), “I rejoice at Your word, as one that finds great profit,” they are still performing it with joy (Shabbat 130a).