November 18, 2019

In defense of Jewish circumcision

This past week, I was in Miami for the bris (or brit), the Jewish ritual circumcision, of my grandson. It’s a good time to offer a defense of the Jews’ most ancient ritual.

According to various reports, there are Jews — and not only Jews who have forsaken their Jewish identity — who oppose circumcising their sons. They are still a minority, but they are vocal and, I suspect, growing.

Their primary arguments are that circumcisions, whether for religious or medical reasons, are unnecessary; that they are a form of mutilation; and that the act inflicts serious pain on the 8-day-old for no good reason.

Let’s begin with the first objection. In fact, circumcision is both medically and religiously necessary. People are free to object to circumcision, whether performed by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser) or a physician. But they need to be honest with the facts.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in 2014. 

“The benefits of male circumcision have become more and more clear over the last 10 years,” added Dr. Aaron Tobian, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.

Circumcision is so medically beneficial that many African countries demand that their male citizens get circumcised. The reason is that, other than sexual abstention, circumcision is the best way to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS. And there are multiple other health benefits.

Personally, I would endorse the bris even if there were no medical benefits. I only cite these benefits to refute those who argue that circumcision is not beneficial, or is even harmful.

What matters to me are the religious benefits of giving one’s son a bris — or brit milah, “covenant of circumcision,” to give it its full name. They are, of course, not as objectively measurable as medical benefits, but they are even greater.

I found the circumcisions of my two sons and two grandsons more emotionally and spiritually moving than any other religious activity in my life. Here I was, in as dramatic a way as one could imagine, bringing my sons and grandsons into the Jewish people and into the Jewish covenant with God. I thought about how my father had done this to me, and his father to him, going back to Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. I thought about all the Jews who, at the risk of their lives, brought their sons into the covenant during the many anti-Semitic periods in Jewish history.

As for “mutilation,” that is a complete misuse of the term. The term properly describes what is done in many Muslim societies to the genitalia of young girls. That is why it is called “female genital mutilation.” Its vile purpose is to deprive women of the ability to enjoy sexual intercourse. And its effects are prolonged excruciating pain and permanent physical disfigurement. To compare that to the removal of the foreskin is not only absurd, it trivializes the horror of female genital mutilation.

With regard to pain, of course the baby experiences pain. The question is how much and whether there is any lasting trauma.
The amount of pain is essentially impossible to judge for a number of reasons, however. One reason is that we can’t ask the baby: “What is your level of pain from 1 to 10?” Another is that many babies barely whimper during the brit. Virtually all cry far more loudly and for far more time when they have gas or are hungry — and neither condition is regarded as abnormally painful, let alone traumatic.

Nevertheless, the request of any parent who wants to have lidocaine injected into their baby’s foreskin to numb the pain should be honored. There is no halachic issue here; after all, adult men who undergo a brit can be fully anesthetized.

To assess whether one wants one’s son to undergo a brit milah, one has to recognize one of the most important laws of life: Everything has a price. There is a price paid for having a brit, and there is a price paid for not having one.

The price for having one is momentary pain in an infant. That’s it. The idea that a man pays some lasting price for not having his foreskin is refuted by the experience of virtually every circumcised male who has ever lived. I have only met one man in my life who was troubled about not having his foreskin. On my radio show, I once interviewed a spokesman for an anti-circumcision group based in — you’ll be shocked to learn — San Francisco. And I told him I thought he must be very bored to devote so much of his time to lamenting his lost foreskin.

As opposed to the minuscule price paid for having a brit, there is an enormous price paid for a Jew not having a brit. The advantages wildly outweigh the momentary pain. The brit uniquely strengthens a Jew’s religious identification, and the ceremony instills in the family and in the community present at the ceremony a profound identification with the nearly four millennia of the Jews’ world-changing history. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).