The place of circumcision in Jewish life 

Few days after my son’s circumcision we took him to the hospital to check for infection. He was less than two weeks old. The young physician (not Jewish) who saw him was beside himself; he looked at us as if we were savages. He yelled at us for not doing the circumcision in a hospital. This was the first time that I met anyone who didn’t necessarily agree with circumcision.

This traumatic experience, perhaps savage practice, is one of the strongest bonds that keep Jewish people together. However, I wonder why it is so deeply rooted. I can certainly understand why religious Jews follow the tradition. However, it’s a little bit more difficult to understand why secular Jews, who break all other Jewish laws, still follow this one. Is it because parents want to ensure that their son will not be rejected by his community? Is it because it happens so fast after giving birth that the young parents are so confused and are in no position to challenge their relatives?  Is it because, once a person is circumcised he is part of the club for life and parents want their children to be in their club? Is it because G_d said so?

To the best of my knowledge every Jewish law was challenged at one time by Jewish people from one movement or another, except to one of the most ancient and most unusual rituals; the Brit milah (Bris), or circumcision. What makes this ancient Jewish tradition so different? Where did it come from? Why is it being attacked now?

I don’t believe that there is more traumatic experience for young Jewish parents (especially the mother) than seeing their newly born son, only eight days old, being circumcised. I remember my wife, only 22 years old herself, standing in the crowed and watching terrified how our young son is carefully being prepared for the ceremony. I think that I focused on her because I myself had a tough time watching the ceremony.

Most Jewish parents follow the traditional religious ceremonial process, which is done by a mohel, a trained professional religious person who does it for a living; many others prefer to use the services of a surgeon in a hospital.  Yet, I never met of Jewish parents who skipped that tradition all together. Being a Jew, for most Jewish people, means being circumcised. There is no way around it; generation after generation of Jewish males goes through the same process as far back as Jewish people existed.

Circumcision was challenged in court in Germany in May 2013, when a Cologne district court ruled that this ritual deprives a child of his right to self-determination and inflicts “bodily harm” and “assault.”

You can imagine the turmoil that this decision caused. From all countries, it had to be a German court to challenge an old Jewish tradition. The merit of the case was lost in the uproar in the Jewish world where it was seen as a direct continuation of the Nazis discrimination against Jewish people.

In a rare occasion, Muslims joined the Jews in their protest as Muslims also practice circumcisions.  The more politically correct German Ministry of Justice drafted a law to protect religious circumcision for Jews and Muslims.

“The proposal passed Germany’s Bundestag by an overwhelming majority [in December  2013], after heated public debate,. It was seen as a victory for Germany as a tolerant multiethnic society. The new law affirms the legality of religious circumcision but requires that circumcision be carried out with the highest medical standards.” []

Judaism 101 gives the following explanation for circumcision: “The commandment to circumcise is given at Gen. 17:10-14 and Lev. 12:3. The covenant was originally made with Abraham. It is the first commandment specific to the Jews. Circumcision is performed only on males. Although some cultures have a practice of removing all or part of the woman’s clitoris, often erroneously referred to as “female circumcision,” that ritual has never been a part of Judaism. Like so many Jewish commandments, the brit milah is commonly perceived to be a hygienic measure; however the biblical text states the reason for this commandment quite clearly: circumcision is an outward physical sign of the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. It is also a sign that the Jewish people will be perpetuated through the circumcised man. The health benefits of this practice are merely incidental. It is worth noting, however, that circumcised males have a lower risk of certain cancers, and the sexual partners of circumcised males also have a lower risk of certain cancers. The commandment is binding upon both the father of the child and the child himself. If a father does not have his son circumcised, the son is obligated to have himself circumcised as soon as he becomes an adult. A person who is uncircumcised suffers the penalty of kareit, spiritual excision; in other words, regardless of how good a Jew he is in all other ways, a man has no place in the World to Come if he is uncircumcised. Circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the child’s life, during the day… The Bible does not specify a reason for the choice of the eighth day; however, modern medicine has revealed that an infant’s blood clotting mechanism stabilizes on the eighth day after birth.”  []