A Moral Case For Brit Milah
Jewish Week Online Columnist
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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.

Last Update:

09/14/2012 - 03:35

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I congratulate and thank the rabbi for making this case. I assume his honesty, sincerity, knowledge, wisdom, and experience indicates this is the best case that can be made.

If this is the best case that can be made, circumcisions should end tomorrow.

I ask the rabbi work to find someway to end the mutilation of circumcision while finding a way to honor the mitzvot. (A pinprick?)

I think that not cutting children's gentitals is a moral issue that Jews and non-Jews can all get behind. Just as most people have for Female Gentital Mutilation.

I liked this piece. I thought it was quite good.

However, the attacks and outrage voiced in the majority of these comments aren't just overwhelming, they sound almost hysterical. It would not surprise me one bit if the next step taken by those that so overwhelmingly lobby to ban circumcision and call it "brutal" and "unjust" and whatever else they are opining about here, is to start denying people the right to even HAVE children, let alone decide what is best for them. After all, children don't get to choose their parents either. Maybe we should have them brought up by the state until they are 13 and can then choose whether or not they want to live with their biological parents. Naturally, I think my own analogy is very extreme. My point though is this: based on the tone and perspectives shared here, I can very easily see some of the wackos on this comment sections crossing that line all too quickly.

You people are wackos.

Do what you want with your own kids. Leave other people alone to decide what's best for theirs. Sheesh.

For those who support brit milah, Rabbi Shmuly has done an excellent job making a moral case for it.

It increasingly amuses me the strained analogies people will make with male genital cutting:

* vaccination (well-established strong protection against deadly contagious disease of children, now rare precisely because of vaccination; circumcising offers debatable/weak protection against already-rare diseases of late onset that can be readily prevented by other means or treated as they arise)
* piercing ears (reversible, removes no tissue)
* orthodonia (done only when needed, at an age the child can be consulted)
* and now, having children at all. That's hardly a "slippery slope" argument - more like a "prairie = cliff" argument.

Meanwhile, the same people who make these analogies indignantly deny that anyone may ever compare it to even the mildest form of female genital cutting (which is already illegal across the developed world) - not even a token ritual nick "much less extensive than neonatal male genital cutting" in the AAP's own words.

There is an extensive rebuttal of the rabbi's essay here: http://www.chooseintact.com/2012/02/07/moral-case-for-circumcision-ignores-morality/

How does Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz explain why HIV rates is much lower in Europe, where only a tiny percentage of the non-Jewish and non-Muslim male population are circumcised? Cutting the genitals of a boy, long before he can express a preference, contravenes most laws regarding deliberate injury of others. As for reducing sexual desires in young men, it is probable that the opposite is true, the damaged penis gives less pleasure therefore he does it more to compensate. This can easily result in him indulging in more risky practices. Circumcised men consult their doctor reporting sexual problems more often than intact men, my own penis is now so insensitive that I cannot orgasm in intercourse. Genital cutting dates from a time when people knew very little about anatomy, there is no reason to do it, consign it to the garbage can of history where it belongs.

The insane rationalizations in this column are so laughable and patently false, that I have to wonder if the rabbi doesn't intend it as a joke.

The notion that circumcision increases "sexual morality" is utter nonsense. The rabbi still lives in a bronze age world where experiencing sexual pleasure is a "moral shortcoming" that must be curbed by cutting off the most sensitive part of the penis and dulling the second most sensitive, the glans. There is zero evidence that circumcision makes men practice more "self-control" when it comes to their sexual appetites.

The odds of a man needing circumcision later in life in an European country are 1 in 100,000. Even in the U.S., where doctors are ignorant of the treatment of a normal (uncircumcised) penis. The odds are minimal. The "utilitarian" argument is ridiculous.

The "modesty" argument made me laugh out loud. What are the odds that your child will frequent an ancient Greek bathhouse? Who frequents bathhouses in this day and age for that matter?

What "unconscious memory" does circumcision leave behind? The way I see it, the unconscious memory that such a traumatic event can leave in a man isn't very positive: A mother and father hand over a helpless child to an old man to cut-off part of his penis while they have a "celebration". It's disgusting, really.

The "health" argument the rabbi uses is full of deception. The HIV studies in Africa have been thoroughly discredited. See Boyle & Hill in the Journal of Medicine and Law, as well as other scientific publications. The reality is that HIV rates is Europe, where circumcision among non Jews and Muslims is practically non-existent, is six times lower than in the U.S., where the majority of men are circumcised. The same is true of all the other STD's mentioned by the rabbi. Even in Africa, in eight out of eighteen countries uncircumcised men are LESS likely to contract AIDS than circumcised men.

In order to prevent ONE urinary track infection, you have to circumcise and forever alter the sexuality of 400 boys. You could of course treat that ONE boy with anti-biotics, like we do girls... but that would be too easy.

In order to prevent ONE penile cancer, you have to circumcise and forever alter the sexuality of 100,000 boys. It bears saying that penile cancer rates between Europe and U.S. are for the most part identical.

Barbarism and magical thinking seem to be alive and well.

Unfortunately I doubt any of the children who's genitals you are mutilating can provide consent for the procedure; they can't even speak yet, after all...

1. If someone does it to you, without your consent it is not self-control.
2. The three research papers which showed a reduction in the transmission of HIV have all been shown to be flawed and one of the people carrying them out was the inventor of a device used in circumcisions, so he was far from independent.
3. If Jews are commanded to bre healers of the world they should not perform the act of circumcision which causes infant deaths every year. Furthermore, it is evident that tribes where male genital mutilation is practised are constantly at war.

Your article is an attempt to justify an unjustifiable practice and you are deluding yourself if you say otherwise. Your religious freedoms end where other people, and that includes babies, begin. Male genital mutilation should be banned just ad FMG is.

This is absolute religious-zealous garbage. If male circumcision is soo great, why not give the individual the BASIC HUMAN RIGHT of letting them decide at an older age to have it conducted upon them? All of these 'health benefits' have been debunked numerous times and one google search will teach you this. NO HUMAN BEING should ever be subjugated to such a cruel, outdated and barbaric ritual for 'religious purposes'. On top of this, almost all of these bullsh*t arguments could be also said for female circumcision. Would you like for that to be illegal too?

I do not understand how a woman is considered already circumcised and naturally more spiritual and religiously committed. Wasn't it Eve who committed the first sin?

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