Does Circumcision Matter?

Dear Reb Shohama,

My husband and I are expecting a boy, and are struggling with the issue of circumcision. Our reading leads us to believe it is a barbaric and patriarchal remnant of Judaism, causing unnecessary pain to the child. Moreover, there seems to be no significant medical benefit. What can you tell me? Sincerely, Susan

Dear Susan,

I understand your dilemma. There is a body of literature that portrays circumcision in this way, and I, too, have struggled hard with this issue.

In addition to reading, I have consulted many rabbis, mohalim (rabbis and physicians who do religious circumcision), and parents. Here is what I have come to understand.


Some of the techniques used in hospital circumcisions seem barbaric in that the clamp used is large, and cutting can take 5-20 minutes. This is not true of a religious circumcision, called brit milah, covenant of circumcision.

The mohalim, circumcisers, that I have seen, used a special device that makes circumcision very quick; it takes only a few seconds. While there is some pain for the child, it is minimal, and the wine that is given the baby usually quiets him down immediately. I recently participated in the brit milah ceremonies of my two grandsons, both of whom recovered easily and quickly. They nursed immediately after the cutting, a sign that they were not in excessive pain.

Men as a species are more violent than women. As a species, they can be barbaric in their behavior. Circumcision is a reminder for males to use their sexuality in a way that enhances human society, and not to be barbaric.

There was a time, not so long ago, when women were kept out the circumcision ritual, and it was just a father-to-son bonding ritual. This is not generally true any longer. In fact, I co-officiated recently at the brit milah where the mother held the infant during the actual cutting. Nowadays mothers as well as fathers usually have a speaking role in the naming ceremony that follows the brit milah, often called "bris".

In the Torah, Moses’ wife Zipporah is credited with circumcising their son, and today there are a growing number of women who are trained to do circumcision.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram teaches that women have a natural covenant of blood (the Jewish symbol of the life force) that manifests with menstruation and childbirth, and that because of this women are naturally aware of the sacred and awesome nature of life-- from generation to generation. Men are lacking in this inborn covenant of blood; circumcision gives them an opportunity to have a covenant inscribed on their body.

Circumcision is gender-specific, but that does not make it patriarchal. It does make it a male privilege.

I have for many years been among the women rabbis seeking to create covenant rituals for baby girls that will have the power that brit milah has for boys. Although we have written beautiful and meaningful ceremonies, including rituals such as washing the babies’ hands or feet as a sign of welcome, we have not been able to create the deep embodied sense of covenant that goes with circumcision. There is a sense of irony for me in hearing that Jewish parents would willingly give up the privilege of circumcision for their sons.

Jews have been circumcising their sons for thousands of years. The Torah says that G*d told Abraham to circumcise his son on the eighth day, as part of a covenant with G*d. For the Jewish boy, it is a visible sign that he belongs to a people committed to helping and healing the world.

The penis, which can be a force for rape and brutality, is rendered more sensitive and vulnerable through circumcision, so that its bearer will be mindful of being sensitive and caring in using it. It is an in-the-flesh reminder for teenage and adult males that their sexual member should be dedicated to ethical relationships. I understand the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham to be a covenant to honor women and all life, and not to rape and abuse any part of creation.

Susan, you may not think it important now for your son to be circumcised, but you may well change your mind as time goes by. David Zaslow, in the May/June 2001 issue of Tikkun magazine, tells the story of how he and his wife chose not to circumcise their son at eight days, feeling that it was unkind. A few years later David had a Jewish spiritual awakening, and came to feel that circumcision was an essential part of being a Jewish male. With his son’s permission, he had him circumcised at age 6, when it is a painful procedure. His son said to him, "Daddy, I wanted you to do it at eight days."

The rabbis and mohalim I spoke with all had many stories of young boys and men choosing TO BE circumcised. A Jewish boy who is attracted to the spiritual heritage of Judaism will probably want to be circumcised, and having this done after infancy is surgery usually requiring hospitalization, with a painful recovery period. Remember, many Jews who are actively practicing their faith were raised in families who were secular. It is a common occurrence.


The controversy is over the statistics. Do enough boys benefit medically from circumcision? For any male who has suffered with a penile infection, or cancer of the penis, statistics are irrelevant.

I remember well the pain my former secretary went through as her son suffered from repeated penile infections. Finally, at age four, he was circumcised. A dear friend, not Jewish, shared with me the horror story of her four year old son whose foreskin got caught in his zipper. He had to be rushed to the hospital where the doctors performed an emergency circumcision. Now that’s trauma! Both of those unfortunate situations could have been prevented by circumcision.

Circumcision is a tribal symbol, marking a male Jew as a member of an ancient people dedicated to a holy way of life. It is interesting today to see teenagers and young adults marking their bodies with tattoos and rings, as if they need an in-the-flesh way of making a statement about their identity.

Susan, your son will be very aware that he is different from most other Jewish boys as he grows older. Teenagers are very sensitive about differences in appearances; they want to look like their friends. Teenagers can also be cruel in teasing those who seem different, and I have heard several sad tales from colleagues whose young congregants shared their pain with them about not being circumcised.

What seems to you to be a kindness to your son, is, in my opinion, a disservice. You are taking away your child’s choice to look like other Jewish boys, to feel like a full member of his people. Remember that boys often see each other naked, in locker rooms and at camp. By not cutting his foreskin, you are cutting him off from looking like Jewish males have looked for thousands of years.

Think about inoculations, which are also a little painful, with a short recovery period. Parents choose to have their children inoculated for their long-term health benefits. So, too, circumcision is a little painful, but it brings the Jewish boy into his rich spiritual heritage, marking him as a member of the covenant between G*d and the Jewish people.

I hope that what I have written will give you pause. Your son will be Jewish, whether or not he is circumcised. But he is more likely to feel the full sense of pride in being Jewish if he is brought into the Jewish world through brit milah, the covenant of circumcision.

May you be blessed in your choice,
Reb Shohama