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Religious Considerations 1
A Conflict of Rights

Religion 2   >CIRP Circ History   >CIRP Religious Docs
       These off-site links are highly recommended for those concerned with the religious aspects of preserving the foreskin:
>Circumcision Resource Center
>Questioning Jewish Circumcision
>Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain
>Jewish Circumcision in the News  [dead link?]
>Mirium Pollack Jewish Mother
> Islamic group

On this page:
Circumcision Not Just a Manicure  
The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion
Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin
Another Jewish Man Speaks Out on Behalf of Many

Statement by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews


Though only a very few circumcisions are performed for religious reasons in North Dakota, sooner or later the right to one's religious beliefs must be addressed. In a democratic society where each individual has certain inalienable rights, these rights cannot be abridged by the actions of another carrying out his or her own religious convictions. One can have any beliefs one wants, but imposing them on another in such a way as to violate the freedoms guaranteed to all is unconstitutional. Even children are no longer considered the property of their parents, without rights of their own. We do not tolerate parents beating, starving or denying medical assistance to their children because they believe it is required by their religion. Parents have even been known to kill their children in the name of religion. The boundary between abuse and strict-upbringing can be gray, particularly when the abuse is psychological rather than physical.

However, religiously motivated attacks on children's genitals steps well over the line of actions in the name of religious freedom. Circumcision has no medical justification, diminishes one's normal bodily integrity and function and  forcefully  imposes one's beliefs on another individual in an irreversible way. Religious freedom is to two-sided: One is free to believe what one wants, but one is not free to take the same freedom away from another, not even one's own child because that child is guaranteed the same religious freedom, and other Constitutional protections, as the parent. Children can be educated or indoctrinated into a religion, but not beaten into submission or otherwise physically or sexually harmed as a means to this end. Freedom of religion is not practiced with a knife. When females are in considered, this is not questioned (though it is just as volatile an issue as restricting male circumcision is in other parts of the world). Time has come to recognize the protections constitutionally guaranteed to all, also apply to male children.

The question of anti-Semitism (see >Addressing Anti-Semitism) surfaces as it did when information was requested from Dennis Lutz at the UND School of Medicine. To exclude children of Jewish parents or any other religion from the same protections that girls and other boys receive, would be the highest form of discrimination. The many Jewish activists know this. More Jews, percentagewise, are involved in the genital integrity movement than any other group. Follow the specific links above from the >Circumcision Resource Center for information for and by Jews.

Historically, the Semitic peoples did not invent circumcision. It seems to have been a rite performed at puberty (as it is for many yet today, including many Moslems) long before it was imposed on infants. Some thoughts on why this was the case can be read at the history page. Research has shown that infant circumcision is not a medical issue. As a matter of law, it is not a religious issue either, unless democratic principles are to be subordinated to a theocratic social structures. Diverse religious beliefs have thrived under the democratic freedoms of United States, but those freedoms are for all and must be protected, even from those who would deny them to someone else in the name of religion.

The following is a recent published letter by a renowned medical ethicist who did not speak out on the harm of infant circumcision for many years in part because of the religious issue:

Calgary Herald, Thursday, 12 April, 2001, Letters
Margaret A. Somerville

[Margaret Somerville is a bioethicist and founding director of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, Canada.]

In her column of March 31, [2001] "Ancient ritual does no harm," Catherine Ford provides a stunning example of ignorance regarding the current medical knowledge about infant male circumcision. She demonstrates a similar lack of understanding of the ethical and legal arguments relevant to circumcision that are set forth in my book, The Ethical Canary.

She is wrong when she says there is medical evidence the procedure does no harm to the child. Leaving aside circumcisions that go wrong -- and in rare cases have even resulted in death -- and the serious pain involved, circumcision removes healthy, erogenous tissue with specialized mechanical, protective and sexual functions.

But even if Ford were correct about the medical evidence, it would not justify circumcision. To justify, ethically and legally, carrying out  surgery on persons unable to consent for themselves, the surgery must be  necessary therapy and the least harmful and invasive way to obtain the therapeutic benefit. Routine circumcision fulfils neither of these requirements.

Ford accuses me of seeking to break the covenant that circumcision constitutes for Jews by speaking against it. She also accuses me of wanting to marginalize religions that mandate circumcision by my suggesting that, if circumcision were generally prohibited, it might be able to be justified on the basis of a charter right to freedom of religion, for those people for whom it is a religious obligation.

In other words, I'm damned if I speak against it (as I believe ethically  I must) and I'm damned if, in doing so, I act on the basis of a deep respect for people's religious beliefs and practices (as I also believe ethically I must).

The freedom of religion charter claim raises very complex issues about parents' rights to impose their religious beliefs on their children (see the Sheena B case, Supreme Court of Canada). And such a right is in conflict with the child's charter right to security of his person and protection of his bodily integrity.

Ford obviously does not understand the legal basis of the charter challenge to circumcision that is based on the Criminal Code prohibition on female genital mutilation. The argument is that in passing a law to protect the bodily integrity of girls and not giving similar protection to boys, the law discriminates on the prohibited ground of sex and, therefore, is unconstitutional.

The aim is certainly not to wipe out the protection of genital integrity given to girls, but to have a respectful discussion of what we owe to boys in terms of protecting them. No reasonable, properly informed person, including rabbis who strongly support infant male circumcision, believes it is like a manicure, as Ford describes it.

Ford might like to consider that the reason the baby was so quiet after the procedure was he was in a state of shock. The serious pain of circumcision, and of the resulting open wound which is in contact with the child's acid urine for about a week, is a matter of common sense.

There is also medical evidence of the impact of the pain, with possibly life-long effects. We can speak of a human right not to have pain unjustifiably inflicted on us, and this includes children. The fact that circumcision has such important religious significance makes it an extraordinarily difficult and sensitive issue to discuss. But sometimes it is unethical to avoid such discussions, which must be carried out in an atmosphere of deep mutual respect.

I was not sure whether Ford was implying that my statements were anti-Semitic. But if she were, she might be interested to know that when the same has been alleged in the past, many Jewish people, including rabbis, have expressed their dismay at such labeling.

Margaret A. Somerville,
Montreal, Que.


R. J. Zwi Werblowsky & Geoffrey Wigoder


CIRCUMCISION (Heb. milah), removal of the foreskin in an operation performed on all male Jewish children on the eighth day after birth and also upon male converts to Judaism. Circumcision was enjoined by God upon Abraham and his descendants (Gn. 17.10-12) and has always been regarded as the supreme obligatory sign of loyalty and adherence to Judaism. As the sign of the *covenant (berit) "sealed in the flesh," circumcision came to be known as berit milah or the "covenant of our lather Abraham." The presence of the foreskin was regarded as a blemish, and perfection was to be attained by its removal (cf. Ned. 31b).

The generation born in the wilderness, however, was not circumcised, an omission repaired by Joshua (Jos. 5.2-9). Many Hellenistic Jews, particularly those who participated in athletics at the gymnasium, had an operation performed to conceal the fact of their circumcision (I Me. 1.15). Similar action was taken during the Hadrianic persecution, in which period a prohibition against circumcision was issued. It was probably in order to prevent the possibility of obliterating the traces of circumcision that the rabbis added to the requirement of cutting the foreskin that of peri'ah (laying bare the glans).

To this was added a third requirement, metsirsah (sucking of the blood). This was originally done by the mohel (circumciser) applying his lips to the penis and drawing off the blood by sucking. For hygienic reasons, a glass tube with a wad of cotton wool inserted in the middle is now generally employed, or the blood is simply drawn off by the use of some absorbent material.

Unless medical reasons interpose, the circumcision must take place on the eighth day after birth, even if that day falls on a Sabbath or Yom Kippur. If circumcision has been postponed for medical reasons, the ceremony may not take place on a Sabbath or major festival. The only exception permitted to the otherwise universal requirement of circumcision is if two previous children of the family have died as a result of the operation: that is, in cases of hereditary hemophilia.

The duty of circumcising the child is the responsibility of the father. In his absence or in case of his failure to do so, the religious authorities are bound to see that it is performed. The occasion of a circumcision is regarded as a festive event for the whole community and takes place, where possible, in the presence of a minyan. If one of the participants (the father, godfather, or mohel) is in synagogue on that day, all penitential and supplicatory prayers are omitted.

A sentence in the prayer of Elijah (I Kgs, 19.10), "for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant," was understood by the rabbis to mean that the Israelites had abandoned the rite of circumcision, which is always referred to (on the basis of Gn. 17.9) as the berit (covenant). Elijah is regarded as the patron of circumcision, and it is said that his spirit is present at all circumcisions. This is the origin of the chair of Elijah (see ELIJAH. CHAIR OF), now an integral part of the ceremony. In eastern communities, and in Hasidic groups, where the ceremony takes place in the synagogue, such a chair is a permanent feature of synagogue appurtenances, Among Ashkenazim, it is customary to appoint a couple as kvatter (godparents). The godmother carries the child from his mother's room to the room in which the ceremony will take place and gives him to the child's father, who, in turn, hands him to the mohel. The mohel places the child upon the chair of Elijah and proclaims, "this is the chair of Elijah, may he be remembered for good." He then lifts up the child, places him upon a cushion in the lap of the godfather (*sandaq), and, in this position, after the mohel recites the appropriate blessings, the operation is performed.

The father also recites a blessing to God "who has sanctified us by his commandments and commanded us to enter our sons into the covenant of Abraham." According to some authorities, the father also says the *She- Hebeyanu blessing. The mohel then recites a prayer dating from geonic times, in the course of which a name is bestowed on the child. The circumcision ceremony is normally followed by a Se'udat Mitsvah, a meal of religious character. Special hymns are sung, and blessings for the parents, the sandaq, the child, and the mohel, as well as for the advent of the Messiah and the righteous priest, are inserted in the Birkat ha-Mazon.

Nineteenth-century Reform Jews were opposed to circumcision, but now it is usually performed, although often by a doctor rather than a mohel. Circumcision is enjoined upon male proselytes (and slaves) as an essential condition of their acceptance into the Jewish faith. Circumcision was widespread in many ancient cultures. Some of these also practiced female circumcision, which was never allowed in Judaism.
Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism. Berit Mila in the Reform Context (New York. 1990).
Anita Diamant. The New Jewish Baby Book- Names. Ceremonies, and Customs (Woodstock. Vt., 1994).
Laurence A. Hoffman. Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism (Chicago, 1996).
Paysach J. Krohn. Bris Milah: Circumcision, the Covenant of Abraham A Compendium (Brooklyn, N.Y.. 1985).


Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin
[CIRCUMCISION] The Kindest Un-Cut
Michael S. Kimmel
May/June 2001: article/010515b.html
a long but insightful article. [dead link?]


Another Jewish Man Speaks Out on Behalf of Many

Gillian Flato

I am writing on behalf of myself and a group of Jewish men and women advocates in the United States and Canada who are adamantly and diametrically opposed to the practice of infant Male Genital Mutilation (MGM), euphemistically termed "circumcision", whether for religious, traditional, or other reasons.

Judaism is a fluid religion that has been subject to change as it meets new challenges and reaches new and better understandings. This is shown with the advent of non-traditional ceremonies, like Bat Mitzvah and other significant changes to advance the roles of females including the ordination of women rabbis, women chazzans and shamases, women getting Torah honors and even the abhorrent notion of female mohels.

All of these "privileges" are against Halacha. Yet for years, women have demanded equality - access to these privileges - for free. Men pay a tremendous price for these privileges, the so- called “covenant with God”. They are sexually mutilated! That is to high a price to pay. When I was being given these privileges for free, I didn’t give it a second thought. If I had realized the price men were paying for them, I would have refused to be Bat Mitzvahed.

Jews say that circumcision is tradition?  Show me the tradition that allows a woman to have an aliyah, become a cleric, not perform mikvah, or, best of all, become a mohel. 

The following are among the actions punishable by death according to the Torah:

1.    Cheating on your husband, (Lev. 20:10).
2.    Fornicating - if you’re female (Deut 22:21).
3.    Homosexuality (Lev. 20:13).
4.    Blasphemy (Lev. 24:16)
5.    Insulting one’s parents (Exod. 21:17)
6.    Disobeying one’s parents (Deut 21:18-21

Obviously we no longer apply capitol punishment for committing the above mentioned acts because we are no longer a primitive society and we have come to believe in human rights. Why then do we still mutilate our baby boys? It is unfathomable.

Other practices sanctioned by the torah that we no longer do are:

1.    Slavery (Exod 21:1-11) (Deut. 15:12-18)
2.    Animal Sacrifices (Lev. 4:3, 4:23, 4:32, 5:7, 5:15)
3.    Divorce for men only (Deut 24:1)
4.    Female subservience to men including obedience to every order and no right to refuse sex, (Genesis 3:16).

It's time the "tradition" is changed. We are not primitive, we should reflect that in the way we treat all people. Men deserve the same protection under the law as women.

MGM is a cruel, painful, mutilating, torturous, violative act without valid medical benefit that not only contravenes the UN Charter, but also violates every principle of human kindness and medical ethics in every civilized country in the world.  It is a violation of torah commandments to physically assault or harm another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Yet that is exactly what circumcision is thus, it is against the most fundamental concept of Jewish law.

The very foundation of modern medicine is "First, do no harm."  Yet, circumcision does just that. In fact, it has been called "criminal assault" by more than one legal scholar.

Circumcision removes healthy, erogenous tissue.  It has been estimated by Canadian researchers that up to 80% of a male's erogenous tissue is amputated during a circumcision. Further, a recent book published by a woman in the United States indicates that there are sexual disadvantages to women from this as well.

We believe that circumcision is an invasive, violent and barbaric act of torture and mutilation, that is a human rights violation, and that it is high time that we stopped subjecting males to this abuse and suffering.

We apologize for and are appalled by the reaction of some Jews who have mentioned "Sweden" and "Nazi" in the same breath regarding the recent anti-circumcision legislation passed in Sweden.  "Shame" doesn't even begin to cover it.  Let us never forget that had it not been for Sweden, the Holocaust would have claimed a lot more than 6,000,000 Jewish lives.

What arrogance by these Jewish groups!  It is the "chutzpah of all chutzpahs."  If this arrogant ingratitude is the attitude we can expect from the World Jewish Congress (WJC), is there any wonder that so many Jews are either leaving the religion outright or marrying outside the faith?

The Swedish anti-circumcision legislation is merely the invocation of measures designed to make this butchery less agonizing for the victim. Jews in the WJC and similar "groups" who find this humanitarian reform outrageous might want to ask themselves why.

Western societies have no problem with our condemnation of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa. American feminists, and others who accept their ideology, should rethink their notion of "sexism."  I assure you that sexism can also originate from women and be used against men.  If we did this to our female infants, or if such a proposal was made in the name of giving Jewish girls equal rights with boys, would Jewish women stand by meekly and accept the "pronouncements" of the WJC?

MGM is indisputably the most blatant act of gender-hatred and sexism in the Western World today.  It is estimated that there are at least 200 deaths arising from it in the US every year - WITH all their medical prowess. This number is, ironically, more than the annual number of deaths from penile cancer by a wide margin (presuming the myth of circumcision and penile cancer, a notion condemned by the both the American and Canadian Cancer Societies, is still a "reason".)  We note that the case in Sweden arose from the death of a Moslem boy from MGM in Sweden - not exactly a "Third World Nation."  Sweden ranks first in the world in health care... or don't Moslem boys count to the WJC?

Further, we'd caution that, had this tragedy happened in the US, the cause of death would NOT be listed as "circumcision", but as "drug induced."  The actual number of deaths from circumcision in the US is suspected to be far greater than that 200+ number.

Some Jews object to pain relief by a physician. As if two to four needles in his penis - even if they are filled with pain killing drugs - isn't considered torturous enough to accomplish this amputation for his parents' psychological benefit, are we now to assume that only topical anesthesia is acceptable to these people?  Do Mohels have such deep-seated psychological issues over their own circumcisions that the only way it can be done to satisfy them is if the baby writhes in pain?  Isn't it bad enough that he's having the most sensitive part of his genitals cut off against his will and for his parents' whim?  Must he be made to suffer the maximum agony to accomplish this domineering goal? 

Just because millions of boys are being circumcised doesn't make it right. Millions of girls are circumcised every year too. MGM is inhumane and it is time this outlandish "tradition” is finally brought to an end.

We must embrace the notion of Bris Shalom, in which the genital mutilation part of the ceremony is omitted.

I have heard men say, “I want my son to look like me.” If you had lost an arm, would you, for a moment, consider chopping off your child’s arm so that he would “look like you?” Do you dye his hair, make him wear colored contact lenses, make him get plastic surgery, and eat what you do so that he “looks like you?”

I have heard women say, “I think a circumcised penis is more attractive.” What if you’re father thought women without clitorises were more attractive and had yours removed at eight days old. How would you feel?

What if you’re financé told you that he thought women without clitorises were more attractive and wouldn’t marry you unless you got your clitoris removed (circumcised). Would you do it? Or would you tell him he has no right to impose his sexual fetishes on you and promptly terminate your engagement.

I’ve also heard people say, “it’s cleaner.” The American Medical Association, the American Pediatric Association and the equivalent organizations in Canada dispute that. If boys can learn to blow their nose, brush their teeth and wipe their butts after using the toilet, they can learn to pull back their foreskin and wash. (Incidentally, the foreskin is attached until puberty). If you don’t believe that a boy can learn basic hygiene, what kind of parent are you?

Some Jews are afraid to look at circumcision for what it is because they think that if you’re against circumcision, you’re anti-semitic. That is a ridiculous notion. Jews are not defined by our practices. In fact, the only requirement for Judaism is that you are born of a Jewish mother. Jews are taught to pursue education and question everything. We have questioned many practices in the torah. Due to our enlightment and education, we no longer practice some of them.

For people who use the anti-semitism argument, the analogy I like to use is, if 90% of all black people smoke and you’re against smoking, you’re not anti-black, you’re anti-smoking. It’s the practice, not the people.”

Jews are smart. We are 1/3 of 1% of the population, yet we hold 33% of the Nobel prizes. This means that we are smarter than everyone else. We can come to understand that sexually mutilating our boys’ genitals is NOT acceptable.

Growing up in my Conservative temple in New Jersey, I heard the same myths that all of you have heard - it’s just a snip, it doesn’t hurt. Lies, Lies, Lies! They have attached EKGs and EEGs to babies during circumcision. Their blood pressure rises, their brain waves go off the chart, they writhe in pain and go into shock. It hurts, trust me.

This is a Call to Arms! We must stop this heinous, barbaric and primitive act. It’s the 21st century. What are we doing mutilating our boys’ genitals! We are smart enough to know better. This must stop.


Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews
LCSHJ - April 7, 2002



The ceremony of welcoming a child to the world and to the Jewish people can be one of the most meaningful and experiences.  It is a tradition of the Jewish people to celebrate the arrival of sons with Brit Milah (ritual circumcision or "Bris"), yet our commitment to the equality of men and women inspires us to create new welcoming ceremonies.  Secular and Humanistic Jews do not see Milah (circumcision) as a sign of a Brit (covenant), but circumcision may retain cultural or personal significance for some.


We, the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews, mindful of both our commitments to Jewish identity and to gender equality, affirm that:

We welcome into the Jewish community all who identify with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people.  Circumcision is not required for Jewish identity.

We support parents making informed decisions whether or not to circumcise their sons.  We affirm their right to choose, and we accept and respect their choice.

Naming and welcoming ceremonies should be egalitarian.  We recommend separating circumcision from welcoming ceremonies.



Religion 2


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