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Stand up for your son: Say 'no' to ritual circumcision

Even if criminalization is impractical, this week’s German court ruling against circumcision on children, except for medical purposes, sent a much-needed message. 

I’ve been an atheist since adolescence, but being a Jew has always been a vital element of my identity, something I can’t imagine not being, and for this reason, above all others, I knew as a matter of course that I would have my two sons circumcized. It was only after going through it, with the blood and the boys’ wailing and our anguish and worry – with the realization that this mohel was actually taking a knife to the foreskins of our eight-day-old sons’ penises – that I began to think about it.

And what I arrived at was this – I am somewhat ashamed that I was willing to put my infant boys at risk, that I was willing to put them through such severe pain, for fear that if I didn’t, it would mean they weren’t Jewish and it would be my responsibility.

How ridiculous. I never believed in ritual circumcision, if I’d ever thought about it I’d have said it was barbaric, risky and fairly insane to inflict on infants – but I never thought about it. What I did was accept it  – as the absolute minimum requirement for being a Jew. I don’t fast on Yom Kippur, I’ve lived very happily without a mezuzah at my front door, but I’m am so glad my atheist father had me circumcized, and I would never have dreamed of not having it done on my sons – because otherwise, according to my unconscious belief (and no doubt my father’s, too), we’re not Jewish.

So I put my boys through it, 12 and 16 years ago.  And since then, although the bleeding and crying stopped and everything turned out alright, I realize that this Jewish (and Muslim) tradition is a bad one. It should be replaced, like some of the Torah’s other horrific injunctions, and instead of cutting off the foreskin, a few strands of hair should be removed, or a fingernail should be dyed, or the boy should get a little tattoo at age nine or something. I very much like being a member of the Jewish tribe, and I don’t have a problem with parents harmlessly “marking” their infant sons (or daughters) as members of their tribe. But ritual circumcision for an eight-day-old boy, as the absolute mandatory condition of his being a Jew, is barbaric, risky and fairly insane.

On Tuesday, a district court in Cologne, Germany outlawed circumcision on children except for medical purposes.  From The Guardian:

The court weighed up three articles from the basic law: the rights of parents, the freedom of religious practice and the right of the child to physical integrity, before coming to the conclusion that the procedure was not in the interests of the child.

It rejected the defence that circumcision is considered hygienic in many cultures, one of the main reasons it is carried out in the US, Britain and in Germany.

After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent.”

Commentators said it’s unlikely the decision will be binding, or that circumcision will end anywhere in Germany anytime soon, but they also said it would influence future legal decisions. I hope so. I don’t think it’s wise to outlaw ritual circumcision, any more than it was wise to outlaw alcohol, abortion or drugs, because it’s unenforceable and by driving it underground, you create many more problems than you solve. But the principle that ritual circumcision is harmful to infants, that it inflicts on them a purely elective surgery that is acutely painful, and that while accidents are very rare, the victims are literally scarred for life – this point has to be made loudly and repeatedly to all Jews, Muslims and other tribal types who feel they have no choice but to put their sons through this.

There is a small but growing movement of Jewish parents who reject ritual circumcision, and I think it’s going to spread fast because they’re saying out loud what so many Jewish parents are thinking: “Why?” And this, I believe, is the best answer to the problem: Stand up for your kid and say no. If you fear and abhor the ritual, don’t let anyone perform it on him. He’ll still be Jewish if you raise him Jewish – whatever anyone says.

And if my sons one day have sons of their own and decide not to have them circumcized, I will be one proud father and grandfather. Herzl didn’t have his sons circumcized, and if it was Jewish enough for him, it’s Jewish enough for me.


Read Also: Noam Sheizaf and Alex Stein reply to Larry Derfner.

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    1. Richard Witty

      I gave up eating meat at 16 to avoid violence intimately in my life. To avoid the conflict of asking someone else to kill on my behalf, while I got to remain utterly unconscious.

      The bris is a significant action, event. It is an affirmation of not only being associated as a Jew, but of the bodily connection between person and God/reality (to us Zennish Jews).

      People have different answers to why we happened to be born Jewish, and continue to be Jewish (if we do).

      My answer is that we are here for the purpose of “Tikkun Olam” meaning to make the world whole in “All My Relations”, literally all, intimate, friends, profession, community, politics. (not one as more important than another).

      That seems natural, inherent in being a reflecting human being, naturally applying the golden rule.

      A relevant generation to generation form of that commitment.

      For those that eat meat and for that to be legal in a country, to say that circumcism is illegal, is a gross hypocrisy, a trivialization of reality.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Peter van der Merwe

      This is a horrible article…you are entitled to your beliefs, but I think you’ve crossed a line here. You should be ashamed of yourself

      Reply to Comment
    3. Alan

      I’ve seen my share of uncircumcised penises in locker rooms. I think mine looks a lot nicer.

      Reply to Comment
    4. The Dutch proposed law to forbid kosher slaughter was described by a professor on ynet as “de facto anti-semitic”. The last kosher slaughterer in Holland complained that religious tolerance is in decline since the 17th century.

      Just as with circumcision the main argument is that “we’ve been doing it for thousands of years”.
      The real reason for this change in attitude – the scientific revolution of the 17th century – is completely ignored by our religious friends.

      I believe there is largely a consensus about the wrongs of male and female circumcision, as of the sacrifice of virgins when the moon is full. There is no need to be a vegetarian to condemn unethical practices when it comes to animals or humans.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Alan

      You’re comparing circumcision to sacrificing virgins? Do all discussions of Judaism and Israel have to be warped by such mindless moral relativism?

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      Roman Hadrian tried to ban circumcision…that was one of the main reasons the Bar Kochba rebellion broke out. The USSR tried to prohibit it, Jews did it anyway in order to maintain their identity in spite of the risks…this gave many the resilience to hold on to their identity and to bring over 1 millions Soviet Jews ultimately to Israel.
      Jews will fight TO THE DEATH any attempt to prohibit circumcision, and I mean that literally.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Gaudi

      I did not circumcise my son because cutting his penis just because Jews once acquired this practice seemed like a poor reason in light of what we know today.

      We ended up with a happy “brit” party, without harming anyone. My son did a bar mitzva, has been to Israel 10 times and likes his jewish heritage while not claiming any special rights for it.

      As in most changes in life, when you look back you realize how little there was to get exercised about.

      Reply to Comment
    8. max

      Larry – you had 2 opportunities to practice your current view, you had 4 years to digest and rationalize your feelings between your first and second son – and you didn’t.
      I’d argue that your behavior is a mirror image of Richard’s “To avoid the conflict of asking someone else to kill on my behalf, while I got to remain utterly unconscious” – now that it’s irrelevant to you, you can switch sides.
      For me Judaism is a philosophy that – conceptually – positions the collective, not the individual, at the center. With Christianity as a reference, it’s rather Catholic than Protestant.
      In principle, though I don’t at the moment think of specifics, Judaism would set limits to personal liberalism; historically, though, a disproportional part of liberal thinkers are Jews, and for most it doesn’t contradict their Jewishness.
      To judge whether or not the practice should be banned, one should ask the adults how they feel about having been circumcised, and I’m not familiar with a movement that claims regrets.
      I find the German judgement to reflect a paternalistic and condescending view. Of course, any planning and guidance for the future is, but who was complaining in this ‘class judgement’?

      Reply to Comment
    9. Alan, so what’s your stance on female circumcision? Or is that “just a cultural thing” since it’s not part of your religious worldview?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Alan

      @Herr Englebert: “Alan, so what’s your stance on female circumcision? Or is that “just a cultural thing” since it’s not part of your religious worldview?”

      I think female circumcision is barbaric, and you are again creating a false moral equivalency by comparing it with male circumcision. In female circumcision, the girl’s genitals are mutilated so that she can’t experience sexual pleasure. The purpose of it is to control and disempower women.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Not suprising, Alan. Barbaric meaning anything that does not belong to the tribe.
      You would have had a terrible life full of internal conflicts, had you been born in say Somalia.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Danny

      “For me Judaism is a philosophy that – conceptually – positions the collective, not the individual, at the center”
      First of all, Judaism is a RELIGION, not a PHILOSOPHY. It is a highly structured religion with very strict rules that are meant to bring individuals into the fold and keep them there for life.
      Circumcision is certainly one of the most basic of Judaism’s edicts – a Jew must LOOK, nay, BE physically distinct from his Goyish counterparts. He must eat different food. He must never intermingle with his Goyish neighbors, except in purely commercial circumstances (and try to cheat them, if possible, since the talmud states that stealing from a Goy is not really stealing).
      A Jewish lad is born free, but after his 8 days are up, he joins the tribe whether he likes it or not. He is forever marked as a Jew, and so, even if he does not keep to other Jewish laws and edicts, his penis will always be kosher.
      Barbaric? No. Primitive and archaic, with a myopically ethnocentric worldview? Absolutely.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Alan

      “Not suprising, Alan. Barbaric meaning anything that does not belong to the tribe.
      You would have had a terrible life full of internal conflicts, had you been born in say Somalia.”

      No, barbaric meaning that it is more barbaric to gouge out a girl’s clitoris, therefore depriving her of her womanhood, than it is to snip the foreskin of a baby under anesthesia. As Max pointed out above, it’s difficult to find many adult men who regret being circumcised. Perhaps you can ask Hirsi Ali how she feels about having had her clitoris cut out.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Roberto H

      I was circumcised shortly after birth, don’t know if they even waited to do it on the 8th day or not, by a doctor in the hospital where I was born, a Catholic hospital as a matter of fact. No mohel was involved. So did I have a ritual circumcision, or not?

      Reply to Comment
    15. What you think is more or less acceptable is determined by the contingencies of your birth and upbringing.
      And although it’s heartwarming to see defenders of male circumcision turn into feminists, I have some doubts about the motivation, sorry.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Alan

      “What you think is more or less acceptable is determined by the contingencies of your birth and upbringing.”

      If that’s the case, then why are there so many protests against female circumcision led by women who have had their genitals mutilated but no movements against male circumcision led by circumcised men who claim to have been traumatized by the experience? Why wouldn’t the women who rail against having had their genitals mutilated be just as conditioned by their culture to accept the harm done?

      You might not like the idea of male circumcision, but surely you can understand that snipping the foreskin of a baby under anesthesia is less brutal and has less long term traumatic consequences than mutilating a girl’s clitoris. That’s an absolute value, not a culturally conditioned one.

      Reply to Comment
    17. aristeides

      ROberto – yes, you did. It wasn’t a religious ritual but a cultural one. In the US, 50 years ago, circumcision was the cultural norm. It was done because it was done, and that’s a ritual thing. Which is another word for habitual.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Hi Larry, I wrote this in response to the same decision. It might serve as a good companion/debate piece.
      While, I don’t have kids and can’t address this issue from the same perspective as you, I am circumcised. I think this is a rich and important debate.

      Here it is: http://www.allthesedays.org/1/post/2012/06/thoughts-on-circumcision.html

      Reply to Comment
    19. Bill K

      one thing you are correct about, if you feel that your children should not be circumcised , dont do it,,, just dont call yourself a Jew. because to be one means that you are supposed to believe in certain things – like god. Circumcision is a part of our religion,,, but you have to believe in it– otherwise why do it…? You would have to be nuts.. thats right! if you dont believe in it, stop parading around and pretending to be jewish, but if you do … circumcise your children, go to synagogue and observe the sabbath… and stop writing crap like this!

      Reply to Comment
    20. The common denominator here is child mutilation and I am against that. That’s the absolute value, the rest is opinion. I am also against baptizing young children, or scaring them with Hell or Palestines at a very young age, which is psychological mutilation.
      It’s irrelevant that one is more painful than the other, or more invasive. You’re more of a (jewish) man if you let someone mutilate your penis at the age of 25, and then I would think that more would regret it afterwards. You don’t know any better when you’re practically born with it and it makes you belong to the tribe. But that doesn’t make it right.

      Reply to Comment
    21. ‘The boy should get a little tattoo at age nine.’

      So, ritual body modification of a minor is really OK, as long as it’s a tradition of someone else’s tribe, and one that’s taboo in our own?

      I’m failing to get this concept, somehow.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Shlomo

      Larry – You’re right! I’ve had the same thoughts when my son was circumcized. It’s crazy and barbaric. Kol HaKavod to you for bringing to the fore what so many of us have thought about…

      Reply to Comment
    23. Alan

      “It’s irrelevant that one is more painful than the other, or more invasive.”

      Easy for you to say!

      For anyone who can approach this sensitive topic with a sense of humor, I highly recommend a great short story, “The Eighth Day,” by the brilliant Max Apple.

      Reply to Comment
    24. PAUL

      I (a non Jew) had a circumcision at the age of 29 for medical reasons – in effect foreskin tight (not uncommon). My partner is a Jewish manand thus circumcised.

      I thus have had the “experience” and dare I say pleasure of both circumcised and uncircumcised penis (including my own) and feel oddly uniquely qualified to comment. I love my (and his) circumcised penis. Circumcision of an 8 day child is however barbaric. It should be a choice at 18. It could become an integral ritual – but an adult ritual, a choice.(with parental/socital pressure – make that 21!!)

      Reply to Comment
    25. sh

      The difference between male and female circumcision is that one is required by religion (two religions in fact) and the other is not. I don’t really see the point of banning a religious custom. If you do, it’ll still happen, only it’ll be outside the purview of the state, with – like abortion in places where it’s illegal – sordid medical consequences. The state would be better advised to regulate it by requiring qualifications for performing circumcision.
      If the German government is banning or postponing male circumcision on grounds of serious bodily harm, is it doing the same for the piercing of the ears of baby girls?
      I remember reading about circumcised Jewish men in America wanting foreskin restoration years ago (they claimed to have suffered psychological disturbances from the operation as infants).
      There’s even a frank wikipedia about it:
      And this society also lists the websites of others opposed to circumcision.
      While I cringe at every brit mila like most women do, it is one of the customs we have in common with those in the countries around us. Maybe we should come off this western liberal schtick and get comfortable with who we are?

      Reply to Comment
    26. Alan

      Odd but serious question for Larry or other Israelis: Would an uncircumcised penis subject a soldier to ridicule in the IDF? I’m thinking mainly of all those immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom would not have been circumcised.

      Reply to Comment
    27. Last week in Haaretz on this topic, a Dr. Daniel Shinhar commented on the issue of pain:

      “The main difference between a physician and a mohel is that we are allowed to inject an anesthetic and a mohel is not,” Shinhar adds. “Medical studies show that the pain of circumcision is equal to that of having a tooth pulled without an anesthetic. We tell people who are uneasy about the anesthetic that they should have their son circumcised without an anesthetic only if they agree to let me pull a tooth without an anesthetic.”

      Reply to Comment
    28. Joel

      Larry’s article is just another of his self indulgent exercises in intellectual masturbation.

      God. What poser. What a tiresome and predictable bore he is.

      Reply to Comment
    29. Kibbutznik

      ” Maybe we should come off this western liberal schtick and get comfortable with who we are? ”
      and just who are we sh ?
      coming from someone who states freely that she was grown and educated in a English ”
      western liberal schtick ” ,( if that is to be believed like anything else you say , here or where ever ) your background is based on religion sh …. Larry is right , its barbaric .

      Reply to Comment
    30. Richard Witty

      There is a conspicuous racist element to the German law.

      All that are born Jewish or Moslem are conspicuously different now in Germany.

      I am proudly different. My two sons are proudly different. My grandchildren, certainly of my orthodox older son, and most likely of my civilist younger son, will be proudly different.

      The bris is far far far less violent than eating meat. But, Germany does not regard mass killing of animals as barbaric and illegal.

      Reply to Comment
    31. aristeides

      So, SH,if my Druidic religion requires me to burn people alive in wicker baskets, you don’t see the point of banning it?

      Reply to Comment
    32. Hannah

      Great article! Time to change iron age, barbaric custom!

      Reply to Comment
    33. Johanna Shanir

      Comparing male and female circumcision is not as far-fetched as some try to make it seem. First of all, there are several degrees of female circumcision and even if removing the foreskin of a penis cannot be compared to an infibulation (or pharaonic circumcision) of a woman, removal of the clitoral hood is definitely equivalent. The foreskin contains over 20,000 specialized nerve-endings, which makes it an organ with a function – a sexual function! The effect of circumcision on sexual function is therefore a non-issue, but for men who were circumcised as infants, ignorance is bliss. Maybe you should read Maimonides talking about the reasons for circumcising boys…

      Reply to Comment
    34. edwin

      The German court has in effect stated that your right to practice your religion ends with your own body.

      What is being argued in the comments is that Judaism is an obligation, a millstone – something that is to be inflicted on newborn babies, that being a Jew is not a choice.

      It was not all that long ago that various Christian religions believed that their religious beliefs should be inflicted on the entire population.

      One point that has come up directly and indirectly is the forcing of the issue underground. The Royal Dutch Medical Association opposes criminalizing circumcision for this reason.

      Attempts at outlawing FGM in some countries have failed because FGM is so strongly woven into the fabric of those countries. Legal solutions to the issue do not work.

      Even though at one point Jews were at the forefront of opposing circumcision, and there are currently Jews who have come out strongly against circumcision, it is something that may create serious problems, if not worse problems by trying to outright ban it.

      On the other hand, we need to allow justice for the pain and suffering of the circumcision – noting that newborn babies are hypersensitive to pain, and for the loss of almost half of the skin of the penis, for the decreased sexual function, and for the numerous complications. I am not sure how we would handle the deaths and brain damage due to circumcision.

      One temporary solution may be to require careful records of parental consent, the person doing the procedure, and require that it be done under the auspices of a religious institution, and then allow the child upon reaching age of majority to sue all parties involved, if they do so wish.

      Reply to Comment
    35. One day, hopefully not too far in the future, our descendants will look back on this custom and wonder how rational, civilized human beings could do such a thing to an 8-year old baby, just because our God told us to.

      Reply to Comment
    36. Oops, meant 8-day old baby 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    37. Alan, the point of circumcision – as noted both in the Talmud and by Maimonides – is to reduce sexual pleasure, so that Jewish males would not be subservient to it. Your argument is invalid.

      Reply to Comment
    38. Richard Witty

      The birth process is a horrid experience for a child, far far far moreso than circumcism.

      Lets outlaw birth?

      Reply to Comment
      • Terry Collmann

        Your proof of that is what, exactly? (Hint – you don’t have any)

        Reply to Comment
    39. Richard Witty

      The term brit has two meanings that I am aware of enough to use.

      One the physical cutting of the foreskin to denote the continuity of the Jewish tribe, a physical mark, a flag of who is “us”, more permanent than tzitzis which we may be scared to adopt.

      The second is the “conspiracy of the good”, the “brit”, the commitment to tikkun olam in all my relations.

      Jewish life is not just credo. There is a physical manifestation element to it. The Torah for example is an interesting discussion, a tool for diving deep (or staying superficial). But, lifting the Torah is a question of physicality, of real meaning not just ideas/thoughts, but of doing it (even if we choose what elements of it to emphasize).

      Reply to Comment
    40. Richard, “brit” means merely “alliance” or “covenant.” Nothing about “alliance of the good.”

      Reply to Comment
    41. aristeides

      It’s interesting to consider that if the custom had always been to circumcise as a rite of passage into adulthood, such as at the bar mitzvah, no one would be arguing that it should be done to newborn infants.

      Reply to Comment
    42. Yigal

      The practice persists only because adults inflict it on defenseless babies. If it were done in adulthood, I can’t imagine people who don’t observe any other religious practice choosing to do this to themselves. It would die out within a generation.

      Reply to Comment
    43. Mitchell Cohen

      The KGB in the Former Soviet Union tried to ban ALL Jewish customs, including circumcision. They closed down all the mikvehs. They forbade Jewish schools from operating. They forbade Hebrew from being taught. Guess what?!?! The FSU is no more and Chabad is flourishing where the FSU once was!!!! We will survive the “enlightened progressives” as well, whether in Israel or without.

      Reply to Comment
    44. Richard Witty

      There is a math equation involved.

      If the purpose of the covenant is to create a community that is competent to serve as a nation of priests and the form of that service is to make things whole (tikkun olam) and more specifically in the form of “all my relations”, then the term brit does refer to the “conspiracy of the good”.


      Reply to Comment
    45. Richard Witty

      “What am I here for? What am I here for? What does my living really mean, really mean?” (Duke Ellington)

      Like the religious are asked to look down at their tzitzis and remember the covenant, the unconditional relationship to God/reality, and the obligation to “keep my commandments”, the circuscism is a similar permanent reminder of our purpose, each in unique form.

      Reply to Comment
    46. Patrick Smyth

      I salute you for standing up to be counted with regard to this issue Larry. I may not be Jewish but feel qualified to comment because I was circumcised in the UK in 1957 as an infant and have no doubt whatsoever that my quality of life would have been immeasurably better if it had not happened.

      Part of my body was stolen from me. It is a part that 8 out of every 10 boys born in the same year as me in the UK were allowed to keep and I suspect the vast majority still have and I have always envied. Circumcision thus inflicted not only physical deformity on me but also psychological scars.

      I was born unto parents that deemed it their right to sanction the removal of a special part of my body for no therapeutic reason. I did not ask to be born unto those parents, and can honestly say that I wish I had been born unto parents that did not feel that they owned their son’s body, as mine did. How many infant boys have been and have yet to be born unto Jewish parents who will later reflect that they would rather have not been born unto those parents. I know of at least one personally who now does not now have contact with his parents, for this reason and there are I am sure others that may not have severed contact but are resentful.

      Reply to Comment
    47. Alan

      @YGURVITZ: “Alan, the point of circumcision – as noted both in the Talmud and by Maimonides – is to reduce sexual pleasure, so that Jewish males would not be subservient to it.” Well, if that was the intent, I know many Jewish men who would claim it hasn’t been a very effective.

      Reply to Comment
    48. edwin

      Alan: and there are a whole lot of women who would claim that FGM hasn’t been very effective in curtailing their sexual enjoyment.

      Have you read anything on the function of the foreskin?

      What is your point?

      Reply to Comment
    49. Tzila

      To Alan:

      Keep admiring him !!!

      Reply to Comment
    50. sh

      “So, SH,if my Druidic religion requires me to burn people alive in wicker baskets, you don’t see the point of banning it?”
      Aristeides, male circumcision is practiced to some degree worldwide but is particularly prevalent in this part of the world and stands at 62% in nearby Africa. To compare a contemporary practice that is not lethal to burning people in wicker baskets – roughly equivalent to Baal-worship’s human sacrifices in this region – is a joke (I hope) that present-day Druids might not appreciate.
      Even religious Jews think it’s a barbaric custom (at least the women do). But it’s a cornerstone symbol. Contrary to what has been claimed here, circumcision by a religious mohel does involve substances for reducing pain. Anyone who has been to a religious brit has seen that prior to it a drop or two of kiddush wine is given to the baby to suckle and something colorless – I think it’s sugar water, which has been shown to also reduce pain in immunization procedures – is administered for as long as is deemed necessary afterwards.
      That said, some Jews do decide against circumcising their boys. And if so many unenthusiastic parents agree to a brit nevertheless, maybe a sense that after a rupture of the dimension of the holocaust this is not yet the time to mess with Jewish continuity has something to do with it.

      Reply to Comment
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