To cut or not to cut

The film ‘The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick’ begins with the circumcision of the eponymous character around whose bar-mitzvah ceremony and coming of age the story is centred. The ceremony is watched by his grandparents and parents who admire the eight day-old baby boy and ponder whether he will be a surgeon, a lawyer or an accountant. As baby Maximilian cries out, another onlooker suggests that he’ll probably be a fire-fighter as he has all the equipment: ‘a siren and a hose’. The scene then switches to a twelve year-old Maximilian watching his mother and grandmother argue over which breakfast cereal is better for him. He then observes ‘When a Jewish boy is born they cut off his tip. Then they spend the rest of his life trying to cut off the rest.’


My parents made numerous choices on my behalf when I was a child, from breakfast cereal to the decision to have me circumcised. Many of those choices caused me pain, and several continue to affect my everyday life in numerous ways almost half a century later. Circumcision is not one of them.
At the age of around six I had several teeth removed to make way for new ones, even though they were not causing me pain. I have been subsequently assured that this was flawed dental logic as those teeth would have fallen out on their own in due course. Needless to say, I was not asked my opinion of this unnecessary treatment. I hated almost every minute of the seven years I spent at the secondary school chosen for me by my parents, and the consequent psychological damage to my personal life and those who have the misfortune to share it with me resonates still. In religious terms, the mind-numbing anguish of having to sit through hours of tedious Jewish services and classes in an Orthodox synagogue remains a painful childhood memory. It ultimately informed my decision to become a Liberal rabbi, to seek to highlight the ethical aspect of my faith with its numerous ancient customs, and its commitment to honour the past and shape the future. Had I discovered on that journey that the choice of whether or not to be circumcised had been left to me to make in my mid-twenties rather than being carried out at a moment in my life that would guarantee I would not recall any pain associated with it, my resentment of my parents – and memory of the pain inflicted by them – would be greater still.


What is the purpose and significance of ritual infant male circumcision? There is much talk of ‘covenant’,  of the removal of a foreskin representing a unique bond between Jewish males and their earliest ancestor, Abraham. Those who support this notion speak of circumcision being a part of Jewish identity, a meaningful connection to the Jewish people, as though those who are not circumcised (which presumably includes all Jewish women) cannot have that identity or connection. This is as fanciful as so many other religious myths, Jewish examples of which would include the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the entire Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai or, to use a more recent example, the suggestion that the festival of Chanukkah commemorates a single day’s worth of oil miraculously lasting for eight. Circumcision differs from these examples in one important way: the latter are all assaults on the intellect; the removal of a baby boy’s foreskin is, in the eyes of some, a physical assault. This seems to be the position of those who are currently attacking this ritual. It was certainly the reason for the recent legal decision in Cologne, which described ritual circumcision as ‘grievous bodily harm’, prompting an outraged reaction from Jewish and Muslim authorities and similar outrage in response to their protests.


As a rabbi and father of a male child, I have observed circumcision from a number of angles. I have often had conversations with anxious Jewish parents-to-be who are seeking guidance and reassurance about the ceremony of circumcision.  I begin by assuring them that all such procedures in Liberal Judaism are carried out in scrupulously hygienic conditions and that the mohelim (those carrying out the circumcision) have full medical training. I also explain that in my opinion, every experience for a young baby is a succession of pain and discomfort (cold, hunger) to which the reaction is to cry out and parents will respond accordingly. Circumcision constitutes just one more such discomfort, to which the baby reacts in the only way he knows how. Just for the record, I have been present at a circumcision where the baby boy slept all the way through the procedure.


I continue my discourse by pointing out that if a boy is not circumcised, he may experience bewilderment when seeing his Jewish father naked or, should he attend a Jewish camp, when he and his male friends ‘compare notes’ as young boys are wont to do. Although none of these explanations or justifications makes reference to the religious obligation or the nature of covenant, they seem to satisfy the anxious parents, who invariably report back to me some weeks later with favourable and grateful comments about the experience.


The deeper, religious question of why Jews circumcise their male infants is more difficult to answer. As a Liberal rabbi, I cannot hide behind the explanation that it is a divine commandment or obligation. As a parent, I did confront these questions when my son was born almost a quarter of a century ago.  I found the whole event extremely traumatic, and not merely because my infant son experienced complications that saw him back in the hospital in which he had been born just over a week earlier. I recall how his mother and I stood with him in his nursery, exerting pressure to staunch the bleeding that we had not initially realised was excessive. Before his birth I had decorated the walls with Noah’s Ark murals and had included a rainbow in which I had painted, in Hebrew, the biblical words: ‘Behold, I establish my covenant with you’ (Genesis 9:8). I stared at those words, silently contemplating what would be my attitude to the Almighty should my son be taken from me as a consequence of my decision to enter him into this version of that covenant. He recovered fully, and was not, in fact, in any particular danger. But for a while my belief system, and my commitment to my heritage, most certainly were.

I suppose at that moment I was forced to confront, as are all of us at some point, ultimate questions of life and death, of our place in the universe and our relationship with whatever we believe to be our Creator. It’s something we do at every turning point in our lives: childbirth, coming of age, marriage and death, which is why religion draws people back at such times. We are forced to face up to life’s mystery, and our twenty-first century scientific knowledge does not equip us to approach such questions with any more certainty than did our ancient ancestors. Indeed, we are probably less adept at coping with such uncertainty than were they. Jewish tradition demands that we tear our clothes at funerals and smash a glass at weddings - irrational ritual responses to the presence of forces that affect human life over which we have no control. And it asks also that we circumcise our male offspring for reasons that cannot be justified – or dismissed – by twenty-first century logic.


At wedding ceremonies I offer various explanations for the symbolism breaking of a glass. I dismiss the notion that it recalls the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple almost two thousand years ago, as Liberal Judaism does not years for its reconstruction. I prefer to explain that it symbolises the fact that there will always be shattering moments in the lives of married couples, and they are anticipated at the moment of highest joy, the wedding ceremony, in the hope that the couple will recall this moment and work through those difficulties.


So it is with circumcision. It reminds us that there will always be pain in life, often unexplained, and that we can be both responsible for it and provide consolation to those who suffer it.  The ceremony connects Jews with their past and puts us in touch with the mystery that lies at the heart of existence. The fact that this involves a small medical procedure means that it is a reminder that is, quite literally, more than skin deep. And in common with the most crucial and durable of religious rituals and symbols, it dwells in a realm beyond rational explanation, a boundary that science and reason can never cross. It is the realm of religion, the mystery just beyond the reach of the Large Hadron Collider and a long, long way from a courtroom in Cologne.


One might pause here to ask whether something other than concern for infants’ human rights are at the heart of that German legal decision. It is easy to dismiss as paranoia suggestions that this may be another manifestation of anti-Semitism, though when regarded along with recent efforts to ban sh’chitah, Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for food, an alarming pattern can perhaps be discerned. An interesting distinction exists between these two ancient ritual practices, however. Sh’chitah was introduced many centuries ago, regarded by the rabbis as the best way to ensure that an animal’s suffering was minimised at the time of slaughter. Modern science will eventually be able to tell us whether or not this is true – and if it proves not to be, then the practice of sh’chitah will be indefensible, since it would no longer fulfil its primary purpose. Circumcision is a ritual that belongs in a different category. Its purpose cannot be defined by science – its meaning and significance will always be a mystery.


Jewish parents may choose to establish a connection with this mystery and with their heritage by carrying out this ritual on their male infant children. Equally they may choose not to do so, perhaps believing that there are other ways of establishing that connection. Should they opt for the latter course, leaving the choice for their children to make when they are old enough, then they should prepare themselves for serious protests should their uncircumcised son(s) choose to be Jewish. But that choice cannot be made by a civil court – it is, and must remain, a personal decision based on faith, weighing up the dictates of modern scientific knowledge with the mystery of the past.  My son? He’s a fit twenty-something, living in California. But he’s not a lawyer, a surgeon or an accountant. He’s training to be a fire-fighter.