In the Middle on Circumcision
Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Schweber October 26, 2012 / 10 Cheshvan 5773
In the Middle on Circumcision
This week’s Torah portion makes it a perfect week to discuss circumcision as this is the portion where it is first introduced. Genesis 17 is where God forges a covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham and saying he will be the father of many. Covenants are ancient contracts and contracts need signs. The sign of this particular covenant is circumcision of infant boys at eight days old.
For over 3,500 years, circumcision has been a central marker of Jewish identity. This is in part because of its ancient connection to Abraham, but also in part due to fierce opposition to it by peoples who ruled and interacted with Jews. The Greeks and Romans were opposed to circumcision and saw it as ruining a “perfect” body. They used bans on circumcision to persecute Jews. Despite all of this Jews continued to circumcise their infant sons.
Recently, circumcision has been in the news. There has been a resurgence of anti-circumcision sentiment, this time presented as medical ethics. Earlier this year, a local court in Cologne, Germany ruled that circumcision was an unnecessary medical procedure with no benefits. Hence doctors should be banned from performing circumcision. This past week, opponents of circumcision staged loud protest at the American Academy of Pediatrics convention in New Orleans calling the A.A.P to tell physicians to stop performing circumcisions. Opponents of circumcision phrase it as a human rights issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not out and out recommend circumcision, although they have issued a report laying out the healthy benefits of circumcision saying that circumcision can prevent urinary-tract infections, cancer of the penis and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS and should be covered by insurance and Medicaid. Hence the A.A.P technically endorses circumcision. Therefore, it is my opinion that the A.A.P’s position, which is only 13 years old, is politically, not medically driven.
Circumcision has also been in the news because of concerns in the ultra-Orthodox community, where some mohelim continue the practice of oral suction. Since brit milah (ritual circumcision) is a ritual act, the Talmud discusses how this ritual should be performed. The Talmud lays out the various steps and in Talmudic fashion discusses which aspects are essential for the rituals’ validity and which ones are nice but not essential. The Talmud also adds its ancient views on hygiene. One of those views is that saliva is “clean” and that oral suction of a wound cleans the wound. Therefore, the Talmud recommends that oral suction occur during a brit milah to “clean” the circumcision wound.
Medical science has since proven that saliva is anything but sterile and that oral suction of the penis can spread deadly viruses such as herpes. Most Jewish groups have incorporated medical knowledge into their circumcision practice. They perform the essential functions as defined in the Talmud and use medical tools such as clamps, sterile instruments and gloves etc. A small minority insist on performing brit milah in the exact same manner described in the Talmud. In the last decade, several infants have been infected with herpes from oral suction and two have died.
The New York City Department of Health has found a way to at least bring attention to this matter. It is unclear whether the oral suction “ritual” is protected by the First Amendment. The City does not want to test that notion. Instead, they have passed a rule that requires parents to sign a consent form when oral suction is done. This at least brings the risks to the parents’ attention. Nevertheless, the ultra-Orthodox are fighting the rule in court. They worry this is just a first step in preventing brit milah or in controlling their ritual practice. A New York State Supreme court has given the rule an injunction until the matter is decided.
I titled this essay, “In the middle…” Why? Because as Conservative Jews we are in the middle of these two sides. We most certainly see the spiritual benefit of maintaining brit milah. It is a most powerful ritual at a most poignant time connecting us to Abraham and our ancestors. Jews (and Muslims) should unite to ensure that ritual circumcision of boys be allowed globally. However, we also feel that this ritual, which involves a surgical procedure, should follow medical science. Life supersedes all ritual and brit milah is no exception. I applaud the City of New York for finding a way to respect first amendment rights while trying to find a way to protect helpless infants.
It is tempting to think of ourselves as “stuck in the middle.” But really we should be “happy in the middle.” We know the power of freedom, both religious and medical. But we also know that there is a role for the establishment—the government and medical profession—to protect people from harm. It can feel precarious to be in the middle, but we should nonetheless be proud.
Rabbi Daniel Schweber