By Steven Philp
It looks like Bay Area Jews may one day have to leave the city to perform brit milah for their male children; a new measure gathering signatures for the November 2011 ballot would make it a misdemeanor to circumcise men under the age of 18. In an interview with CBS San Francisco, Lloyd Schofield–the author of the proposed ban–argues that circumcision is equivalent to genital mutilation. “It’s a personal decision,” he states, arguing that a man’s body does not belong to his culture, country, or religion. Although a number of the people interviewed in conjunction with Schofield disagree with his campaign to make circumcision illegal, they failed to provide a cohesive counterargument beyond parental choice. In fact–in the face of growing evidence that circumcision may not provide traditionally ascribed health benefits–the number of circumcised infants has been decreasing; a recent study published by the New York Times shows that fewer than half of male children born between 2006 and 2009 were circumcised, down from the two-thirds who underwent the procedure in the 80’s and 90’s.
Although Schofield needs to gather over 7,100 signatures before the measure is put on the ballot, his campaign calls attention to a growing debate concerning the right to circumcision. The necessity of the procedure has been called in to question, with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control still studying whether circumcisions provide any significant health benefits. According to CBS medical reporter Dr. Kim Mulvihill, “Most medical groups have not come out with strong opinions regarding pro or con circumcisions. Most are saying leave it up to the families, let them decide what’s right for their son.” A quick search on the Internet reveals few reliable sources; a large number of sites devoted to the topic are politically charged, providing rhetoric rather than evidence.
Drawing from commandments given in Genesis 17:10-14 and Leviticus 12:3, the Jewish community has been performing the covenant of circumcision – or brit milah – for millennia. Conventionally the removal of the foreskin is done eight days after a boy is born, accompanied by a series of blessings and the declaration of the child’s Hebrew name. By replicating the circumcision of Abraham, it is thought that the boy becomes an active witness to the covenant established between G-d and the Jewish people. On the other hand, the failure to be circumcised is thought to preclude the boy’s inclusion in the Jewish community. In fact this ceremony has become so integral to Jewish identity, even converts are required to undergo a similar ritual (or – if they have already been circumcised – a drawing of blood called hatafat dam brit).
Yet with the measure to ban circumcision gaining momentum in San Francisco, Jews will be faced with tough questions. For example, is circumcision equivalent to genital mutilation? According to the World Health Organization, female circumcision–which has performed on an estimated 100 to 140 million women worldwide–is a highly invasive procedure that can cause serious health problems, and lacks explicit religious prescription. Male circumcision, on the other hand, is not associated with health problems, but can lead to a reduction in sensitivity, according an article published in the Journal of Urology.
In that regard, is the relative difference in sexual satisfaction between a circumcised and uncircumcised male worth the compromise of a several thousand year-old tradition derived from an explicit commandment given in the Torah? On one hand, the Jewish community values the careful preservation of our rituals and institutions; our particular – if not peculiar – approach to life is what has defined us as a people for thousands of years. On the other hand, many Jews find pride in our adaptable nature; we develop our traditions to accommodate social progress – take the ordination of female rabbis or the celebration of same-sex marriages, for example. As the debate concerning circumcision continues, the Jewish community will have to consider whether this particular case calls for preservation or adaptation.