As the discussion around circumcision is gaining momentum and more and more people, including doctors and philosophers in Europe, publish their opinions, it is time to bring some balance to the debate. This is of great importance, since a ban on circumcision, like the one imposed by the court in Cologne, is not only deeply offensive to Jews and Moslems, but is also based on mistaken reasoning and a profound misunderstanding of what human beings are all about, what moves them, and what makes their lives meaningful.
To be truly alive is only possible when one lives for some supreme goal. The ultimate question regarding our lives is whether there is anything worth dying for. If the answer is no, then we must ask ourselves whether there is anything to live for. For most thinking people there is more to life than our physical survival or having a great time. It is about the exaltation of existence and the ability to hear a perpetual murmur emitted by the waves beyond the shore of worldliness, which gives us the feeling that life is of utmost significance. If not for this, we would agree with French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus who said that the only serious philosophical problem is whether or not to commit suicide.
There are values in life that surpass our concern for the mundane and many of us are prepared to make highly uncomfortable and even painful sacrifices in order to achieve those goals. It is these sacrifices that give our lives a notion of belonging, of being part of something much larger than the sum of the components that make up our physical existence.
We ask: What gives us the right to bring a child into a religious covenant without its consent? How can we commit a child to a lifelong mission that he may not wish to fulfill? Fair questions indeed. But should we not really ask a different question, one that many of us do not want to face? What right do we have to bring a child into the world without giving him a higher mission? Is there anything more heartless than giving birth to a child and not letting him know why he lives? What right do we have to throw a child into this turbulent jungle, filling her with anxieties and uncertainties, without giving her any clue as to its higher purpose? While Socrates explained that a life without thinking is not worth living, Judaism teaches us that life without commitment is no life at all. The dignity of man is in direct proportion to his obligations. All human beings, Jews and gentiles alike, need to give their children a strong commitment to a meaningful purpose beyond the mere mundane, and more than just the pleasure principle. To deny our children this opportunity is to withhold from them real joy, as well as the capability to withstand major challenges and the opportunity to experience the highest, truest value of living in this world. Joy is “man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection,” said Spinoza (1). But it is only through hardships and discomfort that one can achieve such perfection.
Surely the child will always have the opportunity to reject the mission chosen for him by his parents and replace it with another calling. Yet, of invaluable importance is the very fact that the parents made him or her aware that without a mission life is not worth living.
When we object to circumcision on the basis of child mutilation (a description completely disproportionate to the fact that the small incision which heals in hours, takes a few seconds and has no serious consequences) and denying the child’s right to autonomy over his body, it seems that we are making a valid claim. Indeed, by what right are we, as parents, allowed to do so? But should we not by the same token honestly ask ourselves whether we have the right to bring a child into this world at all? Is that not a much greater injustice then circumcision? No doubt, even with today’s advanced medical knowledge, many children are tragically born with all sorts of deformities or illnesses, often crippled and handicapped for life. Others will suffer at some other stage in life, contracting illnesses, experiencing violence, and even becoming victims of war and other atrocities. Has anyone ever asked his or her future child for consent to be born before planning the birth? Or should we indeed ban all future pregnancies and births, as we now want to do with circumcision?
Subconsciously, we all know that we have the right to bring a child into the world because there is something about life that overrules all objections against it. If we would not believe this, it would be completely prohibited to risk bringing a child into the world knowing full well how much harm and pain it will most probably encounter. “To live is like to love – all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it” (2), as Samuel Butler humorously said. Only if we understand that life is of invaluable importance –and not merely a matter of physical survival –can we live a life of grand spiritual import. One of the greatest tragedies of modern times is that millions of people live and die without ever being aware that there is supreme meaning to their lives.
Closely related to this is the issue of rights and duties. Western society is rights oriented and secular ethics is deeply rooted in this. Judaism and, to a certain extent, other religious denominations are duty oriented. This is an essential distinction that cuts across many issues. Judaism does not believe that people own their bodies and are therefore free to do with them whatever they please. Judaism and most monotheistic religions believe that the human body is a loan granted by God Who is the ultimate Owner. Parents, therefore, have the responsibility to give their children a purpose to life, which must reflect the notion of obligation. For the same reason, it is not a human right to bring children into the world; it is a religious duty. If it is seen as merely a right, what happens when the rights of the parents clash with those of the child? When parents abort a healthy fetus because they have the right to do so, are they not violating the right of the child to be born?
The rite of circumcision is the Jews’ way to pass life’s meaning on to their children by obligating them to fulfill the covenant entered into by the Jewish people with God, thousands of years ago. It is duty we talk about, and there is no growth except in the fulfillment of one’s duties.
For Jews, circumcision – the promise to live a life with a great mission as its guide – is God’s seal imprinted on the human flesh. And it is only proper that this sign of allegiance be imposed upon the body, for after all, it is not the soul that needs to make the commitment. The soul is committed to its Creator. It is the body – the very instrument through which man carries his soul, his constant companion that can enable him to live a life of nobility – that makes a vow to compel itself to serve God. Like a piece of paper that carries the buying power of a certain dollar amount, the body serves as the vessel that holds the soul. Just as the symbolic markings on the bill inform us of the value assigned to it by the treasury department, so too does the “sign” that parents inscribe on the bodies of their children reveal the greatness of the souls they house. Because Judaism strongly believes in action and the physical – not only in faith and spirituality – the transient act of baptizing with water is insufficient. Judaism wants the body to be transformed. And if the body fails to live up to its lofty responsibilities, the physical imprint of the circumcision serves as a constant reminder of what it means to reside in the presence of God; it is a testimony to one’s spiritual obligations and potential. The claim that it may hurt for a moment and interferes in the child’s self determination is totally disproportionate to its infinite spiritual value. The child, from the very beginning of his life, is physically and symbolically reminded that living a life of higher meaning requires sacrifice (3).
Medical science has not yet determined whether circumcision reduces or enhances sexual pleasure. Either way, it is remarkable that Jews have greatly succeeded at sex. As the oldest nation in the world, it has proportionately more children than any other people. Sex was and is seen as a commandment by God not only to facilitate having children, but also as a joyful experience. Pleasure, however, is not a supreme value to which everything else must yield. It has a place in this world, but it is not the ultimate. That Judaism requires its followers to circumcise their sons proves the immense importance it attributes to this rite as a token of the highest level of dedication to a mission. This, notwithstanding its uncompromising concern for the human body, as reflected in its total opposition to any other intrusion on the human body for non-medical reasons; and despite its insistence that everything must be done to stay physically healthy, and that no unnecessary harm may be done even to animals.
What is very surprising, as well as very revealing, is the durability of circumcision among those Jews to whom tradition no longer plays any major role. They did away with Shabbath, the dietary laws, daily prayer, and more, but circumcision endured. It is as if they agree with the famous arch-critic of Judaism, Baruch Spinoza, who wrote: “The sign of circumcision is, I think, so important that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the nation forever” (4). Jews may reject Judaism, but the fact that they are circumcised has always reminded them that there are values to live for far beyond the mundane. It represents a good deal more than just a religious rite.
A circumcision is an event that exists as a moment in the past, yet extends into the present. From man’s perspective, circumcision happens just once; but from God’s perspective, the message conveyed by this act – the Jewish nation’s unwavering commitment to God – resounds forever. Monuments of stone may disappear; acts of the spirit will never vanish.
At the time of circumcision, parents imprint God’s seal on the body of their child, thus bringing him into the covenant with God. From that moment, the child begins his journey on the road of commitment to holiness which, although not yet known, is the most challenging and rewarding mission life can offer – to become a servant of God and a blessing to all nations.
It may be difficult for some to understand this, but the crux of the circumcision conflict is whether we are motivated by human rights or human moral duty (5). It is even harder to grasp that circumcision is the secret to the miracle of Jewish survival. What those who oppose circumcision should never forget is that the attempt to outlaw this rite may not just make Jewish life nearly impossible, but would probably end all Jewish existence and its contributions to civilization. This would be tragic given that these contributions are grossly disproportionate to its world population. The remarkable capacity for the Jewish nation to outlive all its enemies, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians… down to the Nazis, may quite well be the result of this small, physical intervention. It takes a few seconds, but it creates eternity.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond any question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world” (6).
(1) Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethics (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001) p. 147.
(2) Samuel Butler’s Notebooks (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1951) p. 283.
(3) Concerning the question why Jewish women do not undergo circumcision, there is much literature to be found. For an excellent overview: Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism, (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 2005). For a rejoinder: Professor Bjӧrn Krondorfer in the Journal Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 2009, pp. 155-158. See also: Yael Levin, “Ishah Kema-an Demehila Damya – Domah Ha-Isha Le-mi She-mahul”, Masechet, Vol. 2, 2004, pp. 27-45 (Hebrew). Interestingis the observation by Professor J.D.Levenson in “The New Enemies of Circumcision,” Commentary, March 2000: “To say…that women are party to the covenant only in a secondary way is like saying that American citizenship applies only to those who fly the stars and stripes on their flagpoles, everyone else being a second-class citizen.”
(4) Spinoza: A Theologico-Political Treatise, tr. by R.H.M. Elwes (Forgotten Books, 2008) p. 48.
(5) In a profound story, the Talmud (Menachoth 43b) relates that when King David stood naked in the bathhouse, he said Woe to me that I stand here unclothed, without a single mitzvah (religious obligation), until he remembered the circumcision in his flesh, and his mind was relieved.
(6) “Zionism versus Bolshevism: A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People,” Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920, p. 5.