Circumcision is a touchy subject. I remember a debate in Public Speaking class during college in which a young woman argued that Circumcision is barbaric. She cited research about surveys that show uncircumcised males reported feeling more pleasure in sex later in life and highlighted how painful a process the cutting is. I remember sitting there, as a male, with a woman talking about something that is very personal and tied to a religious tradition that goes back five thousand years and being very uncomfortable with the whole arrangement. But there is a legitimate debate and since women often are the main decision maker in the life of a child, both genders have to grapple with this custom.
Today, in San Francisco and Santa Monica, there are proposals for the banning of circumcision on the basis that it is a barbaric custom that brutalizes the child. The argument is that religion is not an excuse for such a surgical procedure so early in a minor’s life. The state is often in positions where it has to make moral and ethical decisions (ex. cigarette use and law), so this debate is a natural to some places in our country while having the government intrude in private religious affairs would be appalling in other areas. But this brings up some big questions and even brings up Constitutional rights.
All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) practice Circumcision for various reasons. In Judaism it goes back to their most ancient texts, where God sets up the Circumcision of all males in the Hebrew family as a sign of their covenant with God. All males at that time (whether grown or infant) were circumcised and had a period of healing. It was a very real and extremely personal sign of devotion. In Jewish families a trained Mohel comes on the eighth day and the child receives his or name at that time. This is a very ancient tradition. Christians are not required but often are Circumcised according the sign of the covenant since Christianity is an extended family of Judaism as well as Islam.
So religiously, the faith of about two thirds of the planet at least causes parents to consider Circumcision.
The argument is muddied by a few things. Males do not remember circumcision as with the rest of their infant lives. The brain is not developed so much that memory takes hold so early. For most males it is a non issue. You either have your foreskin or you don’t. If you don’t, your parents explain why and you move on. On the other end, some argue that being Circumcised actually is more sanitary. Infections can be caused by uncleanliness associated with the foreskin and later in the child’s life it may become necessary to remove the foreskin regardless. In infancy where you don’t remember, it is a simple process. In childhood it becomes an involved surgery with anesthesia, which has its own risks involved. The risk may be small, but it is there. Also, there is a subtle but passionate thrust to remove pain from every sphere of life. This is a natural desire as parents want their children to grow up confident and without fear. As people imagine an infant under a knife receiving circumcision it seems like something that would harm rather than help. In a society that produces situations where parents don’t even wish to impose gender on a child at birth, why would circumcision not come into question. And then there is the Constitution. The United States practices and upholds the right of all individuals to practice their religion freely. There are limitations as we have seen with Christian Scientist families who do not allow the treatment of sick children, and opting for prayer. When the child dies from a serious illness society has held the parents responsible. There was a reasonable solution to the child’s death and the parents did not protect them. There is a reasonable ground for arguing neglect.
But the child does not die in circumcision. The parents are actually being proactive in raising their child (physically and spiritually) and the circumcision is a tie that goes back thousands of years and is rooted in a communal relationship with God. The intent is not to maim, but to be inclusive in bringing children into the covenant community.
It recognizes that God is involved in our lives before birth and throughout. While it may seem barbaric to those not connected to an extended family of faith and also seem like an affront to the individualism of the child, there is a legitimate argument against extreme individualism and recognizing that those who believe in God are connected to more than themselves. Those of faith believe that we come from a Creator (not self-generated), the Creator gives us as a gift to our families (not unconnected to our genetic or historic lines) and that God has connected us to each other for a purpose higher than the foundation of our base individual needs. Circumcision is part of the community including a child but in the faith is a mandate from God as a sign of that inclusion into God’s community.
Those who wish to mandate that Circumcision become a misdemeanor feel that they are right because it protects the child from barbaric rituals. But they need to consider that those who circumcise based on faith are practicing a ritual that God passed down to them (Read Genesis 17:9-11). They do not see the scriptures as stories made up to guide us, but as a real living document with which to live their lives. While it may seem superstitious to those who do not believe, those who do have a right to raise their children as part of the covenant community and in the line of their tradition which runs back to the original story God walking with the Hebrews and of the covenant made with a people to be a light to shine for God’s glory on the earth. By making this a crime, they force people of faith to either give up a distinctive of the faith or go underground in shame. It is a power play that sets the government (of the people) as a judge over one of the world’s great faiths. This is a dangerous precedent that makes the majority in democracy like a King who chooses one ideology for its people and enforces all its subjects to adhere.
Families should remain to decide for their own children whether circumcision is right. Those who do not believe in the covenant of Judaism are free to withhold and those of faith should be free to practice something that is part of the communal worship of their faith.