Don’t Tread on a Sacred Tradition

By Melvin Konner

Published May 11, 2011, issue of May 20, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A group in San Francisco has collected enough signatures to force a vote on a law that would make it illegal to “circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the foreskin, testicle or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18.”

Margarita Korol

This ban, if it passes, might infringe on the First Amendment guarantee to freedom of religion. Constitutional or not, it is without a doubt a slap in the face to Muslims and Jews, an attack on their rights to privacy that would keep them from continuing a millennial tradition of their ancestors, not to mention keeping them from raising their children according to their own conscience and values.

As a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose, I find it ironic that a city that would never countenance an infringement on abortion rights, and that at one time defended gay cultural practices that were spreading HIV, is now seriously considering listening to these self-proclaimed “intactivists.” San Francisco would be banning a practice that not only has no known health consequences, but also offers possible health benefits, including protecting against some sexually transmitted infections, as well as against cervical and penile cancers.

Because “scientific studies show some medical benefits of circumcision,” the American Academy of Pediatrics recently debated whether to recommend circumcision for all male newborns. But because the benefits to American boys and men are small, their official statement simply says,“Parents may want their sons circumcised for religious, social, or cultural reasons. Because circumcision is not essential to a child’s health, parents should choose what is best for their child….”

But this is not the case in Sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are the highest in the world. Recent studies showed that circumcision lowered by about 60% the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection. This has caused the World Health Organization to strongly recommend the practice, and the Centers for Disease Control to seriously consider doing the same. And while the health advantages have become increasingly clear, the risks have always been minimal, usually limited to pain and bleeding that are easily controlled.

There is very little evidence proving that removal of this flap of skin diminishes future sexual satisfaction or performance. This is in stark contrast to the removal of the clitoris in females, which reduces sexual satisfaction for most, and which is not approved by any major religion.

Foreskin removal does tend to make babies cry. So does putting them (circumcised or not) to bed in a separate room at night, as many pediatricians advise. So does vaccination, urged by all health authorities. So does dropping them off at day care. There are 2,000 pediatric and adolescent football-related injuries treated in American emergency rooms each day during football season. This number is increasing, and it includes thousands of concussions, many spinal cord injuries and at least one death a year. Each year, more than 700 people die in bicycle-related injuries, mostly children.

Note to San Franciscans: Consider other possible bans.

When our son was born three decades ago, we knew we wanted to circumcise him despite not being observant Jews. We found a certified mohel who was also a physician double-boarded in pediatrics and obstetrics, the two fields most concerned with the health and safety of babies. He told us that the only real reason to circumcise is religious. Actually, for us, the true reasons were cultural: We wanted to respect Jewish tradition, and we wanted our son to be and feel Jewish.

Today, these are the most compelling motivations for Jews to choose circumcision: religion and tradition. The Torah says that “he who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people.” It also tells the story of the midwives and mothers in Egypt who circumcised even those boys who were to be thrown into the Nile. According to the second book of Maccabees, mothers literally martyred themselves and their sons rather than fail to circumcise: “Two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city, with their babies hanging at their breasts, and then they hurled them down headlong from the wall.” And under the Nazis, circumcisions continued, despite making it easy for the murderers of Jewish children to identify them.

This is a serious tradition, one for which Jews have fought and sacrificed throughout our long history. It is not harmful, and it may have medical benefits. The proposed ban should and will be opposed by all right-thinking people of any religious faith and by decent people without faith who recognize the rights of parents to decide, within broad limits, what is best for their own children.

Melvin Konner is an M.D., Ph.D. and the author of “The Jewish Body” (Nextbook/Schocken, 2009).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.