Evolving Jewish Practices

I’m Jewish, affiliated and opposed to circumcision. I can understand the thinking behind the proposed ban in San Francisco even though I believe such legislation would be a bad idea. 
We now have clinical evidence that infants feel pain and are affected by it, and that the foreskin has a significant physiological function. These crucial facts — along with frequently ignored issues such as the surgical risks of circumcision and its effect on the parent-newborn bond — have yet to be incorporated into either medical or Jewish practice.
Halachah (Jewish law) evolves over time as new insights develop. In the talmudic era, for example, deaf people were classified with the mentally incompetent and weren’t even counted toward a minyan. We learned more, and Jewish practices changed accordingly.

It’s our ethical responsibility as Jews to embrace new information. Indeed, to ignore pertinent new data is to suggest that Judaism can’t withstand thoughtful inquiry. I am delighted to learn that Abby Porth of the Jewish Community Relations Council feels it’s fine for Jewish families to choose brit shalom — a beautiful ceremony that welcomes baby boys into the covenant without circumcision.
I can understand how some might interpret the San Francisco anti-circumcision ballot measure as an attack on Jewish religious freedom. But that’s not the only possible perspective, nor the most illuminating one.
More and more parents — including Jewish couples — are deciding to leave their baby boys intact. That’s because the harmfulness of circumcision is now coming to light. How are we to regard this new information? Denying the news, and using the ballot measure to bolster our denial, is not a Jewishly ethical answer.
From the point of view of halachah, any alleged medical benefits of circumcision are wholly irrelevant; circumcision is strictly a sign of the covenant. And yet, newly revealed risks, drawbacks and ethical concerns are of great halachic pertinence. Judaism embraces new insights; indeed, there’s ample halachic precedent for reevaluation of practices based on new knowledge.
Fighting a potential San Francisco law doesn’t substitute for honest intellectual and spiritual engagement in Jewish law.
Lisa Braver Moss is the author of The Measure of His Grief, a new novel which explores a Berkeley doctor’s unlikely campaign against circumcision. Her essays have appeared in Tikkun, Parents, and the San Francisco Chronicle. For more information about Lisa, her books, and her other writings please visit lisabravermoss.com.


  1. Excellent point...to ignore pertinent new data is to suggest that XX (any religion)can't withstand thoughtful inquiry. Below is a message for a JEW-HINDU COUPLE.


    Circumcision is not a practice in Hindu faith. Probably sages would have labeled it Himsa (violence). In America, a third of Hindus marry to Abrahamics (www.InterfaithShaadi.org). We have seen many Jew-Hindu marriages. Probably most of these Hindu spouses allow their son circumcise because of arguments based on science from their Abrahamic spouse.

    Thought there are some scientific merits to circumcision, no compelling argument could be made. American Pediatric Association has not yet endorsed routine circumcision as beneficial to a male child. Further, there is no major medical issue noted for a billion plus of uncircumcised Hindus around the World. To have foreskin on the penis is not a birth defect to be surgically corrected, rather the foreskin has abundant nerve endings designed to increase sexual sensation. Bottom line, for scientific merits, juries are still out deciding. Only compelling reason left is the superstition or "can't withstand thoughtful inquiry."

    When it comes to “science,” one need to ask if the “Biblical Science” is being discussed here? The God told that 1) the Earth is the center of the Universe; 2) HE created the earth in 2+4 days and 3) every male shall be circumcised (1943 BCE). You may believe in the “other science” of 1) Galileo (was impressed for telling truth!!), 2) Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (Origin of Species, 1859 CE) and 3) American Academy of Pediatrics’ conclusion (1999), respectively, over the God’s science.

    Many Hindus believe that a new car must go through some religious rituals, including breaking a coconut in front of the new car. If this is not done, something wrong will happen. Well, I decline to perform such rituals since I do not see any merit to it (other than I like coconut!!). Not accepting some superstitious beliefs does not prove I am less of a Hindu. The same way, why would a Jew may feel less a Jew if he is still 100% intact the way LORD God has sent him on this earth?

    Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs should challenge scientific merits posed by their gynecologist, hospital staff or an Abrahamic spouse. Think twice before submitting to someone's financial interest or superstitious beliefs.

    InterfaithShaadi endorses the San Francisco MGM bill.

  2. roger desmoulinsJune 14, 2011 at 1:25 AM

    The San Francisco ballot initiative is useless and will waste a lot of taxpayer money when it is challenged on First Amendment grounds. It also has led to an explosion of ugly sarcasm from a certain Jews who assert that it is proof that latent antisemitism is alive and well in America.

    Even if the initiative is defeated, intactivism will not go away, because of the many mothers all around the USA who are devoted to the cause. And intactivism is not about banning circumcision, but about changing the way American parents think about sex and the bodies of their sons. Circumcision is grounded in unspoken assumptions about sexual pleasure and functionality, assumptions that are falling by the wayside.

    And so many people seem not to notice that the initiative, dubious as it may be, does not forbid a Jewish male to be circumcised throughout his adult life, in particular throughout his married life. The issue is not To Cut or Not to Cut, but 8th Day or 21st Year? If a man is circumcised because he requested it of his own volition when he was in his 20s, that implies a major and risky faith commitment. If he is circumcised only because his parents wanted him circumcised, that only proves that his parents were cut from the same cloth as the characters in Fiddler on the Roof who sing "Tradition"!

  3. I don't think the San Francisco ballot idea was useless, as it has thrust the debate into mainstream media - further, the banning of the initiative on the state level may well be challenged in court (I hope!), offering further opportunity to teach about the wrongs of male genital mutilation.

    It helps to remember that twenty years ago many in the gay community protested against those groups pushing for gay marriage and participation in the military. A slew of laws at every level were passed protecting heterosexual marriage's "sanctity", and banning homosexuals from the military. Now look where we are. The military ban is essentially gone. The push for full participation in society has advanced gay rights as nothing else has. Further, even some of the most extreme anti-gay religious organizations have publicly admitted that the fight against gay marriage is all but lost; the upcoming generation of young evangelicals does not care about the issue at all, and many are sympathetic to gays among their friends.

    We in the anti-mutilation movement have nothing to lose by fighting for what we believe in. Giving in, compromising our beliefs in the battle to end all male circumcision is a losing strategy. In the long run, a principled stand against infant genital mutilation will win, as people become more educated about the harm caused, and as our opponents find their positions less and less defensible.