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Existentialist Circumcision Crisis

June 20, 2011 – 7:19 pm141 Comments

The "one in a million moy'el", from the Seinfeld epsiode, The Bris

By Ellyse Borghi

I came to the realisation a couple of years ago, when I was first being exposed to existentialism at the same time as human rights, that I’m very very uncomfortable with circumcision.

Let me explain.

Firstly, from a human rights perspective.

Every person has a right to bodily autonomy. Whether they are old or young or disabled, male or female. Nobody has the right to touch me on public transport and if you are a doctor you need my informed consent before treating me.

And just because you are somebody’s parent doesn’t let you override this right. And just because the person is a minor doesn’t mean they don’t have this right. Rather we have to defend this even more so because you know what? That’s what human rights are here for. To defend those who can’t stand up for themselves (figuratively and literally). Indeed your role as a parent is to protect your child, to provide for them and to enable them to grow into well balanced and productive members of society. Cutting your baby does not fit into that role.

Some people argue that this procedure has medical benefits. Firstly, it’s very unclear that this is the case. It’s claimed that it prevents HIV infection. But do you know what works even better? Condoms. And guess what? You don’t have to cut yourself to use those. But even if it has medical benefits, that still doesn’t give you the right to circumcise your baby because you wouldn’t pre-emptively remove your baby’s appendix, or their tonsils. Because it’s not necessary surgery, and as a parent you should be protecting your child from being cut as much as is possible. The same goes for suggesting that it prevents other infections in the region. Teach your kid to wash and you should be fine. You don’t pull out their teeth just because they might have tooth decay. Instead you buy your kid a bloody toothbrush. Duh.

Others claim that whether or not it has medical benefits, it’s such a minor procedure that it could be likened to ear piercing and therefore we should allow it. At what point is it ok for you to pierce your baby’s ears? Or to give them tattoos? Or create decorative scarring? Sorry, that’s even less ok because then it’s completely purposeless mutilation of your baby. The same goes for arguing that a circumcised penis looks better than an intact one. Firstly, the human body is beautiful just the way it is. Secondly, aesthetics do not override the right to bodily autonomy.


But more from an existentialist perspective circumcision bothers me. Obviously, every decision you make for your child is going to imprint an identity upon them. But maybe as a parent your role is perhaps to be the enabler of identity not the creator. Therefore as much as possible you should endeavour to enable your child to make decisions for themselves and deal with the consequences themselves. Clearly this has to be done with common sense and there’s a spectrum of involvement and guidance that every parent has to find for themselves (like I would know, with my 17 children and all…). But I think that circumcision is a pretty big decision, the type that a person should choose for themselves. Yes, it’s going to be more difficult when they are older. But at least then it’s something they chose and not something that was forced upon them. At least this way they are the creators of their own identity.


I’m an Orthodox Jewess. Which means my sons (should I have children) will be circumcised.

Up until now I’ve simply lived with this contradiction as I do with much of my Jewish identity. Call it ontological dualism, call it cognitive dissonance, call it what you will but I was dealing with it.

Mainly I dealt with it via the theology of Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Protestant thinkers influencing orthodoxy (ahem Soloveichik). That is to say that I submit my will to God and just like Abraham was willing to kill his only son if that was the will of God, I suppose I could cope with merely cutting off their foreskin to do the same.

But it wasn’t a comfortable situation to live with.

I frequently think back to Rabbi Akiva in Mishna Tanchuma (tazria 5) where he explains to a Roman that just like we remove the chaff from the wheat so too Jews circumcise their sons. It reminds us that God did not create a complete world. But rather that we are partners in creation and that circumcision is a way for us to remind ourselves of our responsibility to tikkun olam (though maybe now stopping this practice could be our contribution to Tikkun olam…)

More recently however, over Shavuot, we were discussing this issue over cheesecake and a young man said that it’s only such a touchy issue because it’s on the penis and the western world is totally phallocentric. Ok – so he didn’t say phallocentric, coz he’s not a pretentious twat like me but that was the gist of it. This reminded me of a lecture I heard by Daniel Boyarin recently (the writer of Carnal Israel).  In his book he argues that the Jewish understanding of masculinity is totally different to that of the Greek/Roman/Western version. Jewish masculinity isn’t all about physical strength and dominance, rather it’s more passive, more sensitive. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced of this, and it’s not really possible to say that Hazal have one view on gender, but he certainly makes a very good argument for it.

In light of this I would like to suggest that circumcision serves this role as well. Reminding men that their penis’ are not the centre of the world. Indeed that they are also very vulnerable and sensitive organs. Furthermore, that your physical strength isn’t a free pass to conquer and dominate. Moreover boys who’ve entered the Israeli army know (allegedly) that being circumcised limits your ability to be the perfect soldier and that you can only achieve a maximum score of 97 out of 100. This way God reminds you that you are under his will and that you are actually required to protect the weak, the orphans and the widows. From this perspective circumcision can serve a really beautiful role for our community and ourselves. Coz you know what – it’s not all about your dick.

Now, I still don’t really have an opinion on whether or not I support circumcision. What I do know is that we need to be talking about this more. That I think if it’s an informed decision made by parents or individuals for themselves that then I’m more comfortable with it.

Ellyse Borghi is a Melbournian currently studying Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a Hineni Bogeret. In her spare time she enjoys handicrafts and mormon blogs, her blog can be found here.

For a related article, see Why Brit Milah is Good for you by Galus Australis’ “medical editor”, Dr Liz Paratz.

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