Why We Circumcise

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When I was in high school, I had a rebbe who told the following story. When Elvis was popular, someone told him, “You must be happy.” The reason was because the boys were all emulating the singer’s hairstyle, which included sideburns. The result was that the students in his classes weren’t cutting their payes, in conformity with Torah law.

This teacher’s response was quite the opposite. “These boys aren’t growing their payes because of Torah,” he said. “If the next teen idol has a crew cut, they’ll all be copying that.”

This also happened a few years ago when floor-length skirts were popular. Perhaps surprisingly, some girls’ schools banned them in favor of the traditional duty-length skirts. The logic was the same: the girls weren’t wearing these skirts because they were modest, they were wearing them because they were fashionable. The next fashion could just as easily go to the other extreme. Therefore, it is preferable to hold our ground and just do what we do, regardless of fashion trends, which may favor or oppose our practice.

This is also the case with circumcision. For the past number of decades, circumcision was the norm in the United States among Jews and non-Jews alike. The past few years, however, the anti- circumcision movement has been growing. It was easy when everyone was circumcising their sons but now there are people who not only don’t want to circumcise their own kids, they don’t want us to circumcise ours. Just a few of the many, many examples of anti-circumcision legislation from around the globe include:

Those examples may all be from abroad but attempts have also been made in the US. For example, in 2011, San Francisco attempted to adopt an ordinance banning circumcision. (The attempt failed and California subsequently enacted a law protecting circumcision.)

The reality is that parents make all sorts of decisions for their minor children, often before those kids are old enough to have opinions on the matter. Obviously, all sorts of medical decisions are made, many of which are judgment calls. Infants and toddlers have their ears pierced, which is a body modification and it hurts. The technology isn’t quite there yet but many parents are chomping at the bit to have subcutaneous microchips implanted in their children. (If there’s one decision you can bet a future 14-year-old will disagree with, it’s being fitted with an unremoveable GPS tracker!)

We circumcise not because we objectively desire to perform such a procedure – it’s actually hard for a parent to cause his child pain – but because it’s our part of the covenant between the Jews and God. In Genesis chapter 17, God tells Abraham:

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout the generations, an everlasting covenant to be a God to you and your descendants after you. I will give you and your descendants after you the land of your travels, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God … As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout the generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin and it will be the sign of a covenant between Me and you. A boy eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations… An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

Societal norms may change and medical opinions may change but that’s not why we circumcise. We circumcise because God tells us to, in no uncertain terms. We’re not ignoring the opinions of authorities when we choose to circumcise, we’re simply deferring to a Higher Authority.

Is it possible that a child will grow up and disagree with a parent’s decision? Absolutely. But that is always the case. A parent who vaccinates could have a child who grows up to be an anti-vaccination advocate. A parent who serves their child meat could have a child who grows up to be a vegan. These children could object to being injected with “poison” or being fed “murder.” Conversely, anti-vaccination parents and vegan parents could have kids who grow up objecting to having been denied immunizations and sources of protein.

All parents do the best they can with the best available information. We circumcise because we believe that it’s what God wants. We raise our children in our faith, so we expect that will be their belief as well. The last opinion of the American Pediatric Society, in 2012, was that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks. Even if that opinion should change in the future, we’ll keep on doing what we do. Not because it’s popular and not because it’s fashionable but because it’s what we believe God wants of us. And if there’s one lesson we don’t want to teach our kids, it’s that God’s eternal will is subject to the approval of whatever human opinion happens to be in vogue.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.