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A Jewish Dad Weighs in on the Circumcision Debate

103585474Far be it from me, or anyone else, to argue with a mother’s deepest feelings about the welfare of her male children. However, this recent Babble post by Taylor Newman, about her decision not to have her second-born son circumcised, was troubling to me on a number of levels. Mrs. Newman is entitled to decide whether to circumcise her sons or not and also entitled to voice her opinion. However, the implications of suggesting it be outlawed or banned, or that we might rethink our most deeply held religious beliefs based on her blog post, go way beyond the procedure itself for a Jewish dad like me. I would urge people to think about what such a statement means. Basically, her assertion is that I, and others like me in this country, should be denied the right to practice religion in the way my family and ancestors have for thousands of years.

I admit I never gave much thought to circumcision one way or the other until my son was born 12 years ago. There were plenty of anti-circumcision advocates around at that time explaining why they felt circumcision was a borderline barbaric religious ritual of ancient origin that had no place in our scientifically rigorous, ethically pure and idealistic society. I was not blind to the arguments then, and there were some moments of intense reflection and conversation before he was born as to whether to circumcise or not.

On some level, having children of your own brings out your deepest beliefs and sense of personal and collective identity. I’m sure people of other traditions and faiths can identify with that feeling and perhaps is why Mrs. Newman was inspired to write her piece in the first place. It was and still remains an honor for me to carry on my beliefs and the traditions of my people through my newborn son as he embarked on his brand new life.

We have to remember that the laws in the Old Testament of the Bible were based on the most current medicine and ethics of the day and this can sometimes get lost in our assessment of circumcision as “barbarism.” I’m not sure the rabbis would agree with me, but I imagine the covenant of circumcision had less to do with God testing Abraham’s devotion by having him circumcise little Isaac than saying something like, “Abraham, I think we need to have that little chat about making sure our little boy’s business is spic and span.”  Maybe that’s where the adage, “cleanliness is next to godliness” originated.

On a more serious note, there is statistical evidence that circumcision is a beneficial medical procedure. According to the World Health Organization, three major controlled studies showed that “there is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60 percent.” In the past several years, new studies by the CDC and WHO have proven that the incidence and risks of contracting urinary tract infections, human papillomavirus, herpes simplex and syphilis are significantly reduced by male circumcision.

We are lucky to live in a country in which we enjoy religious freedom and meanwhile have these kinds of intellectual debates, individually filter all the available information through our own belief systems and then make our own choices regarding ourselves and our children. Furthermore, before jumping to the conclusion that the debates occurring in other countries should be models for us, we should make sure we see the larger context. In this case, Newman references Sweden and Denmark as being leaders in the medical and ethical debate about circumcision. It has to be acknowledged, however, that circumcision is not the widely practiced, commonly secular tradition in Sweden and Denmark that it is here. Male circumcision is largely specific in those two countries to two groups of people: Muslims and Jews, and the ban is being interpreted and felt by many as a justifiable way to deny free religious practice. Dig in a little further and you’ll find that the kosher meat industry of those countries, which also directly affects Muslims and Jews, are being attacked.

I am grateful that I am a parent living in a country where I am free to live my life according to my beliefs. We are a country who demands tolerance. We are informed and educated people. We have the ability to see the larger picture in these debates. Let’s continue to be a place that supports one another’s differences and unique cultural identities. That’s what raising kids in a free land is all about.

Photo credit: thinkstock

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