Circumcision occurs in both Jewish and Islamic religious traditions. In Judaism, the circumcision is performed during a naming ceremony called a Brit Milah, and is done by a religious practitioner called a mohel on the eighth day of the infant’s life. Circumcision is typically performed later in childhood for Muslims, and the term khitan is used to refer to both male and female circumcisions. Circumcision is not part of the Christian tradition or present in other religious.
Some ethicists feel that any infant or child circumcision, whether done as part of a religious ceremony or not, violates human rights. Female circumcision is widely viewed as a human rights violation, even though it occurs in the context of a religious ceremony.
Within the Jewish community, there is much disagreement about circumcision. Circumcision has long been part of the Jewish tradition, as a mark that set Jews apart from other groups. Some Jews feel strongly about circumcisizing their children. Others see the practice as contradictory to the spirit of Judaism, which emphasizes compassion.
Circumcision conflicts with some other Jewish laws. For example, the Torah forbids the torture or causing of pain to any living creature, especially physically assaulting or harming another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Jewish law specifically forbids body modification, including the cutting or marking of the human body (Lev. 19:28). Jews are also required to help those who are helpless, such as infants, and are exempt from performing religious duties that would cause harm.
Circumcision also conflicts with parents’ need to protect and nurture their children. One Jewish mother related after her son’s circumcision, “I don’t think I can recover from it. It’s a scar. . . . We had this beautiful baby boy and seven beautiful days and this beautiful rhythm starting, and it was like something had been shattered.” (from “Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain.”)
In his article, “Being Rational About Circumcision and Jewish Observance”, Moshe Rothenberg, an Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn, New York, describes how circumcision damages the covenant of trust and love between parent and child. He explains that Jews “must not do anything hurtful to another human being, including and especially our children.” Rothenberg chose to perform a naming ceremony for his son Sammy that did not include circumcision.
Jewish boys are considered Jewish, are eligible to have a Bar Mitzvah, and may fully participate in all aspects of Jewish life, whether or not they are circumcised. One Jewish man wrote, “Although uncircumcised, I am a very proud Jew, with a very strong sense of Jewish identity” I can assure you that having a foreskin has not made me less of a Jew than those without one, and in fact has given me additional reason to think about it.” (from “Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain.”)
Jewish Circumcision Resource Center notes that a growing number of Jews either have not circumcised their sons or would choose not to circumcise a future son. The group maintains a confidential list of hundreds of Jews who have made this choice.
Another resource and support group is Jews Against Circumcision. This is an international group that includes members who range in observance from secular to Orthodox.
Jewish parents who choose not to circumcise may elect instead to have a ceremony called a Brit Shalom, which incorporates the religious tradition of the naming ceremony without damaging the foreskin. It is performed by a rabbi or other religious leader. For more information about this ceremony and a list of alternative bris providers, click here.
Ronald Goldman’s book, Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, his article, “Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain”, and Laurie Evans’s article, “Counseling Couples in Disagreement about Circumcision: a Jewish Perspective“, may also be of interest.
Additional Contacts for Jewish Issues
Ron Goldman, Ph.D.
Jewish Circumcision Resource Center
P.O. Box 232
Boston, MA 02133
715 Ocean Parkway # 2K
Brooklyn, NY 11230
Circumcision of Muslim males and females is done in many parts of the Arab world. Boys are typically circumcised between the ages of three and nine. Girls undergo circumcision (also called excision in females) around age seven or eight. The practice, particularly female circumcision, is being openly questioned by many Muslims.
The traditional justification for circumcision is found in some of the sayings of Mohammed. There is no mention of circumcision in the Koran, and in fact some verses seem to oppose it because it conflicts with the Islamic belief that God’s creations are perfect. According to the Koran, God “perfected everything He created” (32:7), and alterations of nature are defacements inspired by the devil (4:119). Imam Mahmud Shaltut has stated that he does not see any reason for male or female circumcision, either in the Koran or in the Sunnah of Mohammed.
According to Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahueh, a lawyer of Palestinian origin who has written extensively about circumcision and Islamic law, “Religion has been a means of justifying both male and female circumcision. It is time to expose the irrationality behind this thinking and reveal the harmful influence of some religious circles which are in favour of it or refuse to denounce it.”
He notes that “both [male and female circumcisions] are mutilations of healthy sexual organs of non-consenting children.” There is no alternative but to condemn the attitude of international and non-governmental organizations which dissociate one type of circumcision from the other, giving legitimacy to male circumcision in the process.”
Dr. Aldeeb’s article, “To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah”, is an in-depth discussion of the Islamic religious and legal arguments surrounding circumcision, and also describes the Third International Symposium on Circumcision, at which he was a speaker.
Both Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi, an Egyptian woman and medical doctor who was circumcised as a child, and Aziza Kamel, a Muslim feminist, have spoken out against circumcision. Dr. El-Saadawi has written numerous articles for the Egyptian press describing the beneficial function of the prepuce and the disadvantages of circumcision for both males and females. In an article published in Rosal Youssef in 1999, she stated that circumcision may be one cause of male sexual frustration and violence.
In a post-Master’s fellowship research thesis, “Male Genital Mutilation (Circumcision): A Feminist Study of a Muted Gender Issue”, Dr. Seham Abd el Salam Mohammed, an Egyptian medical doctor, conducted interviews with Egyptians about their experiences with circumcision. Like Jewish parents, Muslim parents may feel strong negative emotions about circumcision. One mother who was surveyed described her son’s circumcision: “It was a tragedy.” No matter what I say, I cannot describe it. The screaming!!! Oh my God!!!! I will never hear like it again!” With his eyes [my son] was asking me, ‘What have you done to me? Didn’t you have mercy on me?’ “I hated myself.”
Dr. Mohammed writes, “Because circumcision results into useless unnecessary pain and harm for the individual, it is not a health procedure. It is a practice with symbolic and political nature. Its hygienic justifications are nothing but a tool to put such social body politics into action.” She also writes that women may be more ready than men to speak out against circumcision and should “take the initiative to encourage men to break the barrier of silence about MGM [male genital mutilation, or circumcision].”
Contacts for Islamic Issues
Swiss Institute of Comparative Law
1015 Lausanne, Switzerland
Circumcision is not a part of the Christian religion, however many parents in the U.S. choose to circumcise their sons in part because they believe it is mandated in their Christian tradition. In the Old Testament, Abraham was told to circumcise his son as a mark of his covenant with God, but the New Testament withdrew the requirement, announcing that the ordinances of the Law of Moses were no longer required (Acts 15:22-35).
According to an article by James Peron, M.S., “Christian Parents and the Circumcision Issue,” the New Testament commanded Christians not to submit to circumcision. St. Paul preached that it could be interpreted as contrary to the Christian faith and teachings. In his Epistle to the Romans, he said, “Circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.” (Romans 2:29)
Other passages in the Bible clearly state that circumcision does not confer any special mark of status or holiness on an individual, and that qualities such as faith and love are important instead (Galatians 5:1-6, Galatians 6:12-16). The Bible says, “Look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:2-3)
Mormons also reject circumcision. In the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Christ says: “the law of circumcision is done away with in me.” (Moroni 8:8)
According to Rosemary Romberg’s article, “Circumcision and the Christian Parent”, Christian ideals of love and compassion support treating everyone, particularly infants, with gentleness. She writes, “Many of us who voice concern over routine infant circumcision have been wishing for an organized voice from the Christian world speaking out against genital mutilation. Christian apathy to this issue can only be considered a public embarrassment.”
Mr. Peron, a founder of the Childbirth Education Forum, concludes his article, “The choice of loving and compassionate Christian parents should be obvious. We are obligated to protect [boys] from the risks, loss and damage from routine circumcision.”