Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan,
Could you help me out? We are reading a Torah Sidra [portion] every Saturday evening as a family. We happened to read the Sidra that included Genesis 17. I have three children and the oldest is a boy of 9. I am sure you can guess where this is going. He had many questions about circumcision.
Circumcision is very important to me. My father, brother, husband and son are all circumcised. My brother’s wife and my brother changed their mind and chose not to circumcise their two boys when they were born. 🙁
I would love my son to be just as proud as we are that he his circumcised, not that he isn’t. But, I am sure someday when he may have awkward conversations with his cousins camping or sports friends.
I just want to make sure that we, as parents, have done everything that we should explaining this very Holy covenant to my children boys and girls. I would be heartbroken if twenty years down the road my grandchildren were not circumcised just because I didn’t convey things to my children properly while they were in my care.
Thank you so much,
Your question is a very apt one for this time of year as Chanukah starts this coming Sunday evening. Among the Jewish observances that the Greek-Syrians outlawed, was circumcision. They also made the studying and teaching of Torah prohibited on penalty of death. These acts of religious oppression led to the rebellion of Chanukah.
So extreme was the Greek aversion to circumcision that the historian Josephus tells us that Hellenist physicians performed plastic surgery operations ‘restoring’ the foreskin. In a culture that extolled the gymnasium and athletic games one needed to “look the part” in order to fit in. This, of course, is the crux of the episode of Chanukah—it was most of all a battle between those Jews eager to shed their connection to God and Judaism and those Jews who remained faithful to their heritage.
Chanukah is the only festival in the Jewish calendar that lasts eight days. Notably, circumcision takes place on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life. In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number seven is associated with nature: 7 days of the week; 7 colors of the rainbow; 7 notes in a western musical scale. The number 8 is associated with partnering with God to transcend nature. Circumcision is a statement, both to the young boy and to the community, that the incredible power of sexuality is part of his connection to God and the ability to create life is holy. We are commanded to overcome the animalistic impulse to act as if sex is solely physical. This rejection of secularism is central to both circumcision and Chanukah.
Secular society today, as in the time of the Greeks, elevates the physical over the spiritual. People shout, “It’s my body and I can do with it as I wish.” God’s people disagree. God loaned us wondrous bodies and we have the opportunity to improve our own lives and the lives of those among whom we live by choosing to harness the body’s powers and rise above the animalistic side of our nature. Circumcision is a statement of partnership with God to move beyond mere nature in order to attain our full physical and spiritual potential.
The soon-to-arrive stage at which your wonderful 9-year-old son begins to become aware of the power of his organ upon which his parents placed God’s sign, will also be the time he realizes that not all boys are fortunate enough to carry their own private covenantal reminder. That should open up the blessed opportunity for a parent-led conversation about male-female relationships, intimacy and God’s plans for His people’s happiness and fulfillment. When that time arrives, you will find helpful material in the Thought Tools archives on our website. You can be sure that at a younger and younger age the culture will actively try to corrupt and ensnare him.
The time of Chanukah is so suitable for family discussions about the important willingness to be different from the ‘crowd.’ We do discuss these issues and many more in greater detail in our audio CD Festival of Lights: Transform Your 24/7 Existence into a 25/8 Life, but we hope this gives you the beginning of an understanding of how important your question is.
Continue to enjoy the thrilling challenge of raising unique children with spiritual independence in an age of secular conformity. It sounds as if you’re doing great.
Greeting of light,
Rabbi Daniel & Susan Lapin
29 thoughts on “How do we explain to our son why circumcision matters?”
You have alluded to benefits to the female partners of circumcised men. Could you elaborate on what you mean? With thanks.
We’ve done so more comprehensively elsewhere on our website so this isn’t the right forum for a full treatment of your question but for now here are just two of the benefits. Women whose partners are circumcised have a significantly reduced risk of cervical cancer. This is such a pronounced benefit that even the United Nations along with various African governments have all been aggressively promoting circumcision throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Another is significantly enhanced marital satisfaction for female partners of circumcised men who are thus endowed with additional endurance. There is much more which is fairly well documented elsewhere. Hope this helps.
I do not feel violated that I was inducted by my father into this tradition as was his father and his before him anymore than I thought violated that they gave me a name like every other person had in my family. I was not asked by my parents nor, by my recollection, by God if I wanted to be born. Thank you God, and Your Torah and the Jewish people and Greeks for reason and Christians for bridging the gap and God again (of course) for modern civilization. Surely there’s still more death and chaos to be eradicated in this world that we should not see the imaginary plights of the happy warriors as something to eradicate. I have never heard of a circumcised adult complain that this decision was made for him…well I am sure that the human rights advocates can scrounge somebody up.
In regards to that, who would you say is the giver of these human rights? Let us say, for argument’s sake, that there is no God and we are merely sophisticated animals and that the government is the giver of these rights for our species. Are we then OK with this transcendent to individual autonomy authority and do we submit to it; for it knows better than the commoner? If we are OK with this line of thought, then may I take it a step further and simply move the authority up from a worldly government to a more everlasting, abstract moral governing perfection that cannot be destroyed and that can then be reimplemented at anytime and any place? Once we have accepted this, I assure you that we are not far off from accepting monotheism. And if we accept monotheism, then who has a better understanding of that than orthodox Jewish rabbis? Does anyone know any good orthodox Jewish rabbis that are inclined to get involved in public discussions?
Are we merely sophisticated animals and if so should we be about setting right the plights of other inter-species violations of rights; or would that be a violation of that species’ right to act autonomously and ought we let the transcendent authority of Darwinism have its way? Either way, we have to appeal to a higher authority, and I am proud of Jews and Christians that make their choice of transcendent authority publicly known (letting their “light shine” and all of that Sunday school “indoctrination”). May the omniscient One’s face shine towards you all.
Thanks for such a thoughtful letter, Mark,
Much food for contemplation.
Adding an interesting and maybe bizarre history tidbit. I hope I get this information right. In the stories of my grandfather, one story related how he was uncircumcised upon joining the U.S Army during WWII. At 18 he was forced to have a circumcision. A painful situation as the next weeks involved boot camp.
Ouch, Vickie. That is an interesting historical tidbit. I wonder how widespread that was.
I wonder why the ‘human right’ advocates never said that,’immunizing the children is violating their right, because there is pain. When bathing them as infants because their crying shows that they do not want it.
And many other issues.
You ask excellent questions Kristofa-
And you of course know the answer. Their concern with human rights is less than my concern for today’s weather in Patagonia.
I come from a Catholic family and I was circumcised as a matter of course. It has never been an issue for me. On the other hand, I had an older friend, who died a couple of years ago at about 80 years of age, who was not circumcised as an infant, and who had constant infections and other medical problems resulting from that. Finally, in his 50s or 60s, he had himself circumcised! Problems solved. He never regretted it. I understand, Rabbi Lapin, your argument for circumcision no matter what. However, watching what my friend experienced added, for me, another fact to add to the pro-circumcision point of view.
Our family is not Jewish . It used to be common practice to circumcise all male babies in the USA.. My dear Uncle had horrible infections and died of cancer which was directly attributed to him not being circumcised . . And on a side note , the 9 year old boy who lived down the road in the 1940’s had the terrible bad experience of having first his tonsils removed while sitting at the dining room table , then the Dr had him lay ON the table and be circumcised ,It was such a horrific thing that the elderly neighbor men around here still speak of it. Even without religious meaning ,it seems a worthwhile thing , even tho Abigail above would disagree..better to have something like that happen when you are too young to remember than suffer for health sake as an adult.
Karen, it isn’t only a function of remembering the pain. The pain level and trauma is less as an infant.
Scientific studies prove otherwise. The younger the infant, the greater the pain! Cortisol levels in babies undergoing circumcision are reported as greater than in adults being tortured.
Leonard Glick, MD, PhD, mentions in his book, Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America, the the original covenant is Genesis 15, which does NOT include circumcision. Genesis 17, where circumcision is required is part of the P Text of the Bible, written by the priests after the destruction of the temples, where the blood sacrifices were carried out. Now, the blood sacrificed, is the blood of the babies, who are sacrificed without their consent. They scream their protests but no one listens. And, the adults tell themselves this is a holy act. Cutting off a normal part of a baby is NOT holy and it is NOT a requirement of g-d, it was the priests who are to blame!
Dear Nurse Marilyn–
Needless to say, we disagree with you, with Dr. Leonard Glick (secular Jewish) and with whatever sources you used to cite the long-discredited J-P text theories of Biblical criticism. If indeed circumcision inflicted this terrible lasting trauma you’d have thought that by now, after more than 2,500 years of the practice, Jewish men and their wives would be showing some signs of distress and diminished social performance. After all, no group of people practicing dangerous self-destructive activities long survive let alone thrive. No, rather to the contrary, we feel certain that religious male circumcision assists in the developing of creative vitality and well known Jewish statistics, would correlate with our conclusion. We strongly advise against the truly dangerous and self-destructive practice of ‘expertitis’. This is when otherwise intelligent human beings accept a prima facie nonsensical fact, surrendering their own judgement and analysis to the credentials and anointing of someone labeled an “expert”. The cultural war against religious male circumcision is usually motivated by fairly obvious causes other than disinterested and objective science and with a little honest research and a bit of common sense, these causes are usually easy to spot.
I just would like to add that we have been at many circumcisions conducted according to Jewish law (we cannot speak for those that take place by doctors as a medical procedure) and don’t remember hearing a baby “scream.” The babies usually start crying when their diapers are removed – just as they often do at that age at home when their diapers are being changed- and one can usually not even tell when the circumcision is taking place. They stop crying rather quickly when bundled up again.
When I was working full-time as a surgical assistant, I assisted on several adult circumcisions. One was for a recent Russian immigrant of advanced age who had not been ‘allowed’ to have one as a child behind the iron curtain. He had to spend the night in the hospital because of the intensity of the post-operative pain. In fact the surgeons acknowledged that have it done as an adult had significantly higher morbidity (greater chance of something going wrong), than having it done as an infant. Additionally, I recall reading a medical article that summarized the WIVES of circumcised men had a significantly lower risk of cervical cancer. But the case I will never forget was the man who ended up needing not just a circumcision, but a complete phalectomy because his foreskin was never fully retracted for hygiene nor medical evaluation (it was too tight), and the cancer that developed underneath was found far too late. We chose to get our boys circumcised for not only their own health, but that of their future wives as well.
Thanks for the account, dear RPA–
And especially for mentioning the benefits to your future daughter-in-laws. Yes, indeed.
Rabbi Lapin, Thank God my parents followed the Jewish tradition and circumcised me according to their faith. I certainly don’t remember it ! I have never felt my human rights were violated . I wonder if some of these same people believe abortion is okay but circumcision is horrible?
I recently had an adult friend of mine who had been fighting an infection for years in his private parts who was circumcised . He said it was REALLY painful and he wished he had it done as a child.
Thanks for the anecdote. The real issue being fought about in the cultural struggle surrounding circumcision is whether the prime authority in a child’s life is its parents or the state. And it is easy to know what side people are on.
Oh how I truly appreciate this post. Once again it has been proven Rabbi Lapin, that not only are you a good Rabbi but that HaShem is truly with you. Baruch HaShem!
Thank you so much; only point of clarification flows from you addressing your post only to me. You see, Susan Lapin and I collaborate on just about everything, well she rebuffs my help in cooking, and these writings are as much a result of our collaboration as are our children. I could as easily do one alone as the other.
My father was not circumcised until he was 12… he was Catholic… he had all 3 of us boys circumcised when we were born and I am most grateful that it was done at my birth, wasn’t done when I was old enough to “choose”… just the associated infections that are avoided was enough to convince me it was a wise choice… I had no problems enjoying sex and fathering 5 kids of my own, and made sure my son was circumcised…
I had an uncle who raised himself by his own bootstraps to become a physician. He saved my life at least twice when I was a baby, staying up with me all night. He went on to become a radiologist and then a specialist in nuclear medicine. When he became a physician he looked at the demonstrated medical benefits of circumcision, for example, circumcision drastically reducing the incidence of certain infections and diseases to include cancer, and chose to have himself circumcised as an ADULT. The post-op pain he must have endured is inconceivable, and I am glad I had the operation as a baby. But anyone condemning the practice of male circumcision is best advised to consult a physician.
Yes, so well known are the medical benefits of circumcision that international medical authorities do all they can to make circumcision universal in East Africa in order to drop the incidence of cervical cancer in women. Yes, it is well known that Jewish women tend to be blessed in this way by having circumcised husbands. There are other benefits for women too.
However, and this is the biggie, if all medical research pointed in the opposite direction, that there are no benefits to circumcision or even that it carries risks or disadvantages, I can assuredly guarantee you that this would make absolutely no difference to us. All our baby boys will still continue to be circumcised by a mohel with the appropriate blessings welcoming him into the covenant of Abraham on the 8th day of their lives. We will simply distrust the medical research in the same way that today we distrust those weak-kneed doctors who have joined the cultural hysteria in encouraging little boys to identify as little girls. We have our source of truth-the Bible, and we don’t measure it by trends and fads. Instead, we measure all we see around us by the incandescent blaze of its transcendent truth.
“We have our source of truth-the Bible, and we don’t measure it by trends and fads. Instead, we measure all we see around us by the incandescent blaze of its transcendent truth.” I really appreciate this statement. May God help us to keep that truth the ultimate guide of our lives.
Your point is well taken, Sir, that whatever the Lord commands shall be done, irrespective of what the physicians say. And indeed it crossed my mind that you might reply as you did. Yet not all medical research is to be distrusted as politicized pseudoscience with an ax to grind, hidden beneath a false cloak of medicine. If my understanding is correct, circumcision benefits not only women, but men as well, as local infections are significantly reduced and cancer of the male organ is virtually unreported in circumcised males. My underlying thought premise ventures one step beyond, and to spell it out I would say something like this: don’t be surprised if advanced medical findings down the road serve to demonstrate that the Lord enacted his covenants with us for our own good, to benefit us in more ways than we can possibly know.
Not Jewish but, born in the USA at a time when circumcision was practically automatic at birth. When our son was born my wife did not want him circumcised and I agreed. We figured, if he wanted it he could do it when he decided to. I wonder why, in the Jewish covenant a person is not allowed to make that decision for himself. It’s reminiscent of the controversy about “transgendering” children rather than letting them decide after they become adults. I guess I just don’t understand how making that decision for a baby makes sense. Who is actually making the covenant? Not the child. And, it’s irreversible. Of course, the Torah says you have to do it, and, if you are Jewish, you don’t get to treat it like a menu and choose only the things you like. And, I’ve found too many things in the revealed writings that, although not making much sense to those to whom they were revealed, have proven over time to be right on, to gainsay the “rightness” of any part I don’t understand. Acceptance seems the safest route. But the questions remain.
Your beautifully written and respectfully phrased letter deserves a worthy answer. The trouble is that you have already given exactly that answer yourself! You see, being an adult parent means being a leader and being a leader means making decisions that those for whom you decide, may not thank you later. They may even vilify you. They may even spend the legacy you bequeath them on therapist fees while they spend years on the couch describing how you ruined their lives. Yes, parenting isn’t for the faint-hearted. We don’t wait till they’re old enough to decide by themselves whether they want to be educated. Instead, if necessary, we force them to learn to read. We don’t wait till they can decide for themselves whether they want to be mannerly and self-disciplined. We teach them that from infancy. Some parents might make the decision to start young children on music, foreign language, or other activities they judge to be in their children’s interest. I think saving a boy from the trauma of having a foreskin removal as an adult counts in that category. As the rabbi of a Los Angeles synagogue attended by many young people raised by ‘counter-culture’ leftists of the 1960s, I had more the privilege several times of helping a young man in his 20s undergo a hospitalize circumcision because his enlightened parents had no idea that he’d grow up to take the Torah seriously. Because of his parents’ reluctance to act like grown ups, they declined to have him circumcised in a simple infant procedure, instead, condemning their son to the traumatic adult procedure. I consider it one of the greatest of God’s many gifts to me that He gave me the privilege of serving as rabbi to so many young people whose dedication to God and His word was such that they willingly and voluntarily underwent this painful entry into the Covenant. You legitimately ask who is actually making the covenant. Like entering any prestigious club, only a full member can bring in new members. Thus there is no alternative to an already circumcised adult male bringing in the newborn infant. He can’t do it for himself any more than I could walk through the door of the New York Yacht Club and initiate myself as a member. Happy to have you as a reader of our work JasB, and hope you, your family, and business enjoy a good 2020
Circumcision is a huge human rights violation. You do not get to practice your religion on someone else’s body! The foreskin serves many functions and the fact that people think they can take this from innocent babies is downright disgusting. Dressing this barbaric procedure in religious language does not change the facts. You have violently torn off a healthy part of a little boy’s body without his consent.
To our readers:
Many of you won’t realize that Abigail, the author of the rather conventional and predictable anti-circ letter above (Abigail, we really do appreciate you writing–thank you!) is actually Jewish herself. She helpfully validates our point that we Jews are both divine and diabolical. Some of our people love God like nobody else and some of us hate Him like nobody else. The strongest hatred of God’s Torah has always come from ‘within the family’ as it were. Almost without exception, American organizations trying to ban circumcision are led by secularized Americans of Jewish ancestry. (Abigail, with respect, that is you) One of the strategies often employed is to try and conflate female genital mutilation practiced by some Moslems, with the ancient Jewish covenant of circumcision also practiced by many American Christians as the author of our Ask the Rabbi this week highlights. By parroting the slogans of today’s secular left such as, human rights, barbaric procedure, without baby’s consent, etc, Abigail reflects the central issue of Chanukah: Are you going to stand for Jewish values as laid out in the Torah, or are you going to sculpt your own values in reflection of the hysterical secularism of popular culture? Abigail helpfully illustrates one side of the Channukah divide while Gina represents the other.
It is also incredibly interesting that many of those secularized Americans of Jewish ancestry who hysterically protest the ‘barbarism’ of circumcising a child too young to consent strenuously support the current craze of encouraging little boys to undergo hormonal and even sometimes irreversible surgical treatment to enable them to pretend to be little girls. They hate God’s Word more than they love little children.
Abigail, I hope you accept my sincerity when I repeat my appreciation that you wrote. This website is all about making ancient Jewish wisdom accessible to all, and little I have written does a better job of teaching the true story of the Channukah struggle than the few lines of your lucid letter. So I do thank you for taking the time to so effectively highlight the disagreement. Wishing you a happy Channukah. I do love all Jews even if I am notoriously inhospitable to all ideas.
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