As the discussion around circumcision is gaining momentum and more and more
people, including doctors and philosophers in Europe, publish their opinions, it
is time to bring some balance to the debate. This is of great importance, since
a ban on circumcision, like the one imposed by the court in Cologne, Germany, is
not only deeply offensive to Jews and Muslims, but also based on mistaken
reasoning and a profound misunderstanding of what human beings are all about,
what moves them, and what makes their lives meaningful.
To be truly alive
is only possible when one lives for some supreme goal. The ultimate question is
whether there is anything worth dying for. If the answer is no, then we must ask
ourselves whether there is anything to live for. For most thinking people there
is more to life than physical survival or having a great time. It is about the
exaltation of existence and the ability to hear a perpetual murmur emitted by
the waves beyond the shore of worldliness, which gives us the feeling that life
is of utmost significance. If not for this, we would agree with French
philosopher and novelist Albert Camus, who said that the only serious
philosophical problem is whether or not to commit suicide.
values that surpass our concern for the mundane and many of us are prepared to
make highly uncomfortable and even painful sacrifices for them. It is these
sacrifices that give our lives meaning, a sense of being part of something much
larger than the sum of the components that make up our physical
We ask: What gives us the right to bring a child into a
religious covenant without its consent? How can we commit a child to a lifelong
mission that he may not wish to fulfill? Fair questions indeed. But should we
not really ask a different question, one that many of us do not want to face?
What right do we have to bring a child into the world without giving him a
IS THERE anything more heartless than giving birth to a child
and not letting him know why he lives? What right do we have to throw a child
into this turbulent jungle, filling them with anxieties and uncertainties,
without giving them any clue as to its higher purpose? While Socrates explained
that life without thought is not worth living, Judaism teaches that life without
commitment is no life at all. The dignity of man is in direct proportion to his
obligations. All human beings, Jews and gentiles alike, need to give their
children a strong commitment to a meaningful purpose beyond the mere mundane,
and to more than just the pleasure principle.
To deny our children this
opportunity is to withhold from them real joy, as well as the capability to
withstand major challenges and the opportunity to experience the highest, truest
value of living in this world. Joy is “man’s passage from a less to a greater
perfection,” said Spinoza.
But it is only through hardship and discomfort
that one can achieve such perfection.
Surely the child will always have
the opportunity to reject the mission chosen for him by his parents and replace
it with another calling. Yet, of invaluable importance is the very fact that the
parents made him or her aware that without a mission life is not worth
When we object to circumcision as child mutilation (a description
completely disproportionate to the fact that the small incision, which heals in
hours, takes a few seconds and has no serious consequences) or as denying the
child’s right to autonomy over his body, it seems we are making a valid claim.
Indeed, by what right are we, as parents, allowed to do so? But should we not by
the same token honestly ask ourselves whether we have the right to bring a child
into this world at all? Is that not a much greater injustice than circumcision?
No doubt, even with today’s advanced medical knowledge, many children are
tragically born with all sorts of deformities or illnesses, often crippled and
handicapped for life. Others will suffer at some other stage in life,
contracting illnesses, experiencing violence and even becoming victims of war
and other atrocities.
Has anyone ever asked his or her future child for
consent to be born? Or should we indeed ban all future pregnancies and births,
as we now want to do with circumcision? Subconsciously, we all know we have the
right to bring a child into the world because there is something about life that
overrules all objections against it. If we did not believe this, it would be
completely prohibited to risk bringing a child into the world knowing as we do
how much harm and pain it will most probably encounter.
“To live is like
to love – all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it,” as Samuel
Butler humorously said. Only if we understand that life is of invaluable
importance – and not merely a matter of physical survival – can we live a life
of grand spiritual import. One of the greatest tragedies of modern times is that
millions of people live and die without ever being aware that there is supreme
meaning to their lives.
Closely related to this is the issue of rights
Western society is rights-oriented and secular ethics is
deeply rooted in this. Judaism and, to a certain extent, other religious
denominations are duty-oriented. This is an essential distinction that cuts
across many issues. Judaism does not believe that people own their bodies and
are therefore free to do with them whatever they please.
Judaism and most
monotheistic religions believe that the human body is a loan granted by God who
is the ultimate Owner. Parents, therefore, have the responsibility to give their
children a purpose to life, which must reflect the notion of obligation. For the
same reason, it is not a human right to bring children into the world; it is a
If it is seen as merely a right, what happens when the
rights of the parents clash with those of the child? When parents abort a
healthy fetus because they have the right to do so, are they not violating the
right of the child to be born? The rite of circumcision is the Jews’ way to pass
life’s meaning on to their children by obligating them to fulfill the covenant
entered into by the Jewish people with God, thousands of years ago. It is duty
we talk about, and there is no growth except in the fulfillment of one’s
For Jews, circumcision – the promise to live a life with a great
mission as its guide – is God’s seal imprinted on the human flesh. And it is
only proper that this sign of allegiance be imposed upon the body, for after
all, it is not the soul that needs to make the commitment. The soul is committed
to its Creator. It is the body – the very instrument through which man carries
his soul, his constant companion that can enable him to live a life of nobility
– that makes a vow to compel itself to serve God.
Like a piece of paper
that carries the buying power of a certain dollar amount, the body serves as the
vessel that holds the soul. Just as the symbolic markings on the bill inform us
of the value assigned to it by the treasury department, so too does the “sign”
that parents inscribe on the bodies of their children reveal the greatness of
the souls they house.
Because Judaism strongly believes in action and the
physical – not only in faith and spirituality – the transient act of baptizing
with water is insufficient. Judaism wants the body to be transformed. And if the
body fails to live up to its lofty responsibilities, the physical imprint of the
circumcision serves as a constant reminder of what it means to reside in the
presence of God; it is a testimony to one’s spiritual obligations and
The claim that it may hurt for a moment and interferes with
the child’s self-determination is totally disproportionate to its infinite
spiritual value. The child, from the very beginning of his life, is physically
and symbolically reminded that living a life of higher meaning requires
MEDICAL SCIENCE has not yet determined whether circumcision
reduces or enhances sexual pleasure. Either way, it is remarkable that Jews have
greatly succeeded at sex. As the oldest nation in the world, it has
proportionately more children than any other people. Sex was and is seen as a
commandment by God not only to facilitate having children, but also as a joyful
Pleasure, however, is not a supreme value to which everything
else must yield. It has a place in this world, but it is not the ultimate. That
Judaism requires its followers to circumcise their sons proves the immense
importance it attributes to this rite as a token of the highest level of
dedication to a mission. This, notwithstanding its uncompromising concern for
the human body, as reflected in its total opposition to any other intrusion on
the human body for non-medical reasons; and despite its insistence that
everything must be done to stay physically healthy, and that no unnecessary harm
may be done even to animals.
What is very surprising, as well as very
revealing, is the durability of circumcision among those Jews to whom tradition
no longer plays any major role. They did away with the Sabbath, the dietary
laws, daily prayer and more, but circumcision endured.
It is as if they
agree with the famous arch-critic of Judaism, Baruch Spinoza, who wrote: “The
sign of circumcision is, I think, so important that I could persuade myself that
it alone would preserve the nation forever.”
Jews may reject Judaism, but
the fact that they are circumcised has always reminded them that there are
values to live for far beyond the mundane. It represents a good deal more than
just a religious rite.
A circumcision is an event that exists as a moment
in the past, yet extends into the present. From man’s perspective, circumcision
happens just once; but from God’s perspective, the message conveyed by this act
– the Jewish nation’s unwavering commitment to God – resounds forever. Monuments
of stone may disappear; acts of the spirit will never vanish.
At the time
of circumcision, parents imprint God’s seal on the body of their child, thus
bringing him into the covenant with God. From that moment, the child begins his
journey on the road of commitment to holiness which, although not yet known, is
the most challenging and rewarding mission life can offer – to become a servant
of God and a blessing to all nations.
It may be difficult for some to
understand this, but the crux of the circumcision conflict is whether we are
motivated by human rights or human moral duty. It is even harder to grasp that
circumcision is the secret to the miracle of Jewish survival. What those who
oppose circumcision should never forget is that the attempt to outlaw this rite
may not just make Jewish life nearly impossible, but would probably end all
Jewish existence and its contributions to civilization.
This would be
tragic given that these contributions are grossly disproportionate to its world
population. The remarkable capacity of the Jewish nation to outlive all its
enemies, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians... down to
the Nazis, may quite well be the result of this small, physical intervention. It
takes a few seconds, but it creates eternity.
As Winston Churchill once
said, “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt
the fact that they are beyond any question the most formidable and the most
remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”
The writer, who is
an author and international lecturer, is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in