July 10th, 2012

Why do Jews circumcise their children?

Dossier of the Central Council of Jews in Germany on the issue of circumcision

The basis for Jews to circumcise their sons is found in the bible (Genesis 17, 10-14), where it says: "This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised".
The circumcision of newborn Jewish boys belongs to the essence of Judaism, it marks the entry into the Jewish community and symbolises the ties between God and Abraham and between God and the Jews. The command is compulsory for Jews.
Circumcision is also practised by secular Jews and connects Jews of all tendencies, from orthodox to reform, with another. It is not only a tradition but a central part of the Jewish identity. It is of essential significance and constitutive for being a Jew.
Circumcision counts as one of the most important commandments in Judaism and even outweighs the commandments of the highest Jewish feast days, Shabbat and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), on which certain activities may not be carried out.
Even during the Nazi era, when circumcision was a sign of belonging to Judaism and could be a death sentence, Jewish boys were still circumcised: it was even carried out in Nazi labour camps. To abolish circumcision in Judaism is not under any circumstances conceivable.

What actually happens during circumcision?

Circumcision is one of the most common surgical operations carried out worldwide. Here the foreskin is removed from the penis with a scalpel. The blood issuing from the wound is then removed.

Is the baby anaesthetized before being circumcised?

There is nothing against the child being given a local anaesthetic. As a rule a baby is not put under a full anaesthetic and this is not recommended since a full anaesthetic could damage the child's body and it would be less easy for the baby to cope with.

Does circumcision have any harmful effects on health? Does circumcision also have any benefits?

No, circumcision does not have a harmful effect on health – on the contrary! Removing the foreskin reduces the risk of bacteria settling. As early as 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAID) reached the conclusion that male circumcision without doubt significantly reduces the risk of becoming infected by AIDS. Several studies have proved that male circumcision reduces the risk of passing on AIDS from woman to man by 60 to 70% (see WHO, Manual for early infant male circumcision under local anaesthesia, 2010, p.6). In 2007 the WHO consequently generally recommended circumcision as a preventative measure against infection with HIV.
Also the risk of becoming infected with other sexually transferred diseases, such as genital herpes (HSV) and the human papillomavirus, which in turn can cause cervical cancer in women, is reduced by circumcision. In addition the risk of contracting urinary tract infections, phimosis,cancer of the penis and inflammation of the foreskin and glans penis is reduced. It could also be proven that the circumcision has no negative effect on the sexual functioning of a man or on satisfying the sexual partner (see WHO, Manual for early infant male circumcision under local anaesthesia, 2010, p.6).

How widespread is male circumcision?

According to estimates by the WHO in 2007 some 30% of men world wide are circumcised. The phenomenon is widespread in the USA and the Far East. In this connection comments are
occasionally made on the fact that the current discussion on circumcision is "Eurocentric" (Hans Michael Heinig).

Is male circumcision comparable with female genital circumcision?

No. It is a relatively minor operation that is performed on male infants. Circumcision of women, on the other hand, is an instrument of suppression, which causes massive physical and psychological damage and reduces sexual sensitivity. One should not overlook the fact that circumcision of a woman is not based on religious reasons but on cultural traditions and myths.

Is circumcision mutilation of the genitals?

No. The genitals are still fully functional and not affected at all. In addition, according to Heiner Bielefeldt, special rapporteur for freedom for religion and weltanschauung to the UN Human Rights Council "there has been no single decision of the UNO Convention on Rights of a Child that says that the practice as such is against the Convention, consequently that the practice as such violates the rights of a person." The operation is not so serious for the word "mutilation" to be appropriate. If male circumcision was genital mutilation the World Health Organization would have not expressly recommended circumcision.

The German association „Support for Children "Deutsche Kinderhilfe e.V." states that Germany has ratified the UN 'Convention on Rights of a Child, article 24 of which reads: "The member states will take all effective and suitable measures to abolish traditional customs that harm the health a child". What does that mean?

The UNO Convention on Rights of a Child rightly emphasizes that all customs that harm the health of a child will be abolished. Circumcision, however, does not harm the child in any way. On the contrary, it actually benefits their health. Furthermore it reduces the risk of possible psychological pressure and stigmatization within the peer group that can happen when a boy has not been circumcised.

Why is aesthetic surgery allowed but not circumcision?

In the case of such operations there is often a medical reason – i.e. a psychological one. The child could be teased and at worst bullied, so that there would be psychological grounds for aesthetic surgery. The same can be applied to circumcision – uncircumcised children could suffer and be stigmatized by their peers.

What is the significance of freedom of religion (and of the right to determine religion oneself) and of the right of a child to physical integrity. What role does the right of parents play?

Article 4 (1) and (2) Basic Law guarantee freedom of religious confession and the guarantee of unhindered practice of religion. A ban on circumcision, however, infringes upon this freedom. Article 6 (2) Basic Law guarantees the parents the right to care for and bring up their children. Exercising the right of custody in accordance with § 1626 (1) Federal Gazette also includs the integration of religious ideas and observing religious commandments when bringing up children. Freedom of religion and practicing it is consequently an element of the parent's exercising of the right of custody as defined by § 1626 (1) BGB (see Edward Schramm, Marriage and Family in criminal law, Tübingen, 2011 p.226).
Compared to this is Article 2 (2) Basic Law, according to which every person has the right to physical integrity. It is only possible to interfere in this right on the basis of a law. It is, however, difficult to balance freedom of religion against the basic rights of the child. "For putting this into practice the child is always dependent on the decisions of its parents". The
fact that this is the prior right of the parents is a clear decision of our constitution", said the Münster jurisprudence expert Bijan Fateh-Moghadam.Thus the right of the parents is also the right to initially decide on the religion of the children.
The Tübingen criminal law specialist Edward Schramm states in this context: "Exercising freedom of religion (Article 4 (2) Basic Law) in the framework of exercising parental care (Article 6 (2) Basic Law) carries more weight than the general personal right of the child affected by the iperation(Article 2 (2) Basic Law in conjunction with Article 1 Basic Law) and the physical integrity of the boy affected by the circumcision. The consent to a religiously motivated circumcision of a male child or minor does not constitute a danger to the child and thus no violation of the parents' right of child custody; this is why it develops a justifying effect if circumcision is furthermore carried out lege artis and circumcision in childhood forms a central moment of the practice of religion." (Edward Schramm, Marriage and Family in Criminal Law, Tübingen 2011, p.229). Hans Michael Heinig, Professor for Public Law and law of the state church, criticizes in a similar sense the judgement of the Cologne Regional Court: If the court accepts that circumcision does not appertain to the child's well-being it is expressing "the spiritual home of your children in Judaism is not in the interests of your child but a criminal act" and that turns the basic idea of freedom of religion and the parents' rights upside down.

Can circumcision not be delayed until a person comes of age?

No. It is explicitly specified in Judaism that a male infant has to be circumcised on their eighth day of life unless health reasons speak against this. The WHO came to the conclusion that circumcision in the first two months of life is more easily carried out and causes less pain and fewer complications than in older boys or men; since the penis has not developed far and the foreskin is thinner this promotes quicker healing and the cut does not as a rule need to be stitched. The procedure is also not hampered by possible erections and the cut heals before sexual activities occur. Early circumcision also reduces the risk of a baby suffering from urinary tract infections in its first six months of life (see WHO, Manual for early infant male circumcision under local anaesthesia, 2010, p.4 f.).
Making circumcision dependent on reaching religious majority (at 14) would contradict the constitutionally protected right to freely practice religion in the context of care of parents and would constitute a massive interference in religious freedom and the right of parents (Hans Michael Heinig).
The reference to the child's right to self determination is also rather far-fetched. The child's right to determination is restricted in many respects. Parents make many decisions which form the children: "One must beware of the idea that there are 18 years of neutrality when bringing up a child and after his or her 18th birthday the child who is now an adult can freely decide on their life, irrespective of what happened or did not happen earlier", say Professor Dr Michael Bongardt, theologian, philosopher and head of the Institute for Comparative Ethics

Can a circumcised man change his religion?

In giving the reasons for the judgement the Cologne judges write that "the body of a child is permanently and irreparably altered by the circumcision" and this change "runs counter to the interests of the child to later be able to determine to which religion to belong". It is not possible to understand this conclusion. Why should a circumcised child not later be able to decide which religion they want to belong to? In addition there is no religion that a man could not join if or because he is circumcised. Incidentally, Jesus Christ was also circumcised as a child – and as we know he later gave rise to a new religion.

What implications would a ban on circumcision have?

The Tübingen expert on criminal law Edward Schramm gets to the heart of the matter: "If the circumcision of their children […] were banned under criminal law […] they would be legally discriminated against due to their faith and be criminalized at a central moment of practicing their religion. Banning under (criminal) law Jews or Muslim parents from circumcising a boy would then actually mean: your son may not be Jewish, your son may not be Muslim until he comes of age." (Edward Schramm, Marriage and Family in Criminal Law, Tübingen 2011, p.229):

Is circumcision now banned? Must we Jewish parents now refrain from circumcising our son?

No. The judgement by the Cologne Regional Court has no binding effect on other criminal courts. There have also been different court decisions and opinions in legal literature that permit circumcision and consider parental consent to be adequate. In addition the judgement by the Cologne Regional Court expressly negated the offence of serious bodily harm when circumcision is carried out by a specialist. In a statement from the German Bundestag's Scientific Research Department it reads: "The subsequent remaining simple physical injury (§ 223 StGB) is pursued – if the Public Prosecutor's Office does not affirm the particular public interest – only in the case of a criminal complaint (§ 230 (1) StGB). There should, therefore, be no reason to fear that as a result of the judgement the Public Prosecutor's Office would now ex officio have to widely investigate Muslim or Jewish circles for carrying out circumcisions."
There is, consequently, no reason for parents, mohalim or doctors to abstain from circumcision until a binding decision by the Federal Court of Justice or the Federal Constitutional Court.

The legal expert, Holm, Putzke, who was instrumental in starting the discussion on circumcision, says that there are also Israelis who, "despite belonging to the Jewish religion have refrained from circumcising infants and want to wait until their child is in a position to decide for itself. Whenever it is a case of pretending, as by the Central Council of Jews, that religious circumcision is indispensable and undisputed in Judaism, then it is only part of the truth."

Judaism is not a dogmatic religion, there are naturally people who see and do some things differently and they are free to do this. Religious freedom is also freedom from the religion. Circumcision, however, is an unalterable command in Judaism; an individual opinion does not change this. There are also anti-Semitic Jews, nevertheless anti-Semitism is an indisputable threat to Jews.

Must a modern society tolerate religiously motivated circumcision?

Yes, our society with all its differences depends on a high degree of tolerance by its members. In a strictly philosophical sense tolerance means: I accept something that I, from my own point of view, for good reason consider wrong. This means also that people who consider the ritual of circumcision wrong or antiquated have to ask themselves whether their reasons are so serious that they cannot accept other people adhering to this custom. Nobody is demanding that anybody who does not think circumcision is good has to change their opinion. "This only concerns the question of tolerance", says Professor Dr Michael Bongardt, theologian, philosopher and head of the Institute for Comparative Ethics. One should not forget that in history the fight against circumcision was a way of repressing Jews and Jewish customs since banning circumcision is an attack on a fundamental commandment of Judaism and it puts Judaism at risk and challenges it.

Why do Jews circumcise their children? (pdf file)