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For God’s Sake: A Non-Jewish View on the Morality of Circumcision

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The story of Abraham and his son Isaac is well known. Abraham, in a show of devotion to God, reluctantly accedes to a divine command to kill his son as a sacrifice to God and begins preparations to kill the son he loves with his own hands. Think about that for a moment – God, whom the Psalmist describes as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103 – ESV), asks Abraham to kill Isaac whom, as the very beginning of Genesis tells was one “made in the image of God.” What sort of monster is this God that the murder of another child (or young man) is deemed an act of piety?

Of course, those who know the story (which is found in Genesis 22) know that after binding Isaac to the altar – presumably to prevent escape, as this was, after all, not a voluntary act on the youngster’s part – God intervenes through an angel and puts a stop to the proceedings and a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. This last-minute intervention lets God off the hook (somewhat – he did after all command the murder of a young male in His name!) and lets us assume that this is nothing but a test of Abraham’s faith.

Things may not be so simple, however. There is an argument, for example, that ancient Israelites interpreted texts such as Exodus 22:29b as a command that God accepted child sacrifice in certain circumstances. Thankfully, if such child sacrifices did take place (which they probably did) Jews soon rejected such practices – in other words, their theology evolved (it is worth noting that if Jews did ever engage in child sacrifice they were one of many nations and faiths doing so and are in no sense unique).

My point in alluding to the above story is not to engage in a theological debate about the nature of God or whether the diabolical acts ascribed to God in the Torah can in any way be reconciled with a God who is abounding in steadfast love. They can’t – and that is the point.

I am confident that if, for example, the Chief Rabbi of England were to today proclaim that God had commanded him to put to death one of his children as a sign of faith, he would quickly be informed of how ludicrous and immoral such an act would be a multitude of members of his own faith who would also, in the name of Judaism, repudiate any such murderous intent. That Abraham was prepared to murder in the name of his religion in no way mitigates the evil act of intent to murder his own son whilst lashed to an altar unable to escape. Judaism has, in the main, made peace with the idea that God does not command the killing of innocent children, etc. Most would, I suspect, reject categorically the very idea of any such divine command as an actual historical event. God is not, in other words, the moral monster a literal reading of scripture may suggest.

So, why do so many Jews inflict upon their children an act for which there is at least a credible argument amounts to child abuse? That act is, of course, circumcision. I do not for a moment suggest that there is any intentional malfeasance on the part of parents circumcising infant males; the desire to dedicate a child to the faith of its parents and to signal its incorporation into a universal faith is a proper and, some might say honourable one. It is, after all, little different from a common Christian tradition of infant baptism (which, its apologists explicitly link to Judaism’s circumcision). But, the fact remains that circumcision inflicts a physical mark upon its recipient that speaks to a religious identification of the recipient to which they have not at the time of infliction not assented.

Martin Robbins writing in today’s Guardian is forthright on the issue: “Infant circumcision involves performing surgery without consent to permanently alter an individual’s genitals. In many cases this is done without good medical justification; for example, to force the infant to conform to the expectations of a particular religion. Just as we call sex without consent ‘rape’, circumcision without consent or reasonable justification should be called ‘mutilation.’” I agree.

In the book of Genesis we are told that circumcision was commanded by God as a sign of His covenant; interestingly, the failure to do this is described as the fault of the [8 days old] child. Genesis 17:14 states that “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” We are, it seems, back to the God as moral monster scenario – the failure of the an infant to be circumcised is a conscious defect on the part of the infant!

As it happens, along with most Jews, I do not believe God is a moral monster – sharing, as I do as a Christian, much of the same scripture (and a far more ugly legacy of evil actions perpetuated in the name of my faith). Neither however do I believe that God takes any pleasure or delight in the ritual mutilation of infant children, whether it is done in His name or not. It was wrong when Abraham (allegedly) did it; it is also wrong now; that it is done in the name of religion or that it is conducted with pious sincerity and good intent by otherwise good people does nothing to mitigate this. Should the brit milah persist into the 21st century, let it be the voluntary act of a child or man of appropriate age making a rational and religiously meaningful act as sign of his own devotion to his faith and his decision to voluntarily stand subject to a great tradition.

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  • Mark Lyndon

    Not all Jewish people believe in circumcision. Brit Shalom is an alternative naming ceremony to celebrate the birth of baby boys to Jewish families. These sites are all run by Jewish people opposed to circumcision:

  • Casper

    Thanks for the comment and the links – I had wanted to include something on Jewish opposition, perhaps something for another article.

    Does opposition tend towards certain streams of Judaism (e.g., Reform)?


    Those who circumcise cannot find shelter under command of a covenant for an inhuman act. Any act performed by an individual is his moral responsibility alone. It is a relinquishment of his autonomy as a sentient subject to think, feel and reason. A terrible abdication!

  • James Loewen

    “…the desire to dedicate a child to the faith of its parents is a proper, and some might say honourable one.”

    No, I strongly disagree. This very statement is why genital mutilation of children exists.

    Children who are respectfully raised to develop their rational minds are very unlikely to follow blindly into a faith that requires dogmatic beliefs and harmful practices like genital cutting of children.

    That said I much appreciate this article tacking an hideous subject, the genital cutting of children. Its time for this abomination to end.

  • Adam Selene

    As far as God being a moral monster, Commandments #1 and #2 say it all:
    1 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
    2 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.

    Which raises the question: If there is only one God, why is he worried about us worshiping any other Gods? As James T Kirk said it best – “Why does God need a starship?”


    All hinges on the fact that the act of circumcision is inhumane and the responsibility of the perpetrator who must answer for it.
    The concentration guards who committed atrocities were held to account individually
    and were judged and convicted. Some are still being pursued today.

  • Hugh7

    “Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, president of the Dutch Association of Rabbis, said only about 50 male Jewish babies are circumcised in the Netherlands each year.” (Ynet News,September 27, 2011) Today the Dutch Jewish population numbers about 30,000 so if the Jewish birth rate is the same as the national average of 10.23 births/1,000 population, about 307 Jewish children are born annually, about 157 of them boys, so their circumcision rate is less than 32% – lower than goyish circumcision in many states of the USA. Like them, Jews may yet abandon the practice without coercion from outside – but of course, not all at once.

    Contact details for celebrants of Brit Shalom (Brit B’li Milah – Covenant Without Cutting)

  • Adam Selene

    The answer is simple why people perpetrate this act:
    1) Ignorance – people think this good because they are misinformed.
    2) Enjoyment – the circumciser enjoys the psycho sexual power over the victim.

    Occam’s Razor’s. This is a sex crime against infants. The Penn State coach just took showers and he’s headed to the big house for the rest of his life. Maybe the Herpes spreading Mohel of New York should be his bunk mate? Oh yah, back to God. Man was made in his image, but after being born, needs a little “body work”? So is God skinless or not? I assume he is still intact since we are created in his image, but he likes mutilation to make sure we agree to his contracts.

  • VoxInfantorum

    A point well worth making about the 8 day old child being cut off from G*d for [the baby] breaking the Covenant…made between G*d and the parent.
    My guess is that that few Jewish people would impute such cognitive capacity to an 8 day old.
    There is no punishment prescribed for a parent failing to circumcise. Let it grow. Take The Whole Baby Home.