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Our Tribal Hearts: The Circumcision Tradition

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The baby screamed and screamed and wouldn’t stop. He’d been fed, burped, and swaddled, but the wailing went on. What could it be?

He’d been circumcised that morning, the second morning of his life—but without incident, and hours had passed. What was bothering him now?

Sometimes the simplest solution is the right one: It turned out he’d merely peed in his diaper, and the urine was irritating the site of the circumcision. A quick diaper change, and lo and behold: peaceful, contented infant.

He wasn’t my baby; the decision to have him circumcised had had nothing to do with me. But what if he had been mine? I would feel a strong pull to have my hypothetical son mutilated in this (physically) relatively minor—but culturally and emotionally fraught—way. Why?

The answer: It’s cultural. While I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in supernatural beings, I am Jewish. Unlike other religious groups, we Jews are a tribe—an ethnic group, more or less—independently of our individual religious practices, beliefs, or lack thereof. And the call of the tribe is a loud one.

Cultural practices run deep, and they can influence one’s ethics. Tradition-minded members of tribes that practice female genital mutilation consider it normal, because it’s part of their culture, while in the West we see it as a barbaric form of abuse, an outrage.

Among Jews, Muslims, and many Americans, male circumcision is standard practice. But there is a strong movement opposed to it. The ancient procedure’s health benefits have been shown to be minor at best. Anti-circumcision activists also play up concerns like reduced sensitivity, and make the hard-to-fight comparison with female genital mutilation, which, while certainly more dangerous and harmful, is in one important sense no different: Both are forms of unnecessary mutilation. What justification could there be for imposing any such mutilation on an infant who has no choice?

The answer is culture. It may not be logical, but it’s the fact.

Why are alcoholic beverages legal and marijuana not, even though alcohol damages and destroys many more lives than marijuana does? Culture. Why do most Americans shudder at the idea of eating insects, even though there’s no harm in it and in some parts of the world it seems perfectly natural? Culture.

The circumcision is over; another day has passed; the new baby is already on to his next thing. Before his parents know it, he’ll be a teenager, listening to music they’re almost guaranteed to consider merely noise. Why? Culture.

Medical knowledge advances. Public opinion mutates with every election cycle. But culture is much slower to change. It’s something we feel deep in our souls, because they are linked with the souls of our ancestors, who followed their traditions for generations before us.

So when you witness (or join) the emotionally charged debates about circumcision, remember there’s a force operating that’s more powerful than the emotions of the moment and can even hold its own against the march of science, and that’s the force of tradition and culture. More often than we might like, we’re slaves to it.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Pud Puller

    From the cultural playbook (Genesis 17:11-14)
    “Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.”
    So I guess you better track down your slaves and mutilate them also. Nothing personal, just culture.

  • Tom Tobin

    Welcome to the planet. Now, we’re going to remove half the skin from your genitals, for no reason other than we’ve always done it.
    No wonder the Europeans are convinced we are insane.
    Funny, if you did the same thing to a baby girl, or any other part of a baby boy, it would be a felony. You can’t tattoo them, though it doesn’t destroy anything.
    There are places where tradition makes no sense whatsoever. This is one of them.
    Any man with a foreskin will tell you.

  • Dave Llewellyn

    You have hit the nail on the head. The defense of circumcision has little, if anything, to do with medicine, or even rational thought. It is indeed the pull of the tribe – whether that tribe is religious or only cultural (“American,” “Filipino,”, etc.). But rational thought can overcome even that strong pull. And it is high time that rational thought was applied to such a dangerous and damaging custom. Len Glick’s book, advertised above, makes a strong argument for rejection of the “custom.”

  • http://ColoradoNOCIRC.org Craig

    Female circumcision is illegal. Male newborn circumcision should be too. Female circumcision is done for tradition, religion, and the belief that it’s ‘cleaner’. Sound familiar?

  • G. J.

    It’s been my observation that Jews don’t circumcise because they really WANT to, or because thousands of years of tradition is behind it – no: they do it because as a people, they can’t STOP doing it. Brilliant as they are, they haven’t figured out that G-D doesn’t isn’t really that all that offended by the foreskin, enough to mandate cutting it off. It’s quite the opposite, actually – he invented it. They haven’t been able to admit that causing each other to sacrifice the most pleasurable part of the penis is just not a very bright or respectful way to behave toward each other.

    So they keep circumcising – in order to avoid having a debate. But that won’t stop the non-Jews from rejecting, condemning, and banning the practice.

    The thing is, as far as I know, we’re all human.

  • Hugh7

    It may cause pain at the time, but the benefits in the long term are immense – of not circumcising, that is. If an irrational custom is to end, someone has to make the first move. Fortunately you are already far from alone. Many Americans, Jews and some Muslims are quitely doing nothing to their son’s genitals. That’s all it takes. It used to be customary in Britain and the Commonwealth (in Australia and New Zealand as near-universal as the US), now it’s rare, and hard in many places to find a doctor willing to do it. This happened with no cultural upheaval whatsoever, and no outbreak of any of the diseases circumcision is supposed to be good against.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    A very cogent point, G.J.

  • kf4893

    I don’t consider it culture. I consider culture to be creative and nurturing. Music and math and painting and architecture and gardening (agri-culture) are culture; the costume of a mohel, and the prayers he might say can be considered culture. But the actual cutting: NO. That is ANTI-culture, because it is destructive; it is destroying a part of someone’s body without any regard for that person’s personhood. To call that “culture” is to weaken the word “culture,” dilute it, move in the direction of meaninglessness.

  • kf4893

    Oops! Repost. forgot an “it” in the last sentence.

    I don’t consider it culture. I consider culture to be creative and nurturing. Music and math and painting and architecture and gardening (agri-culture) are culture; the costume of a mohel, and the prayers he might say can be considered culture. But the actual cutting: NO. That is ANTI-culture, because it is destructive; it is destroying a part of someone’s body without any regard for that person’s personhood. To call that “culture” is to weaken the word “culture,” dilute it, move it in the direction of meaninglessness.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I disagree, KF – culture contains everything, positive or negative, sensible or not.