Dear Prime Minister Frederiksen,
Two years ago, in Denmark - a nation with strong democratic and progressive traditions and a proud history of defending Jewish Danes during the darkest days of the Holocaust - a Citizen Initiative passed the 50,000-signature threshold to impel the Folketing (parliament) to consider legislation that would establish 18 as the minimum age at which an individual could undergo non-therapeutic circumcision. Such legislation, if passed, would provide all Danish boys (not just Jewish ones) with the same legal protection against genital cutting that girls in Denmark have had since 2003 and that girls in my own country, the U.S.A., have had since 1996.
In reference to this proposed legislation, you recently issued a statement in which you declared your opposition but in which you also reaffirmed Denmark's solemn promise not to permit persecution of its Jewish citizens ever again. As for that reaffirmation, I welcome it, not only because I oppose antisemitism on principle but because I, myself, am Jewish. Being a member, by birth, of this widely-dispersed ethnic group - one that has had to contend with more than its share of persecution - I have a profound sense of kinship with all other Jews. Accordingly, I look upon an attack against Jews anywhere as an attack against me, personally.
At the same time, that essential part of me that identifies as Jewish also believes that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." As I understand him, what King meant by this is that, if society permits injustice in any one case, it forfeits its moral authority to oppose injustice in every other case. Injustice then achieves a kind of legitimacy and, once it has established this beachhead, we are all threatened by its inevitable encroachment. Every human being, therefore, has a personal stake in the existence of a single, universal standard of justice. Likewise, every human being has a personal stake in combating injustice, wherever it occurs and to whomever it occurs.
I do not regard my Jewish identity and my commitment to the ideal of universal justice as being in any way in conflict. On the contrary, each is intrinsic to the other. I cannot separate the ethics and values that are the core of my Jewishness from my belief in universal justice. Thus, it is not in spite of the fact that I am Jewish but because of it that I believe that every child - no matter who that child is - has a fundamental human right to bodily integrity. That is why I am strongly in favor of legislation that would prohibit non-therapeutic circumcision of anyone below the age of 18.
This brings me to your statement. Though the sentiments expressed in it are noble, they are predicated on several false assumptions. Chief among these is that all Jews practice infant circumcision. That, simply, is not so. Jews around the world - including in Israel - are rejecting forced circumcision in ever-increasing numbers. In 2016, the cultural anthropologist, Leonard B. Glick, estimated that one out of every six Jewish boys born in the United States was being left intact. If anything, this fraction has only increased since then. While the absolute number of Jewish American parents who have rejected this practice may not seem large, when one considers that, at 5.7 million, there are nearly as many Jews living in the United Sates as there are in Israel (6.15 million), Glick's estimate, if even remotely accurate, is highly significant.
Nor is this development attributable merely to the phenomenon of lapsed religious observance. Jews are consciously - and conscientiously - repudiating the practice of inflicting severe pain on their infant sons and irreparably damaging and scarring their penises. But don't take my word for it. Visit Beyond the Bris in order to read, in their own words, the statements of Jews who oppose forced circumcision.
This underscores an even more basic, mistaken assumption on your part; namely, that, whatever the current rate of Jewish circumcision and whatever form it may take in practice, there is something quintessentially Jewish about circumcision - as though Jewishness and circumcision are inseparable. Yet Jews have opposed forced circumcision since it was imposed upon us by fanatical priests during the sixth century BCE (following the Babylonian exile and the Jews' return, 60 years later, from that exile), it was opposed by Hellenistic Jews who desperately tried to undo the damage that had been done to them by resorting to what is now known as "foreskin restoration," it was vigorously debated during the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, and it has been a topic of controversy among Jews throughout the history of our diaspora. As long as Jews have practiced ritual circumcision, there has been intense Jewish opposition to this practice.
You seem to take it for granted, however, that Jewish thought on the practice of male genital cutting is monolithic. By perpetuating this myth in your statement, no matter how honorable your intentions were, you appear to have inadvertently engaged in a bit of Jewish stereotyping of your own: all Jews must think one way because they are Jews.
At the same time, by failing to acknowledge the existence of a vibrant Jewish opposition to male genital cutting, your statement marginalizes and effectively silences those Jewish voices that have been and continue to be raised against the perpetuation of this harmful, inhumane and anachronistic human-rights violation.
It would not be fair, of course, to blame you for your mistaken assumptions. They are understandable given the statements in opposition to this and similar proposed circumcision age-requirements by Jews themselves. The Jewish Press, for example, reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel spoke directly with you in order to thank you for your "steadfast position in defense of the Jewish community and the ancient tradition of circumcision." The Times of Israel quotes Henri Goldstein (president of the Jewish Community in Denmark) as describing the proposed age-requirement as "the worst threat [to Denmark's Jewish citizens] since World War II." When an identical age-requirement was being considered by a committee of the Icelandic Alþingi two years ago, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the ADL, submitted a letter to the committee in opposition to the proposed legislation. (The ADL, or Anti-Defamation League, is an organization that I admire and support but which, unfortunately, has a moral blind spot with respect to male genital cutting.) After falsely (and preposterously) claiming that ritual infant circumcision "is universally practiced by all families who identify as Jewish," Mr. Greenblatt asserted that "Such a ban would mean that no Jewish family could be raised in Iceland, and it is inconceivable that a Jewish community could remain in any country that prohibited brit milah." (Brit milah - literally, the “covenant of circumcision” - is the religious circumcision ceremony.)
What Jewish opponents of the forced circumcision of unconsenting children want you to recognize, Prime Minister, is that Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Greenblatt do not speak for all Jews and they certainly do not speak for us. As I have noted, there is a burgeoning movement within Jewry itself to bring about an end to the harmful and profoundly unethical practice of forced, infant circumcision. The purpose of this open letter is to acquaint you with that movement and to explain why Jewish opposition to forced circumcision is every bit as authentically Jewish, every bit as fundamental to Jewish ethics and every bit as fundamental to the values, principles and meaning of Judaism itself as its defenders claim of brit milah.
This is who Jewish opponents of forced circumcision are and what we believe in: We are men and women who come from different walks of life and different parts of the world but who have two things in common: We identify as Jewish and we are unwavering in our opposition to forced genital cutting. Some of us are secular Jews, identifying as Jewish ethnically and culturally, while some of us are religious Jews for whom Judaism is central to our beliefs and values. Some of us have been subjected to genital cutting and others have not. Some of us were subjected to genital cutting within the context of the brit milah while some of us - primarily those of us who are from the United States - were subjected to it merely because we happen to have been born into a time and place in which male genital cutting had become a medicalized, routine part of childbirth. Those of us who have been subjected to genital cutting maintain not only that we were physically harmed by it but that, in being denied a choice regarding the very configuration of our own bodies, we were deprived of the fundamental human right of bodily autonomy. We emphatically do not reject our Jewishness and those of us who are religious do not reject Judaism. We reject one thing and one thing only: forced circumcision.
Jewish opposition to forced circumcision rests on a variety of ethical and religious bases:
First and foremost is the simple fact that subjecting any child to any form of medically-unnecessary genital-modification surgery violates that child’s fundamental right of bodily integrity. Every child - whether male, female or intersex - has an inalienable right to grow up with the genitals that he, she or they were born with.
Jewish opponents of genital cutting reject the implicit notion that forced circumcision is what makes one Jewish. A Jewish girl is no less Jewish than her brother. And a Jewish boy born to Jewish parents is no less Jewish by virtue of not having had the most sensitive part of his penis cut off. Jewishness is a product of one's genes, one's heritage, one's family life and upbringing, one's values, one's traditions and one's culture.
Jewish opponents of genital cutting also reject the claim that ritual circumcision is essential to the practice of Judaism. More and more religious Jews are replacing the brit milah with the brit shalom (literally, “covenant of peace”), a religious ceremony that serves exactly the same spiritual and communal purposes as the brit milah but without the pain, without the harm, without the blood, without the trauma, without the permanent loss of erotogenic tissue and without the human rights violation.
Nor is genital cutting essential to the survival of Judaism as a cohesive religion. Jewish
women are not subjected to forced circumcision and they are no less
spiritual - nor do they regard themselves as any less beloved by Him (or
Her) whom they believe to be the Creator of the universe - than their
Jewish fathers, brothers, husbands and sons who were. There are also
countless intact Jewish boys and men in the world today. They, too, are neither less spiritual nor
less devout than their Jewish brethren who were subjected
to forced circumcision as neonates. Judaism is the sublime
manifestation of one's spirituality and religious beliefs. To claim that
it is ultimately reducible to nothing more than the size and shape of a penis is not just an affront to Judaism but an utter debasement
My perspective on all this is that of a secular Jew, but I would also like to share with you with the perspective of a deeply religious Jewish woman who has written and lectured extensively on this topic. In her essay, Circumcision: A Jewish Inquiry (Midstream; January 1992), Lisa Braver Moss articulates the many ways in which the brit milah is, in fact, in conflict with fundamental principles of Judaism itself. Ms. Braver Moss notes that all of the arguments against forced circumcision “stem from Jewish principles.”
Concern about . . . babies’ pain echoes the Jewish prohibition against the causing of pain to living things. Opposition to bodily mutilation is based on the Torah’s denunciation of pagan practices such as tattooing and cutting the flesh. Concern for medical risk, too, has roots in halacha (Jewish law): Any medical procedure that involves even the possibility of risk to life is halachically forbidden. And the idea of protecting children’s rights brings to mind the Jewish principle that the poor and weak should be treated equally with the rich and mighty.
It goes without saying that Jewish opponents of forced circumcision reject the assertion that this practice is essential to the continued existence of the Jews as a people. The Jewish people existed long before the advent of neonatal circumcision as a religious mandate, we existed longer still before forced circumcision was expanded into the radical prepucectomy (peri'ah) that is practiced today, and we will continue to exist long after forced circumcision has gone the way of other religious mandates that are no longer followed by the vast majority of Jews (such as post-menstrual ritual bathing), just as we have managed to exist without other now long-discarded and repudiated practices such as polygyny, death by stoning, and slavery.
Still, a recurring alarm sounded by Jewish opponents of this and similar proposed legislation reflects their anxiety that establishing a minimum age of 18 for non-therapeutic circumcision constitutes an existential threat to Judaism and to the Jewish people as a people. Thus, we have hyperbolic statements by Mr. Goldstein that the proposed legislation amounts to “the worst threat since WWII.” Yet, in contrast to this view, many Jewish opponents of genital cutting regard the continued practice of forced circumcision itself as constituting an even greater threat. In my activities as an advocate of the right of bodily autonomy, more than once I have received comments from self-described "former Jews" who, owing entirely to their resentment about what was done to their genitals as infants without their consent, have rejected not just the brit milah but Judaism and even their own Jewishness. Forced circumcision, far from binding these men to their religion and to their people, resulted ultimately in driving them away.
There is every reason to believe that this trend will not only continue but increase. Forced circumcision has, for a long time, been on a collision course with modernity, especially as the world has progressed toward a more universal recognition of fundamental human rights. We are now witnessing that collision and its unfortunate results unfolding in real time. It is no longer possible to reconcile the brit milah with contemporary notions of autonomy and the inviolability of each person's physical boundaries. It is inevitable, therefore, that more and more Jews will be driven away from Judaism and from Jewishness altogether if they are made to feel that their acceptance of forced genital cutting is a non-negotiable condition of remaining within the fold.
In the modern world, then, the risk is growing that the continued subjection of infant Jewish boys to genital cutting will function as a wedge, alienating the Jewish men that these infants become from their families and their communities. At the same time, the social pressure on Jewish parents to subject their infant sons to genital cutting will increasingly function as a wedge between their duty as parents to protect their sons from harm and their sense of loyalty to their fellow Jews. Time and again we learn of the extent to which it is the social pressure on behalf of forced circumcision that is brought to bear on new parents by their parents, relatives or others in their community that is chiefly and ultimately responsible for the perpetuation of this odious practice. One can only guess how many new Jewish parents have been pressured - against their natural maternal and paternal instincts, against their inmost beliefs, and against their better judgment - into subjecting their sons to circumcision. Ms. Braver Moss describes this conflict in recounting her own experience of reluctantly agreeing to having her two sons circumcised.
I had profound doubts about my decision. But because open discussion of Brit Milah seems to be discouraged in the Jewish community, I experienced my doubts privately and without comfort. (I had not yet begun a dialogue with other Jews who question Brit Milah.) Thus, a rite intended to inspire feelings of Jewish unity evoked in me a sense of loss and alienation. In my heart, I don’t believe God wanted me to feel this aloneness, and I don’t believe God wanted me to cause my babies pain.
The personal testimony of Ms. Braver Moss and of Jewish men who object to what was done to their bodies undermines the claims of our fellow Jews, such as Mr. Greenblatt of the ADL, that the effect of an 18-year age-requirement for non-therapeutic circumcision would be to make Jews personae non gratae in any nation that instituted such a reasonable restriction. As I have noted above, when Iceland was considering similar legislation, Mr. Greenblatt claimed that “it is inconceivable that a Jewish community could remain in any country that prohibited brit milah." Yet this assertion completely discounts the thousands upon thousands of Jews who abhor the brit milah and who would gladly raise their families - and would raise them as proudly Jewish - in a country where the forced circumcision of any minor is prohibited by law. The paradox is that, contrary to the supposition that an 18-year age-requirement for non-therapeutic circumcision must necessarily result in an exodus of Jews from Denmark (or from any other forward-thinking nation that institutes a similar restriction), such an age-requirement could just as likely have the opposite effect: an influx of Jews who would be only too happy to raise their families in a country where they are legally fortified in their rejection of any social pressure to subject their children to genital cutting.
If several of the arguments that I have just brought forward are negative arguments - explanations of how an age-requirement of 18 for non-therapeutic circumcision would not constitute the existential threat to Judaism and to the Jewish people that some would have you believe - there is also a powerful affirmative argument against forced circumcision that is intrinsic to Jewish ethics. Jewish efforts to bring about the end of ritual circumcision and all non-therapeutic genital cutting are guided by the concept of tikkun olam (literally, “repairing the world”). This concept, which goes back at least to the third century CE and appears in the Mishnah (a compendium of rabbinic teaching, law and other Jewish oral traditions that began to be set down in writing following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) means, in essence, that Jews have an obligation to work for social- and universal justice. That means that we are obligated to defend fundamental human rights. And because there is no right that is more fundamental than the rights of bodily integrity and bodily autonomy, Jews who take seriously the moral imperative of tikkun olam must oppose any practice that entails the ritual or customary cutting, partial excision or scarring of any child's genitals. That is why we oppose all forms of genital cutting, no matter who is subjected to it, and why we feel obligated to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. This, of course, includes infant Jewish boys. After all, how can we claim to support universal human rights while denying those rights to our own sons? This is also why, as I observed about myself at the beginning of this letter, our active opposition to forced circumcision exists not in spite of our Jewish beliefs and values but because of them.
It is inevitable, of course, that proposals to establish a minimum age of 18 for non-therapeutic circumcision are met with the argument that such a restriction would constitute an intolerable abridgment of the freedom of individuals and minority communities to practice their religion. However, the right to subject an infant or child to ritual genital cutting is most emphatically not a right that is encompassed by the right to practice one’s religion. While the freedom to believe (or not to believe, for that matter) is fundamental and illimitable, it does not follow that the freedom to act is likewise illimitable. It should be obvious that the freedom to practice one's religion does not include acts that harm others. Even if the right to practice one's religion may be regarded as fundamental, that right is still circumscribed by every other person’s even-more-fundamental right not to be physically harmed. Exceptions to this bedrock foundation of human rights should not be made for any religion, including ours. Nor, in this day and age, should this be considered a radical or even a controversial position, let alone an antisemitic one. On the contrary, this view of the balance between the religious freedom of one person and the bodily autonomy of another simply reflects contemporary norms regarding fundamental human rights and human dignity. No one has a right to cut, maim, scar or mutilate any part of any child’s body for religious or cultural reasons. The only person who has a right to cause his genitals to be permanently altered is the individual himself.
I understand the social context (and appreciate the good intentions) in which your opposition to the proposed legislation is engendered. I assure you, Jews do not need to be reminded of the history of antisemitism and the persecution of our ancestors throughout so much of European history. It is well known that that persecution manifested itself in circumcision prohibitions in generations past and that, when these earlier prohibitions were enacted, they were part of explicitly antisemitic government programs. It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that one may hear - or think one hears - ominous echoes of Europe's dark antisemitic past in the current effort to prohibit the forced circumcision of minors. This is especially the case given the alarming resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia and antisemitism that has occurred on both sides of the Atlantic during the past several years.
But circumcision prohibitions from past centuries that were explicitly anti-Jewish in design are fundamentally different from the current worldwide effort to ban all involuntary genital cutting which, it cannot be emphasized too strongly, includes not only Jewish children but all children, and not only boys but also girls and intersex children. The proposed 18-year circumcision age-requirement, therefore, should not be seen as an attack on Jews but simply as the inevitable and logical conclusion of increasingly universal standards regarding human rights and children's rights, particularly as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948) and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and ratified by Denmark in 1991) - and specifically as articulated in Article 37, part a of the latter which states that "No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." An 18-year non-therapeutic-circumcision age-restriction would merely constitute the long-overdue inclusion of boys - including Jewish ones - within the protective ambit of the already-existing legal framework under which female genital cutting has been banned in Denmark and throughout much of the world.
It should also be remembered that the object of the proposed legislation is not to prohibit circumcision. It is to prohibit forced circumcision. There is nothing in the proposed text of the legislation that would prevent anyone, once he is of an age at which he can make well-considered, volitional decisions about his own body, from choosing circumcision for himself for whatever reason he may have. Any adult capable of exercising informed consent has a right, consistent with the principle of autonomy and self-determination, to have his body altered in accordance with his own beliefs and values, whether these beliefs have their origin in religion or anything else. And this is exactly as it should be: it is his body and that is why it must be his choice.
I began this open letter by stating that one of my objectives was to acquaint you with the fact that there is a sizable and growing movement of Jews (and, thankfully, plenty of others) that seeks to end all forced genital cutting. Another of my objectives was, of course, to add my own voice - as a Jewish man and as someone who was subjected to genital cutting without his consent - to the swell of opposition to the practice of forced circumcision.
Above all, my purpose in this letter is to admonish you, with all due respect, that, no matter how noble your intentions were, because your statement was issued ostensibly to express your opposition to the eminently reasonable and commonsense 18-year age-requirement for non-therapeutic circumcision that the Folketing has now been charged with considering, it is not so much a statement of solidarity with the Jewish people as it is a statement in support of an anachronistic and harmful practice that is opposed by many Jews themselves. By aligning yourself exclusively with those Jews who support forced circumcision, you are, at the same time, aligning yourself against the many Jews who oppose it. And, it goes without saying, you are aligning yourself against those children - Jewish and non-Jewish, alike - who are victimized by it.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *