When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People

When I encounter the argument often made by the new Atheists that religion makes otherwise moral people do immoral things, I typically respond by pointing out that this is an oversimplification. Complex systems of thought like religion are at least as much a reflection of human nature as they are constitutive of it. Nevertheless, when I read articles like Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s, A Moral Case for Brit Milah, I am forced to concede that there may be some truth to the argument.

In the interests of full disclosure, Rabbi Yanklowitz is a member of one of the Jewish communities that I belong to here in Los Angeles and I have a cordial relationship with him. He is the founder of Uri L’Tzedek, a wonderful Jewish group that is devoted to social justice issues. This is remarkable in so far as Orthodox Jews have historically not been as involved with social justice as Jews from the more Liberal movements. Rabbi Yanklowitz’s commitment to both Orthodoxy and progressive causes makes him something of a rare bird, which demonstrates a moral courage and awareness that few Orthodox Rabbis can manage. And yet, here he is trying to defend the indefensible.

Yanklowitz begins his article by declaring that he is someone who believes that mitzvot, religious commandments, have an ethical foundation. Taken literally, this statement is obviously false. There are a number of commandments that historically required Jews to commit acts of genocide and there are many other ethical problems with the structure of Jewish law (the status of women comes to mind as an obvious example). But the rabbi should not be taken literally here. What he means by this statement is two things. First, that he is not a fundamentalist, because he believes that human agency is a necessary part of religious interpretation and practice. Second, in his personal hermeneutics, ethics play an important role in shaping religious interpretation and practice. The rub, of course, is how one deals with situations in which morality conflicts with the Jewish tradition. Circumcision is an apparent, and I argue actual, instance of such a conflict. Yanklowitz seems to be trying to argue here that circumcision is not such an instance. Let’s examine his argument point by point.

1. Health

“Is it fair to avoid giving a boy protection when it is available? It’s not only Jewish law to maintain one’s health but also Jews should serve as a model for this important health practice.”

The health case for circumcision is incredibly flimsy. It is true that many in the American sphere of influence believe that male circumcision reduces the risk of certain kinds of diseases, but they are the exception in the world. Having extensively studied the literature and interviewed many experts on the subject, it is my opinion that male circumcision is a cultural practice masquerading as medicine. But even if I’m wrong and it turns out that there is incontrovertible evidence suggesting some health advantages to being circumcised, this is insufficient to recommend the practice. One could imagine all sorts of amputations that might confer “health benefits”. If we routinely amputated one breast from all women living in the United States, we could reduce the incidence of breast cancer in this country by a substantial amount. But it would be ludicrous to even suggest such a course of action. Merely demonstrating potential health benefits(which no one has yet done to my satisfaction with circumcision) is not sufficient in deciding whether or not to cut away healthy, functional body parts. Other factors must be weighed. All surgeries incur risks. And when we’re talking about an elective procedure on pre-autonomous individuals, the tolerance for risk should be very low. The UK dropped the practice of circumcision shortly after World War II when it was discovered that 16 out of every 100,000 boys circumcised were dying from related complications. 

2. Sexual Morality

“For centuries many have claimed that the removal of the foreskin reduces male sexual pleasure...Many empirical studies have put this into question...Perhaps circumcision can serve as a sacred reminder for men, in our over-sexualized world, to cultivate self control.”

Yanklowitz gets his facts wrong here. As it turns out, Maimonides and Philo had it right. The foreskin is the most erogenous part of the penis. It contains a higher concentration of nerve endings than any other part of the body and it provides a gliding mechanism that makes sex more comfortable for both partners. But beyond this empirical misstatement, the notion that circumcising an 8 day old baby reminds anyone of anything is absurd. If you’re thinking about sex while watching a Brit Milah, your problems may extend beyond self-control. Not to mention the fact that there is a deep form of sexism inherent in this understanding of the practice. If sexual restraint is something that we need to be reminded of at all (a dubious claim in and of itself), why is it that only men need to be reminded and not women?

 3. Utilitarian 

“If an uncircumcised man chooses to have the procedure done later in life, it will be much more painful (even with anesthesia) and dangerous than it would be for a newborn. It is the responsibility of parents to shield their children from unnecessary pain.” 

Once again, the facts are wrong. Circumcision is an excruciatingly painful experience for infants. The vast majority of ritual circumcisions are performed without any form of anesthetic during, or pain management after the procedure. Moreover, because the penis isn’t fully developed at infancy, the first step of circumcision is to tear apart the foreskin from the glans. Furthermore, the notion that circumcision is more dangerous for adults is patently false. Infants are much more susceptible to infectious disease than adults and they have much less tolerance for blood loss. On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more with the last sentence. It is the responsibility of parents to shield their children from unnecessary pain. And circumcision is the definition of unnecessary pain.

4. Parental Values & Social Acceptance

“Parents make health- and aesthetics-related value choices that affect their children’s bodies all the time. Should their child be vaccinated, receive orthodontia, get his or her ears pierced...Not circumcising a Jewish boy may hinder his social acceptance and his chances of finding a Jewish spouse.”

It is true that parents make many decisions for their children, but it does not follow that these decisions are immune from moral scrutiny. Some parenting decisions are morally neutral, some are right and some are wrong. Medically unnecessary permanent body-modifications are wrong, because they represent a failure to respect the future autonomy of the child. This includes ear piercing, although the pain, harm, and risk involved in that modification are far less severe than that of male circumcision. The second statement is the old argument from shame. As the philosopher Raja Halwani said so brilliantly in my film, Cut, arguments from shame turn on whether or not the shame is merited. Indeed, raising a child as an Orthodox Jew in the modern world may incur shame at some point in his or her life. The question is whether a person should feel shame for having an intact penis, or being an Orthodox Jew. I think it’s clear that the potential shame in either situation is unmerited and therefore not a moral argument for circumcision, or against Orthodox Judaism.

In the 5th and 6th points (“Modesty” and “Symbolic Reminder”) Yanklowitz is just rephrasing the point that he made in “Sexual Morality” so I will not address them here. But it is worth noting that Yanklowitz dips into more of the sexism that was hinted at in the sexual morality section. 

I believe that the motivation behind Rabbi Yanklowitz’s attempts to justify Brit Milah comes from a good place. Indeed, he has shown himself to be a man of courage in other areas of moral concern. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that he is proving the new Atheists right here. By allowing the weight of tradition to cloud his moral judgment on this issue, Yanklowitz, an otherwise morally courageous individual, is promoting an immoral practice. As I have shown in the above analysis, the arguments made here for circumcision are flimsy and confused. Brit Milah embodies a conflict between the Jewish tradition and ethics that is seen across many areas of Jewish interpretation and practice. How we negotiate these conflicts defines who we are both as Jews and as human beings. The first step towards recovery is realizing you have a problem. Shmuly, we have a problem.