My (inadequate) justification for circumcision: A reply to Larry Derfner

This morning we went to the beach. Three couples with four kids, all of them boys, all under the age of two. The conversation drifted to circumcision: one couple spared it from their kid, the other two – including us – didn’t.

Following a German verdict against circumcision, Larry Derfner writes:

I am somewhat ashamed that I was willing to put my infant boys at risk, that I was willing to put them through such severe pain, for fear that if I didn’t, it would mean they weren’t Jewish and it would be my responsibility.

I admit that I haven’t given circumcision much thought. If I did, perhaps I would have reached the conclusion that my friends reached. But here are my two cents: I am not sure that this is an issue of “being Jewish,” as Larry writes, but more of a public norm. Almost every Jewish boy in Israel is circumcised. The first thought that comes to my mind when dealing with this question has to do with all the explaining my boy would have to do regarding my decision, if indeed I had chosen to avoid the Brith. Would he decide to avoid public changing rooms? Would he skip the pool? Would it make him feel too different?

Curiously, among the friends at the beach today, the ones that decided against circumcision was also the only married couple. In my social circles, marriage is no big deal, and people my age don’t even bother to fly to Cyprus to avoid religious weddings, as many Israelis do. A decade ago it might have been different, but the norm has changed. The same goes for circumcision. I am pretty sure that if thirty percent of Israeli Jews weren’t circumcising their sons, a larger group would follow suit – including in more conservative circles (though maybe not in religious ones).

It’s no secret that we value social norms more than we value our bodies, especially in a society as intimate and conformist as Israel’s. The fear of isolating our sons is greater than the fear of what – I can’t deny – is a pretty barbaric ritual.