You hear a term like brit milah, and immediately you’re probably thinking First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Merely the sound of the term makes it seems like such a respectable religious practice that you might not think twice when you get an invitation from a friend to come celebrate his son’s brit milah, as if the ritualized sexual torture of children should naturally come with a catered lunch. But look straight on at what a violent violation “circumcision” really is — rabbis huddled around a defenseless, crying baby as a mohel yanks at his penis, then slices flesh from his genitals — and quickly your mind turns to the Eighth Amendment: no “cruel and unusual punishments [shall be] inflicted.”
Donald Trump wants to build a wall between us and the Mexicans. Fine. I want to build a wall between the violence at the heart of Jewish law and the human rights of America’s children. Perhaps the First Amendment was supposed to be that wall, a carefully constructed separation between temple and state. But right now, with the police and courts failing to enforce that separation as needed, the Amendment is proving woefully inadequate.
One reason why is the heavy influence of Jews on American culture. There are 5.7 million Jews in America,2 and in 2011 alone, the last date for which there are readily available figures, there were more than 1.1 million genital mutilations in America’s hospitals.3 The mutilations are currently America’s most common surgical procedure.
We should note, for context, that this form of ritualized cruelty is not just an American problem; it’s a global human rights crisis. 665 million men worldwide have been victimized, 30% of all males on Earth, according to the World Health Organization.4 Most of those nations are in the Third World; most of the so-called First World nations either never practiced male genital mutilation or have caught on to its immorality and medical uselessness. Sadly, among industrialized nations, the U.S. remains an outlier, with the highest rate of male genital mutilations in the industrialized world.5
Why Do They Do It?
So why are so many American Jews doing this to their children? The answer, as I’m sure you could guess, is pretty straightforward: “Because God said so.” In the first book of the Old Testament, the divine voice commands the Jewish people: “[E]very male among you ... shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11). The Jewish scripture returns to this commandment in Exodus, declaring that “[Those who want] to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised ... No uncircumcised male may eat” (Exodus 12:48). Even the first Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 14:6), amid its larger tale of Jews at war, pauses to deride uncircumcised men and emphasize God’s animosity for them: “Jonathan said to the young man that bare his armor, ‘Come, let us go over unto the garrison of these arelim,” a derogatory term for uncircumcised men. “It may be that the Lord will work for us: for there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few.” The message is clear: God values the lives of the uncircumcised so little, He is ready to kill them without further provocation to benefit those who heed His commandment to slice their children’s genitals.
But it is Genesis 17:14 that most explicitly lays out the dire consequences of failing to observe God’s demand for young blood. “[Any] male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant,” explains the holy text. Jewish law elucidates these consequences in horrifying detail. As detailed in the seventh tractate of the Kodashim, the fifth order of the Mishnah, this “cutting off,” known as kareth (כרת), goes far beyond social expulsion, an Amish-like shunning. Kareth also requires the extinction of the child’s soul and the denial of his opportunity to enter the next world, an eternal punishment.
Alleged Medical Benefits
What about secular Jews? No doubt, there are millions of “Seinfeld” Jews out there who dismiss these ancient myths and eternal punishments with a derisive laugh but mutilate their children anyway because of the health benefits. There are health benefits, right?
You might think so after the stream of horrifically flawed medical reporting in the last few years, most prominently health reporter Nicholas Bakalar’s April 2014 piece in the New York Times, “Circumcision Benefits Outweighs Risks, Study Report.” The article regurgitates the findings of a sloppily structured circumcision study published in the prestigious Mayo Clinic Proceedings.6 Bakalar highlights three main “health benefits”: a decrease in urinary tract infections (UTIs), a decrease in the rate of penile cancer, and a decrease in the rate of STD transmission. All three seem like significant, legitimate benefits. But look closer and their benefits simply evaporate.
Consider UTIs. A decrease in the rate of UTIs seems like a serious benefit, until one learns that UTIs are stunningly rare, even in uncircumcised babies. Only 0.7% of uncircumcised babies get UTIs, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).7 And in those rare cases when they do, they’re easily treated with antibiotics.
Penile cancer is even rarer and even tamer. It occurs in only 0.07% of all males, circumcised or not, according to the CDC. And in those rare times when it does occurs, it’s almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV),8 for which there is a readily available vaccine.
We must ask then: Is it sound medicine to chop off a child’s genitals to prevent a rare infection that’s easily treatable with antibiotics or ward off an even rarer cancer that’s fully preventable with a vaccine? Given this information, how could mutilating a baby’s genitals possibly be seen as a sound medical decision? Following such mangled logic, we would be wise to applaud the religious citizen who chops off a youth’s nose9 in order to prevent skin cancer of the nose, a malady that happens to be far more likely and far more deadly than either UTIs or penile cancer.
As for the alleged decrease in STD transmission, that claim appears to be mere magical thinking, a bizarre American wish not borne out by the global data. Genital mutilation does not curb HIV transmission.10 In fact, STD rates are higher in U.S., where this violent ritual is very common, than in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, three nations with miniscule Jewish populations and virtually nonexistent rates of circumcision.
Offering up your son for a traditional brit milah actually puts him at risk of contracting an STD. That’s because of metzitzah b'peh, an obscene element of the abuse ritual in which the mohel, after slicing the baby’s flesh, sucks the baby’s bleeding penis. When a sexually reckless mohel becomes a carrier of herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), a virus of the mouth and throat, he can easily transmit the virus to the young victim, leaving the eight-day-old baby with a sexually transmitted disease. For newborns without a fully developed immune system, HSV-1 is almost always fatal, according to Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University.11
For those newborns who do survive mitzitzah b'peh, the horror of that abuse lingers for a lifetime. Fewer than 20% of those who survive develop normally, according to a 2009 New England Journal of Medicine study.12
In America alone, male genital mutilation causes 117 deaths every year, all of them completely unnecessary. One out of every 77 male newborn deaths is due to ritualized genital mutilation.13
The Wall Is Already Here
Once we acknowledge that there are no legitimate medical benefits to this violent tradition, should we allow it to continue simply because it has continued before? Of course not. Children’s author Lemony Snicket explicates my objection to such interminable irrationality in his recent bestseller The Blank Book. “Just because something is traditional,” he writes, “is no reason to do it.” Or, I would add, to respect it. Or for the state to declare it legal.
Once we grasp that “circumcision” truly is medically meritless abuse cloaked in tradition, we can at last address our original question: Where is our nation’s legal wall, the one designed to protect our children’s human rights from the barbarity demanded by Jewish law? A close look at federal law reveals that, amazingly enough, that desperately needed wall has already been constructed; the statutes to guard our young are already on the books. Those statutes include aggravated sexual abuse (18 U.S.C. § 2241), sexual abuse of a minor (18 U.S.C. § 2243), abusive sexual contact (18 U.S.C. § 2244), repeat sexual offenders (18 U.S.C. § 2247), and sexual exploitation of children (18 U.S.C. § 2251).
Our fair state of Tennessee hasn’t abandoned our children either. On the state’s books you’ll find aggravated sexual battery (TN Criminal Code 39-13-504) and assault with a deadly weapon (TN Criminal Code 39-13-102). Examine the text of these statutes and you’ll see, these laws clearly apply to brit milah.
Take the text of Tennessee’s aggravated sexual battery statute14 and as you read the words, ask yourself whether these criminal elements remind you of any long-running Jewish tradition: “unlawful sexual contact” with a victim accompanied by any of the following circumstances: (1) an actor “armed with a weapon”; (2) who “causes bodily injury”; (3) to “one or more” persons; (A) using “force or coercion”; (B) on a victim who is “physically helpless”; and (4) “less than 13 years of age.” Like rape, aggravated sexual battery is a Class B felony in Tennessee. Penalties for the crime include a fine of up to $25,000 and between 8 to 30 years in prison.15
To me, the applicability of these state and federal laws is quite clear, a fact in ink that’s not diminished by our government’s current refusal to apply these statutes to combat brit milah. If the culture changes, if awareness spreads and the ritual’s brutality and medical irrationality become universally acknowledged, the state and federal governments could easily shift course. The laws are already there.
The government has already shown a willingness to punish Jewish violence that violates American law, despite that violence’s acceptability under Jewish law. In New York, for example, the government arrested and imprisoned Rabbi Mendel Epstein, the get-getting thug who beat up stubborn husbands who refused to grant their wives a traditional divorce. In December, Epstein was sentenced to 10 years in prison.16 And that was for a bit of violence that, as Epstein bragged to an undercover agent, aimed to be so delicate so as “not to leave a mark.” The gross, immoral sexual torture of child is by all measures a far more devastating crime. Why should our government stand up proudly to a small example of Jewish violence and bow in cowardice to its most pervasive, most brutal form?
The laws are there. All we need now is widespread education on this issue and a government willing to take action in our children’s defense.
I feel compelled to address two of the responses to my presentation of this paper.
First, a classmate noted that, while my paper might make an atheist marvel at the insanity of mutilating children’s genitals, to a member of the Jewish community — a person of faith who embraces Genesis 17:14 as divinely revealed commandment, a Jew who truly believes that the eternal isolation of kareth will indeed be his son’s future if he fails to circumcise him — the decision to slice his son’s genitals is actually perfectly logical.
While that is true, it’s also true that one’s commitment to the internal logic of insane beliefs doesn’t magically transform one’s violence into morally acceptable behavior or legally acceptable action. On this the American legal system has stood firm, and without any public objection. Think, for example, of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater killer. In July 2012, Holmes carried multiple firearms into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, then murdered 12 people. During his trial, Holmes laid out an explanation for his violence that was perfectly logical, at least from a purely internal point of view. He said he killed in order to lift himself out of depression, believing that for every person he murdered, his self-worth would rise one notch.17
For a young man taking five medications, desperately fighting the demons of his own depression, taking action to improve his own self-esteem was a highly logical step. Yet no one would claim that the fact that Holmes was guided by that logic makes his acts moral or legal or worthy of celebration and a catered lunch. Holmes’ logical motive certainly didn’t impress the Colorado legal system, which tried, convicted, and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.18
That said, it’s worth noting that, like Holmes, Jews who believe that Genesis is divinely inspired and that eternal kareth is a reality can’t sincerely be granted the label of “logical.” Their violence only has what we’ll call “post-first leap logic.” A Jew who mutilates his child for Genesis-based reasons is only behaving logically if you enter his chain of thought after the factual basis for believing in kareth is established — that is, after the first leap in his chain of thought. If you step back and consider the entire strand of thought, beginning with why a person would ever think that kareth is real, the thought chain’s claim to logic collapses during its very first step. So, too, of course, with Holmes, whose violence is only logical after we accept as rational his believe that killing increases self-esteem. If we step back and consider that first leap, the rationality behind his violence collapses as well.
Second, you spoke of circumcising your son, explaining that you chose to do so because, one, you believed that later, as an adult, he might want the circumcision and, two, you heard that it’s a less painful procedure to undergo as a baby than as an adult. I’m highly hesitant to address a comment framed in such a personal way — my intent in presenting my paper was to save lives, not to antagonize classmates or attack the professor — but both of your arguments are so officious and wholly baseless that it would be academic malpractice to let your justifications’ glaring flaws go unaddressed.
For one, the notion that it’s acceptable to apply violence against people currently incapable of defending their own bodies has a distinctly Bill Cosby flair to it, a tone of “Hey, he was asking for it — or at least, he probably will be asking for it once he has full agency over his own body.” Such an argument is gallingly officious when it comes to sexual abuse and has even been rejected in far more innocuous cases, like tattoos. Think of Joseph Swilling and Summer Turner, the Oklahoma couple who earlier this month were arrested after forcibly tattooing their two young boys, ages 4 and 8. Prosecutors dismissed any notion that the parents had absolute dominion over their children or that, once grown, the boys would conclude that they wanted this alteration of their bodies. Instead, the couple was arrested, charged with two counts of child abuse, and are now facing the prospect of life in prison.19
If we can reject with disgust a parent’s claim that “the child would want it one day” when it comes to a little ink in the skin, why should we permit other parents to justify ritualized sexual violence with the same rationale?
Finally, we have to ask: Where did you get this absurd notion that genital mutilation is less painful for babies than for adults? What additional indication that the penile slicing is excruciatingly painful do you want to see coming from the ritual’s young victims? One imagines that you believed this bizarre myth simply because someone told you it was true. Or that that gross misinformation will only be washed from your mind if the bleeding babies vocalized their fear and pain in clearly enunciated words, as the flesh is ripped from their genitals.
The ugly truth is that male genital mutilation is devastatingly painful for infant victims, an early sexual trauma that wrecks the proper flow of their brainwaves. This was documented by Dr. Paul Tinari, whose groundbreaking study indicates that genital mutilation is so painful and so traumatic for newborn babies that it inflicts long-term damage to their cerebral function. Tinari and his colleagues monitored an infant’s brain waves before, during, and after male genital mutilation. “Analysis of the MRI data indicated that the surgery subjected the infant to significant trauma,” Tinari explains. “The greatest changes occurred in the limbic system concentrating in the amygdala and in the frontal and temporal [lobes, the area of the] brain associated with reasoning, perception and emotions. Follow-up tests on the infant one day, one week and one month after the surgery indicated that the child’s brain never returned to its baseline configuration. In other words, the evidence generated by this research indicated that the brain of the circumcised infant was permanently changed by the surgery.”20
I ask you, Professor Lieberman, take a hard look at this time-honored Jewish ritual. All arguments in favor of the practice — be they religious, traditional, medical, and legal — simply fall apart upon closer inspection, leaving one truth bare: that “circumcision,” while acceptable under Jewish law, is really just ritualized sexual torture that should be barred by our current laws.
To my mind, there’s one proper place for parents who apply this torture to their children: prison.
1 Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragramatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, Random House (1971)
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2 Itamar Eichner, “Jewish Worldwide Population in 2015 Is Nearly 16 Million," Y Net News, 6-26-15: “After Israel with 6.1 million, U.S. has second largest Jewish population at 5.7 million.”
3 A. Pfuntner, L.M. Wier, C. Stocks, “Most Frequent Procedures Performed in U.S. Hospitals (2011),” HCUP Statistics Brief #165, Oct. 2013. Note that this 1.1 million figure is a gross underestimate of the number of mutilations per year, as it only covers in-hospital mutilations. Many Jews prefer to perform this ritual away from the hospital, beyond the gaze of a board-certified physician.
4 Helen Weiss, et al., “The Global Prevalence of Male Circumcision,” World Health Organization (2007)
5 Matthew Tontonoz, “Why Is Circumcision So Popular in America?,” matthewtontonoz.com, 1-5-15
6 Brian J. Morris, et al., “Circumcision Rates in the United States: Rising or Falling? What Effect Might the New Affirmative Pediatric Policy Statement Have?,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Volume 89, Issue 5 (May 2014)
7 Tontonoz, ibid.
9 E.g. David Jolly, Ahmad Shakib, “Afghan Woman’s Nose Is Cut Off by Her Husband, Officials Say,” NY Times, 1-19-16
10 Catherine Connolly, et al., “Male circumcision and Its Relationship to HIV Infection in South Africa: Results of a National Survey in 2002,” South African Medical Journal, Vol. 98, No. 10 (October 2008). The plainly stated conclusion of Connolly and her co-authors: “Circumcision had no protective effect in the prevention of HIV transmission. This is a concern and has implications for the possible adoption of the mass male circumcision strategy both as a public health policy and an HIV prevention strategy."
11 Susan Donaldson James, “Baby Dies of Herpes in Ritual Circumcision By Orthodox Jews,” ABC News, 3-2-12
13 Dan Bollinger, “Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths,” Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies, Spring 2010
14 Tennessee’s aggravated sexual battery statute (TN Criminal Code 39-13-504)
15 Monica Steiner, “Tennessee Sexual Battery Laws,” Criminal Defense Lawyer
16 Reuven Blau, “Brooklyn Rabbi Gets 10 Years for Leading a Gang of Men Who Beat Up Jewish Husbands Reluctant to Divorce Their Unhappy Wives,” NY Daily News, 12-15-15
Carol McKinley, “Aurora Shooting Trial: 10 New Things From 22 Hours of James Holmes Psychiatric Evaluation Interviews,” ABC News, 5-5-15
Ann O'Neill, “Theater Shooter Holmes Gets 12 Life Sentences, Plus 3,318 Years,” CNN, 8-27-15
19 Alley Wilson, “Couple Arrested After Tattooing Two Young Children By Force,” Global News, 4-14-16
20 Paul Tinari, “MRI Studies: The Brain Permanently Altered From Infant Circumcision,” Peaceful Parenting, Oct. 2009
A. Pfuntner, L.M. Wier, C. Stocks, “Most Frequent Procedures Performed in U.S. Hospitals (2011),” HCUP Statistics Brief #165, Oct. 2013
Alley Wilson, “Couple Arrested After Tattooing Two Young Children By Force,” Global News, 4-14-16
Ann O'Neill, “Theater Shooter Holmes Gets 12 Life Sentences, Plus 3,318 Years,” CNN, 8-27-15
Brian J. Morris, et al., “Circumcision Rates in the United States: Rising or Falling? What Effect Might the New Affirmative Pediatric Policy Statement Have?,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Volume 89, Issue 5 (May 2014)
Carol McKinley, “Aurora Shooting Trial: 10 New Things From 22 Hours of James Holmes Psychiatric Evaluation Interviews,” ABC News, 5-5-15
Catherine Connolly, et al., “Male circumcision and Its Relationship to HIV Infection in South Africa: Results of a National Survey in 2002,” South African Medical Journal, Vol. 98, No. 10 (October 2008)
Dan Bollinger, “Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths,” Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies, Spring 2010
David Jolly, Ahmad Shakib, “Afghan Woman’s Nose Is Cut Off by Her Husband, Officials Say,” NY Times, 1-19-16
Helen Weiss, et al., “The Global Prevalence of Male Circumcision,” World Health Organization (2007)
Herbert Danby (translator), The Mishnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes, Hendrickson Publishers (2012)
Itamar Eichner, “Jewish Worldwide Population in 2015 Is Nearly 16 Million," Y Net News, 6-26-15
Matthew Tontonoz, “Why Is Circumcision So Popular in America?,” matthewtontonoz.com, 1-5-15
Monica Steiner, “Tennessee Sexual Battery Laws,” Criminal Defense Lawyer
Nicholas Bakalar, “Circumcision Benefits Outweigh Risks, Study Reports,” NY Times, 4-7-14
Old Testament (Genesis 17:10-11, Exodus 12:48, 1 Samuel 14:6, Genesis 17:14), New International Version, King James Bible, JPS Tanakh translation (1917)
Paul Tinari, “MRI Studies: The Brain Permanently Altered From Infant Circumcision,” Peaceful Parenting, Oct. 2009
Peter Adler, “Is Circumcision Legal?,” Richmond Journal of Law and the Public Interest, 1-1-13
Pieter Vree (editor), “Big Sister Is Listening to You,” New Oxford Notes, July 2013
Reuven Blau, “Brooklyn Rabbi Gets 10 Years for Leading a Gang of Men Who Beat Up Jewish Husbands Reluctant to Divorce Their Unhappy Wives,” NY Daily News, 12-15-15
Richard Rudin, “When Talking About Migrants in France, We Need to Speak English with Care,” Rudinblog.com, 8-11-15
Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragramatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, Random House (1971)
Susan Donaldson James, “Baby Dies of Herpes in Ritual Circumcision By Orthodox Jews,” ABC News, 3-2-12
Tina Rosenberg, “Mutilating Africa's Daughters: Laws Unenforced, Practices Unchanged,” 7-5-04