Will Feminism End Circumcision?

There’s a long, engaging and fascinating piece in Tablet on the growing movement among American Jews to abjure male genital mutilation in favor of a less draconian way of bringing a Jewish infant boy into the traditions and community of his family and ancestors. The variations – which do not involve permanently cutting the genitals – are called brit shalom and brit atifah. I found out in the article that even a small minority of Israelis are now leaving their infant boys unmutilated – up to “4.8 percent of Israeli boys weren’t circumcised, for reasons including parents’ objection to disfiguring the body — the reason cited by actress Alicia Silverstone — and not wanting to cause the baby pain.” But what intrigued me was the idea that women and feminism may have played a part in Jewish moves away from the ritual. The analogue in female genital mutilation has played a part, according to one reformer:

Consider the anatomy of the penis. If you deprive the penis of its covering, it externalizes what should be an internal organ. Some people are uncomfortable comparing circumcision to female genital cutting, but removing the external labia, while it may be more complicated, is not entirely dissimilar to removing the foreskin; you’ve changed mucosal tissue into non-mucosal tissue. If you know this, it’s hard to defend the practice.

The fact that Maimonides himself defended circumcision as a way to tame excessive lust by blunting male sexual pleasure only adds to the parallels. And then this observation about the rise of female rabbis:

Wechterman enumerated some of the reasons people choose not to do brit milah: “One of the biggest impetuses is the growth of the natural childbirth movement; parents are questioning a whole bunch of previously held conceptions, for good reasons. And I think the impact of feminism can’t be understated. A core predicate of contemporary feminism is the notion of bodily integrity and physical self-determination.” … The resistance to opting out of brit milah, she thinks, has manifold reasons. But one of them is that the deciders have always been men who are circumcised. “Men who are circumcised can’t imagine not doing it, just as men who aren’t circumcised can’t imagine doing it,” she pointed out. “But with significant numbers of women rabbis, things are changing.”

May the change continue.