Gene Expression

The post on circumcision certainly got a lot of attention! Google news has been sending me a lot of traffic, so I checked the query out and found this article which ended thus:

Ruth Katz, 38, of San Francisco had both her sons circumcised at brises. She and her husband, Michael Rapaport, were astonished when the teacher in their birthing class described circumcision as “immoral” and “not consensual.”

“The edict to have your son circumcised was the first covenant with God — the first challenge to being Jewish,” said Katz, pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. “I am a progressive person and think a lot about human rights issues, but I have never questioned this.”

Text can’t transmit intonation and tone. Is the lack of questioning a reflective utterance? Or is it defiant? Unlike some atheists I thank god that I don’t believe in god, because the way I live my life is always open to change, challenge and critique. The examined life is the fullest one in my book. Though custom, tradition and routine do scaffold one’s daily goings on, and to some extent serve to bind us to other humans, I believe it is important on principle to acknowledge that views are as provisional as our lives. I believe that those who sincerely believe in the divine do obtain a certainty in their values, but, I believe the flip side of that is when they must wrestle with the edicts of their god which violate their conscience. The Binding of Isaac is just the most extreme case.


  1. #1 cuchulkhan
    June 19, 2007

    “The examined life is the fullest one in my book.”

    Sheep and cows seem pretty content, and I’ve noticed that curiosity is not in everybody’s nature. Montaigne pointed to animals as the exemplars of the contented life.

    And didn’t curious Kierkegaard ‘solve’ the conundrum of Isaac’s sacrifice? twas a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ There Razib, problem solved. Kierkegaard liked, neigh LOVED, to examine his life, albeit through a slightly different lens. It led him to turn down this.

  2. #2 Tantalus Prime
    June 19, 2007

    I have often heard from some of my Jewish friends that circumcision is not something to question, it is just something you do. Their tone, and probably the woman’s tone in the article, was, “I’m going to circumcise my son and nothing you say will change my mind, and furthermore you shouldn’t question it because it is a religious tradition.”

    Which, of course, I find to be indefensible. We (in the US) do not allow other forms body modification (tattoos, intentional scarring, lip rings, foot binding, neck stretching) to be forced on children, even if they are based on a religious pretext. So why do we for circumcision? Why does religious superstition trump human rights?

  3. #3 Caledonian
    June 19, 2007

    1) Because Jews have a special position in our society, both because of our widespread Christianity and guilt over past persecution and the Holocaust. It’s why we give funding to Israel, too.

    2) Because circumcision has become a secular ritualistic tradition in America, and people who grew up with it being ‘normal’ often show a peculiar reluctance to even consider the possibility that it’s harmful, especially if they’ve been circumcised themselves.

    3) Related to #2, there is a long tradition of claiming various medical benefits for circumcision, the vast majority of which were shown to be false and then immediately replaced by new claims. People cling to the idea that it’s an active good that justifies the dismissal of body rights.

    So with #2, people deny that harm is done, and with #3, people cling to the idea that a benefit is bestowed.

  4. #4 DarwinCatholic
    June 19, 2007

    I’m confused by the term “body rights” that Caledonian uses. Persons have right, but I don’t see that a body qua body has rights unto itself, say a right to integrity.

    If most people seem not to be able to work up any outrage at the idea of circumcision, it’s probably because for the generations of American men who were circumcised, and haven’t noticed any great harm to themselves as a result, there seems little incentive to have sons that look different from themselves.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s also a certain sympathy with Jewish practice among many American Christians, just as many Christians have pseudo passover meals these days to celebrate the Jewish origins of Christianity and Christ’s passover meal.

    It’s not as close to the bone (if you’ll excuse the pun) but among those groups that tend to get girl’s ears pierced not long after birth, one doesn’t tend to hear a lot of woman proclaiming, “I’m not going to force my daughter to have her ears pierce like my mother did.”

  5. #5 Brian
    June 19, 2007

    What’s confusing about asking that children not have normal healthy tissue removed?

    We know that appendices and tonsils can cause major problems, but nowadays we don’t cut them out until they do cause major problems. What’s so scary about doing the same with foreskins?

    If you would call it “cosmetic” or “plastic” surgery, consider that most plastic surgeries on babies are to fix birth defects or injuries. Foreskins are normal body parts that all babies are born with (clitoral hoods on girls). Just let them keep it until it causes problems.

    If you have religious reasons, let the kid grow up and decide for himself if he wants to sacrifice it to his God.

  6. #6 DarwinCatholic
    June 19, 2007

    If you have religious reasons, let the kid grow up and decide for himself if he wants to sacrifice it to his God.

    I knew a guy who had converted as an adult to fairly traditional Judaism, and had been circumcised in his late 20s. I gather that is not nearly as easily recovered from as having it done to one as an infant.

    It’s not that I’m massively in favor of the practice. I just don’t see that it’s anything to get upset about. I’d generally think that absent any other reason, one would have one’s sons circumcised if one had been oneself, just to keep similarity going.

    I just can’t see that having been so is any kind of trajedy or defect. Everything works the same…

  7. #7 Jon
    June 19, 2007

    I’m a jew and an atheist, and wrestled with whether or not to circumcise my son. I finally decided to do so for many reasons, but this was the clincher:

    I can remember seeing my father’s penis many times (nothing weird here, bathroom, locker rooms, generally relaxed nudity at home). I wondered if my son would see that his penis was different than mine and worry about it. And it’s not jews who are mostly circumcised. I don’t know the stats, but in my experience, nearly all middle class white males are circumcised. I didn’t want my son to feel different at school at school either.

    I’m not in favor of circumcision, but I was too cowardly to break the cycle.

  8. #8 TGGP
    June 19, 2007

    I think tattooing your infant, while certainly odd, doesn’t seem that bad. You can get tattoos removed, but it’s harder to undo circumcision.

  9. #9 Brian
    June 19, 2007

    “I knew a guy who had converted as an adult to fairly traditional Judaism, and had been circumcised in his late 20s. I gather that is not nearly as easily recovered from as having it done to one as an infant.”

    So what? He chose that for himself. Why circumcise millions of American infants so the small percent that would choose it as adults would suffer less? The flipside is that adults have much better Anastesia and post-operative pain medication options, not to mention they can give you verbal feedback about how they feel.

    More to the point: circumcision is a one-way street, so when it’s not necessary, the default should be don’t do it, just so people like me who would not choose it, wouldn’t have to deal with it.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    June 19, 2007

    Having a tattoo removed is expensive, painful, and often only partially successful.

    A better example would be ear piercing, which usually heals on its own if it’s left alone – and even then, I don’t see why it shouldn’t wait until/unless the child requests it.

  11. #11 DuWayne
    June 19, 2007

    TGGP –

    Are you serious? Not only are tattoos hard to remove and painful, getting them is painful. Not only that, but tattooing an infant, would mean that the child is going to grow up (until it’s removed) with a picture affixed to it’s skin, that will warp and stretch as the infant grows. The kids at school would love that. Giving an infant a tattoo, is at least as cruel as circumcising them.

  12. #12 brendon
    June 20, 2007

    i have no dog in this fight, but i’m curious whether there is any hard evidence – definitely no pun intended – about loss of sexual sensation for boys circumcised in infancy. the studies i’ve seen only tested sensitivity on adults who were circumcised, with mixed results (some liked sex more, some less, etc).

  13. #13 colpen
    June 20, 2007


    Those inclined to rationalize circumcision make the argument that “sexual pleasure only goes up to 10,” and as long as you derive some pleasure from sex, then for you, that’s 10, and therefore, circumcision didn’t reduce your sexual pleasure. It’s a convenient claim, because it cannot really be tested, since pleasure is subjective, and men circumcised as infants have no basis for comparison.

    But the logic there is all wrong.

    If you’re objective and have no interest in rationalizing circumcision, the logic goes like this:

    1) The foreskin/frenumulum/etc. are very sensitive. (See Sorrells if you doubt this)
    2) Circumcision removes sensitive parts of the sex organ.
    3) Therefore, all sensitivity is lost from the parts removed.

    Really, it’s that simple.

    I know, if you lost a body part shortly after birth, it’s awfully difficult to imagine what it would feel like to have one. Nor is it pleasant to recognize that it was done to you intentionally. Recognizing the harm means confronting lots of painful issues. You love your parents, but they hurt you. You want to feel good about your sex life, not like there’s something missing. You want to believe that the medical profession is there to help you, yet in the case of circumcision they are causing willful harm.

    America is waking up from its culturally induced blindness over the harm of male circumcision. But let’s look at the upside. Ending male genital mutilation will genuinely make the world a safer place for children.

  14. #14 Ruchira
    June 20, 2007

    It will take a couple of good sized class action lawsuits against hospitals (not parents, no one wants to sue parents) by young men to put a brake on this thoughtless, non-essential and mostly harmful practice. Once that happens, maiming of infant males will cease to be a routine post-natal hospital procedure at par with severing the umbilical cord. Those wishing to circumcize will have to make their own arrangements within their religious communities.

  15. #15 aj
    June 21, 2007

    Male Circumcision has very real health benifits. Noting higher incidence of AIDS in tribal groups that did not practice circumcision among males, a well designed World Health Organization study indicated that circumcision reduces HIV transmision by up to 60%. Potential Impact of Male Circumcision on HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa Williams et al (2006) read the free article for yourself

  16. #16 Ruchira
    June 21, 2007

    That horse has already been flogged to death – see here. The health benefits may be “real” in some people’s minds (mainly so that they can feel good about their own inadvertent surgery and their parents’ choices) but it looks dubious under scrutiny. The cost to benefit ratio for infant circumcision is a net negative.

  17. #17 Thomas Wolfe
    June 22, 2007

    I would like to introduce some comments from – a petition directed to the leadership of the American Reform Judaism movement and it’s rabbinic assocation, to accept alternative Brit Milah (Jewish Circumcision) practices:

    “If penis cutting is such a powerful symbol of religious dedication men should elect to undergo the tradition not force it on an infant”

    “Jewish American vitality and continuity will be advanced only by education in our European Jewish and Jewish American heritage, not by removal of infant foreskins. Circumcision is anachronistic, sexist, and inconsistent with modern Jewish American belief and values. I support Brit Shalom ceremonies welcoming newborn boys and girls without damage to genitals”

    “There are so many elements of tradition which we choose to live without (stoning, gender oppression, etc.). In light of modern evidence about the value of the whole anatomy, and in recognition of basic human rights, perhaps our moral sense can let us adopt a tradition which lets a mature male choose the fate of his own body parts.”

    “Imagine a religion where a man was required to act out a “Good deed” by cutting the penis of a person who has not elected to get their penis cut”

    I would encourage parties with similar beliefs to join the petition, at

  18. #18 Delilah
    August 2, 2007

    I recently learned about a new ritual called a Bris Shalom which is a Jewish naming ritual meant to take the place of Ritual Circumcision.

    I think that for many people, religion is considered the only valid reason for circumcision, and I am happy to see that even that is slowly shifting.

  19. #19 Caledonian
    August 2, 2007

    It will take a couple of good sized class action lawsuits against hospitals (not parents, no one wants to sue parents) by young men to put a brake on this thoughtless, non-essential and mostly harmful practice.

    It won’t happen. There’s a longstanding precedent that physicians can’t be held responsible for interventions that are generally accepted as proper medical practice at the time, no matter how obviously stupid or harmful they are in retrospect.

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