Circumcision: Religion, Disease and Culture
Today I saw an article stating that a child had died after contracting herpes (.pdf link) during a circumcision method called metzitzah b’peh, whereby the blood from a newly circumcised child is sucked orally from the penis by the practitioner of the ritual. Yes this is a real thing, and it’s part of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish religion. It is not very common but is still practiced by some Jewish people who wish to follow, to the letter, the writings in the Torah. This practice is shunned by most Hasidic Jews, but is still allowed by some accommodationists by use of a glass tube to do the sucking of the blood. While I find myself astonished that this practice ever existed, and still exists ( thought it was a parody site before I did some digging), it highlights a huge issue about circumcision, its ritualistic and practical origins, and the continuation of this practice right up to the modern day.
There are three main reasons given for male circumcision, ritual, medical and social.
The ritual reasons come from the Jewish tradition in the Tanakh, which states in Genesis 17:10-14:
So it acts as a perceived connection between man and God, and without he penis having the tip “cut off” the child will be “cut off” from his people. It is also done on the 8th day of the child’s life, so well before the child has a say in the matter.
Why the penis and not the little toe or something like that? Well, the penis is needed in reproduction which is the main need of any animal, so to cut there means (through some logic) that man and God are linked through the reproductive organs. A quaint notion to be sure, but one that permeates more of culture than just those in the Jewish faith. In Christianity, and even in the secular world, the ritual removal of the foreskin is practiced in many hospitals as part of the process of being born.
To add fuel to the religious fervour, there are some who say that Mohammed was in fact born circumcised, and therefore all men after him should be the same.
Some of the reasons given for the standard practice of circumcision are for the control of sexually transmitted diseases. A paper from the titled “Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection After Jewish Ritual Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious Tradition” American Journal of Pediatrics states:
It has been suggested that circumcision is effective in the reduction of HIV transmission in African countries, so should therefore be standard for all people. Now know that this comes from a peer-reviewed source, so it’s more than just anecdotal evidence. It states:
Interesting, but indeed, but I wonder if it’s actually an effective way to stop HIV transmission, or whether it’s an apologetic approach to the results to justify the tradition.
There is also evidence to suggest that the foreskin was originally cut off to stop infection caused by dust and dirt being trapped unfer the foreskin, when the desert tribes lived in the dusty middle-east. This makes some sense, but you and I now know that if we wash out genitals properly, these conditions can be avoided.
In 1972, I was born and then circumcised. I come from a largely secular family with Protestant leanings, so it was definitely not a religious thing. Nor was HIV even heard of in the 70s, so it wasn’t to stop the spread of disease. No, I was circumcised because it was “what was done” back then. The reasons are a bit mysterious, but I have a feeling that it comes from the “like father, like son” idea. If it was good enough for my dad, his dad and grandfather before him, then so be it, it’s damn well good enough for me.
Other cultural references state that standardisation of circumcision was brought in as a cure for masturbation, which as we all know from the Bible is bad. Of course this doesn’t work, except of course while the penis is healing.
So, snip or not?
I am opposed to the ritualised circumcision of children. Any form of genital mutilation is abhorrent in my eyes, and this is clearly a case of this mutilation. The bronze-age fascination with genitals in all major religion has passed its time, if it ever really had one. As for the disease prevention of circumcision, it seems a little extreme with the prevention rates being around 60%, when the church itself bans a method of prevention that is almost 100% effective.
If someone wants to be circumcised, then go for it, but not until that person is old enough to make that decision for themselves. If it goes against religious tradition to do so, then that says more about the tradition than it does about the ritual.
I am circumcised. I had no choice, but I do not blame my parents for this. I’ll never know what it’s like to not be circumcised, and I don’t miss my foreskin. But let us not impose this on children, they have no say in what we do to them at eight days old.