Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Reform Judaism Requires the Acceptance of Female Ritual Circumcision

Reform Judaism prides itself in its gender-neutral approach to Jewish tradtion. The separation of male and female roles and the denial to females of traditional male roles in synagogue and Jewish life is unacceptable – and rightly so. Jewish women may become rabbis, cantors, contribute to a “minyan” – read Torah – you name it, they can do it. We now have Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs! God is no longer a male, but has no sexual identity.

The sole remaining, uniquely male ‘requirement’ or ‘tradition’, completely closed to women, is circumcision. Circumcision is arguably THE most important of all the Jewish traditions. This convenant that God is said to have concluded with Abraham resulted in Abraham’s self-circumcision and that of his male children. It heralded the tradtion that the Jewish father circumcise his male children. Only this covenant binds and endorses the Jewish boy’s connection to God. B’rith Milah on the eighth day of life is to go forward without fail (precluding illness). Nothing takes precedence over this rite – it is so important a tradition. If day eight falls on Yom Kippur, the B’rith is to take place. If it falls on the day of the father’s scheduled funeral – the B’rith takes precedence. All Jewish denominations require circumcision for uncircumcised male converts

But women are denied this covenant with God. They are to have naming ceremonies – some sort of substitute B’rith. What is that all about? Why not circumcision? Or if girls needn’t have one, why must boys? Why can’t the male choose to forego this procedure, or parents choose to not to circumcise their sons?

Circumcision should be available to all – males and females. Female circumcision has been given a bad rap. When we think of this act, we are conditioned to think in terms of “genital mutilation.” Well, in a sense, all circumcisions are a form of “genital mutilation” if they are performed for non-medical indications.

The African tribal practice of female circumcision generally includes clitoridectomy as well as vaginal infibulation (closing the vaginal orifice almost completely). It may also include labiectomy. The procedure is performed in unsterile conditions by poorly trained practitioners under very primitive conditions. We may criticize the lack of proper technique, but should not criticize the procedure itself. If that is what a particular tribal tradition demands – so be it. Who are we to be critics of the idea itself, after all we practice male circumcision, which is analogous, at least in its traditional purpose, in our “tribe.”

Female circumcision need not involve the above-mentioned procedures. The process could be analogous to the male circumcision – i.e. partial removal of the female prepuce (foreskin). The clitoris is the female analog of the penis and has a prepuce as well. Partial removal would be easily and quickly performed by the trained practitioner – especially in newborns when the clitoris is relatively large.

Now, I believe, entitlement does not mean requirement. Parents should not be obliged to have their children circumcised – whether they be daughters or sons! Circumcision, unless carried out under anesthesia (which is never the case when practiced ceremonially) is very painful, and has no medical purpose in infancy. There can be complications as well. There is some indication that it may be advantageous to mature men in limited circumstances, but under no circumstances would this be an indication for circumcision in a newborn. A family history of breast cancer does not require the removal of the breasts in a young girl. A decision for his circumcision can be made by a mature man later in life, as can the decision for mastectomy by the mature woman.

Isn’t it hypocritical for us, as Reform Jews, to deny a right (rite) to a girl that is a right (rite) for a boy? Of course it is! It has to be! Girls, too, have an entitlement to a covenant with God!

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