Perfecting Man’s Moral Shortcomings

In the Book of Exodus, there’s a bizarrely out-of-place story that I’ve always found hilarious. This is immediately after God has told Moses that he’s going to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh, listing all the signs and wonders Moses will be able to do to convince the Egyptians of his authority, and sent him on his way:

“At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah [Moses' wife] took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said. So the Lord let him alone.”

—Exodus 4:24-26

Even disregarding the intrinsic weirdness of this story, this makes no thematic sense, coming as it does immediately after God’s choosing Moses to be his messenger. (How often do you persuade someone to do a favor for you and then immediately try to kill them before they can do it?) I’ve always assumed it was a priestly interpolation intended to stress the importance of circumcision, but from what I’ve found, the meaning of the passage is much debated among scholars. There’s also this line, which is probably the funniest thing ever written on Wikipedia:

Rabbinical commentators have asked how Zipporah knew that the act of circumcising her son would save her husband. A common explanation is that the angel of God… in the shape of a serpent, had swallowed up Moses up to but not including his genitals.

I was reminded of this by two essays I came across recently that both touched on the same topic. First was this post on the blog Practical Ethics (warning: potentially disturbing image at the link), which quotes an article in the April 1860 issue of The Lancet recommending circumcision as a cure for masturbation. It explicitly advises performing the operation not just on infants, but on children, and on doing so without anesthetic:

In cases of masturbation we must, I believe, break the habit by inducing such a condition of the parts as will cause too much local suffering to allow of the practice being continued. For this purpose, if the prepuce [foreskin] is long, we may circumcise the male patient with present and probably with future advantage; the operation, too, should not be performed under chloroform, so that the pain experienced may be associated with the habit we wish to eradicate.

Nor was it just prudish Victorian doctors who thought this way. There’s another example, which I first read about in Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and came across again while rereading the book: the medieval Jewish sage Maimonides makes exactly the same argument. In his Guide to the Perplexed, he writes that the purpose of circumcision is to make sex less pleasurable so that people won’t want to do it as much:

As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man’s formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the fore-skin to that organ is evident. This commandment has not been enjoined as a complement to a deficient physical creation, but as a means for perfecting man’s moral shortcomings. The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment: the organ necessarily becomes weak when it loses blood and is deprived of its covering from the beginning.

Now, I grant there’s a lingering question of whether circumcision might have real medical benefits, regardless of whether it was originally motivated by the sex-phobia of fanatics. This is an issue, it seems to me, where the evidence is murky, and science bloggers I trust have argued on opposite sides of the question.

However, one point isn’t murky at all in my mind. The benefits of circumcision can be debated, but I maintain that even if circumcision has health benefits, that doesn’t make it acceptable to perform this painful and irreversible surgical alteration on infants who can’t give consent – and it’s especially unacceptable when it’s done without anesthesia or by people with no formal medical training. The horrible case of three New York infants who contracted herpes from an ultra-Orthodox mohel who performed circumcisions according to barbaric medieval principles, which included sucking the blood away from the open wound with his mouth, serves as a worst-case example. (As I was writing this post, I heard the sad news that another infant has died from the same cause. HT: Deborah Feldman, via Twitter.)

There’s nothing about circumcision that makes it uniquely effective or uniquely beneficial for children (as opposed to, say, vaccination). A man who wants to be circumcised later in life always can be, and will still get whatever health benefits the procedure has. If the argument is that we need to circumcise men in infancy because they wouldn’t want it done later in life, isn’t that an excellent argument for not doing it to them in infancy either? Just because an operation may have some medical benefits doesn’t make it acceptable to perform it on people without their consent.

I don’t believe male circumcision is nearly as harmful as female genital cutting, which is a far more brutal and invasive mutilation of the body. Nevertheless, the motivation in both cases has historically been the same: to deny the pleasure of sexual stimulation and orgasm, to enforce religious puritanism through surgical alteration. There’s no good justification for any society to permit such things to be done to vulnerable children of any gender.

Image: Detail from Rubens, “The Circumcision”, via Web Gallery of Art

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • UKAtheist

    I had the operation performed 5 years ago, at the age of 61. In my case it was beneficial, as it removed the hardened and tight foreskin I had developed as a result of BXO ( a web search will explain this condition, but beware of explicit images).

    Contrary to what Victorians and Jewish orthodoxy might maintain, loss of the prepuce can enhance sexual pleasure. Personal experience certainly confirms this.

    UKA

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    For people who have medical conditions that can be treated with circumcision, yes, it’s obviously the best option. I’m not surprised that it gave rise to better sexual experiences in your case. I’m mainly arguing against the idea that circumcision should be the default for all male children, regardless of whether or not there’s any medical reason for it.

  • John Alexander Harman

    I’ve read that there’s a hypothesis among some epidemiologists that one of the main reasons that AIDS did not spread rapidly among the heterosexual population in North America, as it did in Africa, was that the vast majority of adult American men in the eighties and nineties were circumcised. Given that data available on rates of female-to-male transmission in circumcised vs. uncircumcised men, that seems plausible. It raises an interesting ethical quandary: if a practice saves millions of lives serendipitously, despite being performed for unrelated and far less justifiable reasons, ought we to continue it past the point of diminishing returns? Moreover, the prophylactic benefit of circumcision, if it became common knowledge, might have the perverse effect of disincentivizing condom use, which could do more harm than circumcision does good.


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