Belief in Brief: Male Circumcision

Vanessa N. Petty
Tuesday, November 13, 2007 | 1:09 p.m. CST; updated 1:19 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Male circumcision is the same surgery no matter your creed, but what the removal of the foreskin from male genitalia means is different for each of the world’s three largest religions.


In Genesis 17:9-14, God commands Abraham, father of the Jews, to be circumcised and have his descendants do the same. Those who didn’t follow the ritual would be cut off from his people.

At some point in history, a procedure called “Pondus Judaeus” was introduced. A bronze weight was put on a circumcised male’s remaining foreskin to stretch it back out. The procedure became popular with Jewish males to prevent embarrassment while among other cultures, including the Greeks and Romans, that did not perform male circumcisions.

Religious Significance

In Judaism, the religion most often associated with the practice, circumcision is the physical representation of God’s covenant with the Jews. Through circumcision, called “brit milah,” boys are welcomed into that covenant. It is customary for a boy to be circumcised in the home of his parents on the morning of the eighth day after his birth. Circumcision is so important that it can be performed on holidays or the Sabbath, when the drawing of the blood is usually prohibited. The procedure is performed by a “mohel,” who is someone trained in Jewish law and surgery. If a mohel does not perform the circumcision, a ritual circumcision must be held.

In Islam, circumcision, or “tahara,” is an issue of cleanliness. Although not mentioned in the Quran, circumcision is mentioned in the Sunnah, the recorded words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, who was told by Allah to follow Abraham’s example. In order to pray, Muslims must be clean and have all urine removed from their bodies. Circumcision is one way of ensuring cleanliness. The time in which a Muslim boy is circumcised depends on region but can be anywhere from seven days after birth up until puberty.

While many Christians in the U.S. circumcise their male children, it’s not for religious reasons but rather out of health concerns. They follow the words of Paul, who in the book of Romans said, “real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.”


Worldwide, 30 percent of the male population is circumcised. As of 2005, about 80 percent of all U.S. males had been circumcised. But only 56 percent of all male babies born in the U.S., about 1.1 million children, are circumcised each year.

Supporters say circumcision is important not only for religious reasons, but also for health, stating that it can help lower the risk of spreading HIV and decrease the risk of penile cancer.

People against circumcision argue that the procedure is an inhumane thing to do to a child because general anesthesia cannot be used on babies because of breathing risks, and local anesthesia causes inflammation, which makes the surgery much more risky.

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Michael Glass November 13, 2007 | 6:29 p.m.

Genesis 17:12 commands the descendants of Abraham to circumcise their sons and their slaves. We don't circumcise slaves; it's a human rights violation. But what about our sons? We don't allow girls' genitals to be trimmed but are boys' genitals fair game? I think this circumcision game may be on shaky legal grounds. William Stowell's parents had him circumcised. When he grew up he sued the hospital that did it and they had to settle with him out of court. This legal question is not one that will go away.

(Report Comment)
Hugh Young November 14, 2007 | 3:20 a.m.

The 70% of the world's men who are NOT circumcised includes most of the developed world outside the US. The rest of the English-speaking world tried it and gave it up, without any epidemics of foreskin-related complaints. A recent study showed the foreskin is the most sensitive part of the penis. The health claims for circumcision are spurious - slight reductions of rare diseases that can be treated by other means, that we wouldn't dream of accepting as reasons for cutting off any other healthy part of our bodies. The main reasons for doing it are really custom, conformity and irrational fears.

(Report Comment)
Duane Voskuil November 14, 2007 | 10:11 a.m.

There is much more to the history and possible reasons for causing the male genitals to bleed that started long before the Jews and Muslims adopted it. In prepatriarchal times only females (like the Goddess) flowed with the sacred blood. See <> Now days, protecting females from genital amputations while ignoring males is a blatant violation of the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and of fundamental principles of social ethics. <>

(Report Comment)
Bobby Major November 14, 2007 | 11:22 a.m.

The writer seems unaware that Christians condemned the practice of circumcision at the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). The Apostle Peter said, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” It is not clear what he meant, but he may have been referring to numerous deaths of male infants due to hemorrhage or infection.

The Apostle Paul likewise, condemned male circumcision. He wrote to Titus on Crete saying, “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” (Titus 1:10-11)

The message is clear: Christians should not circumcise their sons.

(Report Comment)
jono paff November 14, 2007 | 2:59 p.m.

"""People against circumcision argue that the procedure is an inhumane thing to do to a child because general anesthesia cannot be used on babies because of breathing risks, and local anesthesia causes inflammation, which makes the surgery much more risky."""

they argue a bit more than that. the brutality of the procedure is only one of many ethical problems.

the essential point is that genital mutilation of children is not a gendered issue.

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