Circumcision: Health, Tradition and History

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Abraham, His Covenant with God is the source of the Jewish custom of circumcision

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the double layer of skin and mucosal tissue covering the end of the penis, which is referred to as the foreskin or prepuce. The foreskin protects the penis and has a sensory and sexual role. In a hospital-performed circumcision, an infant’s legs and arms are restrained in a special chair; the penile area is cleaned and an anesthesia is injected into the end of the penis; a clamp or plastic ring is s attached to the penis; and the foreskin is cut away. The entire procedure takes about 15 minutes. Afterwards, petroleum jelly is applied to the wound and the penis is wrapped in gauze and heals in between a week and 10 days.

Jews and Muslims have traditionally practiced circumcision but Christians traditionally have not (although many Christians are now circumcised in Western countries for “health” reasons). Circumcision among Jews is performed eight days after birth. For most Muslims it is kind of coming of age right generally performed when a boy is six or seven, and is usually done at least before the onset of puberty. In a few Muslim communities it is done shortly before marriage. But not all Jews and Muslim practice the practice. There is even a group in the U.S. called Jews Against Circumcision.

About 90 percent of the world’s male population has not been circumcised, including most French, Dutch, Germans, Chinese, Russians, Japanese and Scandinavians. Outside of religion, circumcision is a procedure that is commonly not done in Europe but is still done in the United States though less so than before.

According to the BBC: “ Circumcision is usually performed on babies and young boys, but it can also be undertaken by adult men. It is primarily carried out due to religious or cultural factors. However there may also be medical reasons for the procedure. Circumcision happens across Africa and Asia but it is also practised in North America, Australia and the Balkans. Worldwide figures in 2006 suggested that 30 percent of males - approximately 665 million men - have been circumcised. Male circumcision can sometimes be necessary to treat certain medical conditions, such as paraphimosis. However, when it is performed for religious or cultural reasons, it is then known as ritual or non-therapeutic circumcision. Male circumcision is compulsory for Jews and is commonly practiced among Muslims. When circumcision is performed for religious reasons, it usually symbolises faith in God but it may also be done to promote health and hygiene. Circumcision happens for non-religious reasons as well as religious. In the Philippines, it has become a social tradition with boys usually being circumcised in a coming-of-age ritual. It is also a common practice in South Korea where it is associated with maintaining hygiene.” [Source: BBC]

Websites on Judaism: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish Museum London ; Islam “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article : University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts

History of Circumcision

Circumcision is one of the oldest-known surgical operations. The removal of the foreskin is a custom found in many cultures and was practiced by a host of ancient Semitic tribes. There are even carvings and illustrations from ancient Egyptian that show how the procedure was performed. It is believed by some scholars that circumcision may have originally been a sort of male menstrual rite performed on pubescent boys dressed as girls, symbolizing a willingness to give up his virility to God. The reference to the use of a "sharpened stone” by Moses's wife Zipporah to circumcise her son suggest that it is a custom that predates the invention of metal. The ancient Greeks rejected circumcision as a violent tribal customs.

Abraham and his son Ishmael being circumcised

Dr. Isaac Soon, an assistant professor of New Testament studies at Crandall University, told The Daily Beast that “many ancient Greeks and Romans treated circumcision like a kind of disability.” “We know of some ancient Jewish men who tried to remove their circumcision, through a procedure called epispasm.” Others tried to fake it by using twine to pull the skin around the penis forward but this was not always successful. The poet Martial ridiculed a Jewish man whose fibula (twine) fell out when he was at the baths. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

In the late 19th-century a Victoria-era doctor described the male foreskin as a “source of serious mischief” and linked it to excessive masturbation and in severe cases “masturbatory sanity.” He promoted circumcision as a cure for excessive masturbation and other maladies associated with it. For a long time the procedure was performed without anesthesia because it was believed that babies had no sensation of pain.

According to the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Within the miasma of myth and ignorance, a theory emerged that masturbation caused many and varied ills, so some physicians thought it logical to perform genital surgery on both sexes to stop masturbation. In 1891, P.C. Remondino advocated circumcision to prevent or to cure alcoholism, epilepsy, asthma, hernia, gout, rheumatism, curvature of the spine, and headaches. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

Modern Circumcision

Circumcision has been widely practiced on the United States since then 19th century when it was though the procedure would reduce disease and cut down on masturbation, which was blamed for a number of health problems at that time, including kidney disease, gout and rheumatism. The procedure remained routine until the 1980s when medical organization said there was no medical reason for circumcision.

In the 1960s, about 90 percent of newborn males in the U.S. had their foreskin removed, now only about half do. According to the “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Circumcision in 1992 was still the most commonly performed surgical procedure in America, where 59 percent of newborn males underwent this operation. Circumcision reached its peak of 85 to 90 percent during the 1960s and 1970s. The surgery, usually performed on baby boys within the first few days of life, is often considered "routine." The most popular methods, the Gomco clamp and the Plastibell procedures, differ somewhat in technique and instrumentation but the effects on the penis and the baby are basically the same. Most of the American circumcisions are not done for religious reasons, but rather, for hygienic ones.

Circumcision has been mostly abandoned in Britain. According to the BBC: Circumcision had already become less popular in the UK by the time the National Health Service was created in 1946. The NHS refused to fund the procedure due to beliefs that it had no medical benefit in the majority of cases. Only about 10,000 circumcisions were carried out in the UK in 2005. Findings from a survey carried out in 2000 showed that between 10-20 percent of British males reported being circumcised. In in Australia the rate of circumcision on baby boys has dropped over the last 40 years, from 90 percent to between 10-20 percent. [Source: BBC]

In recent years whether or not to circumcise an infant has become a moral and ethical issue. Critics of the practice say that is it unethical to perform such an operation on a child before they have a chance to weigh in the issue. It turns out the foreskin is packed with nerve endings and it protects and lubricates the head of the penis, maintaining its sensitivity sort of like an eyelid does. Supporters of circumcision point to its health benefits. Recent research from Uganda, for example, indicates that circumcision reduces the chance of catching HIV/AIDS by 50 percent and significantly reduces the chances of getting other sexually transmitted diseases.


20120505-Circumcission Foreskin.JPG
According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Foreskin normally covers and protects the head, or glans, of the penis. At birth, the penis is covered with a continuous layer of skin extending from the pubis to the tip of the penis where the foreskin (prepuce) folds inward upon itself, creating a double protective layer of skin over the glans penis. The inner lining of the prepuce is mucous membrane and serves to keep the surface of the glans penis (also mucous membrane) soft, moist, and sensitive. The prepuce is often erroneously referred to as "redundant" tissue, which allows the medical community and society-at-large to consider the foreskin an optional part of the male sex organ and, therefore, to condone its routine removal in a variety of procedures collectively known as "circumcision." [Source:“Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

But microscopic examination reveals that the foreskin is more than just penile skin necessary for a natural erection; it is specialized tissue, richly supplied with blood vessels, highly innervated, and uniquely endowed with stretch receptors. These attributes of the foreskin contribute significantly to the sexual response of the intact male. The complex tissue of the foreskin responds to stimulation during sexual activity. Stretching of the foreskin over the glans penis activates preputial nerve endings, enhances sexual excitability, and contributes to the male ejaculatory reflex. Besides the neurological role of the preputial tissue, the mucosal surface of the inner lining of the foreskin has a specific function during masturbation or sexual relations.

During masturbation, the mucosal surface of the foreskin rolls back and forth across the mucosal surface of the glans penis, providing nontraumatic sexual stimulation. During heterosexual activity, the mucosal surfaces of the glans penis and foreskin move back and forth across the mucosal surfaces of the labia and vagina, providing nontraumatic sexual stimulation of both male and female. This mucous-membrane-to-mucous-membrane contact provides the natural lubrication necessary for sexual relations and prevents both the dryness responsible for painful intercourse and the chafing and abrasions which allow entry of sexually transmitted diseases, both viral and bacterial.

Circumcision Medical Rationale and Procedure

The common medical rationale for circumcisions was that it reduced the risk of urinary tract infection, penile cancer, cervical cancer in sex partner and the transmission of sexually-transmitted diseases—but there is little evidence to support this except with sexually-transmitted diseases. From a hygienic point of view, circumcision has been encouraged to keep the penis free of smegma—a substances comprised of dead cells, bacteria and anti-bacterial agent now as lysosyme. Cleaning away smegma can easily be achieved by pulling back the foreskin.

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: Usually, the procedure for circumcision in America involves the baby being strapped spread-eagle to a plastic board, with his arms and legs immobilized by Velcro straps. A nurse scrubs his genitals with an antiseptic solution and places a surgical drape—with a hole in it to expose his penis—across his body. The doctor grasps the tip of the foreskin with one hemostat and inserts another hemostat between the foreskin and the glans. (In 96 percent of newborns, these two structures are attached to one another by a continuous layer of epithelium, which protects the sensitive glans from urine and feces in infancy and childhood.) The foreskin is then torn from the glans. The hemostat is used to crush an area of the foreskin lengthwise, which prevents bleeding when the doctor cuts through the tissue to enlarge the foreskin opening. This allows insertion of the circumcision instrument. The foreskin is crushed against this device circumferentially and amputated. [Source: “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”, Haeberle, Erwin J., Bullough, Vern L. and Bonnie Bullough, eds.,]

Anesthesia was not used to alleviate infant suffering until recently because it was believed that babies do not feel pain. Additionally, it was recognized that anesthesia was risky for the newborn, thus contributing to the medical reluctance to use it for painful procedures on infants, such as circumcision. Currently, some doctors use a dorsal penile nerve block to numb the penis during infant circumcision. While not always effective, this anesthesia may afford some pain relief during the surgery, although it offers no pain relief during the recovery period (which can last up to 14 days) when the baby urinates and defecates into the raw wound.

Impact of Circumcision

Isaac's circumcision

According to “Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia”: When normal, sexually functioning tissue is removed, sexual functioning is also altered. Changes of the penis that occur with circumcision have been documented. These may vary according to the procedure used and the age at which the circumcision was performed, nevertheless penile changes will inevitably occur following circumcision.

Circumcision performed in the newborn period traumatically interrupts the natural separation of the foreskin from the glans that normally occurs somewhere between birth and age 18. The raw, exposed glans penis heals in a process that measurably thickens the surface of the glans and results in desensitization of the head of the penis.

When circumcision is performed after the normal separation of the foreskin from the glans, the damage done by forcible separation of these two parts of the penis is avoided, but the glans must still thicken in order to protect itself from constant chafing and abrasion by clothing.

The thickened, drier tissue covering the glans of the circumcised penis may necessitate the use of synthetic lubricants to facilitate nontraumatic sexual intercourse. Often, it is erroneously considered the woman's lack of lubrication that makes intercourse painful rather than the lack of natural male lubrication, which is more likely the cause. During masturbation, the circumcised male must use his hands for direct stimulation of the glans, and this may require synthetic lubrication as well.

Jewish Circumcision

Circumcision is the oldest continuously performed Jewish rite. It is viewed as a Biblical symbol of the covenant between God and the children of Israel. According to Abraham's covenant all male boys are circumcised at the age of eight days. The book of Genesis in the Torah (first books of the Old Testament) says that God issues a command to Abraham that every male child shall be circumcised. The practice is known as brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) and is carried out according to instructions in the book of Leviticus.

According to the BBC: “Circumcision is an initiation rite for Jewish newborn babies. This usually takes place in a ceremony called a Brit (or Bris) milah witnessed by family and community members. Milah is Hebrew for Covenant of Circumcision. The ritual is an ancient practice that has been carried out by Jewish parents for more than 3,000 years. Such is the importance of Brit milah that circumcision can take place on the Sabbath or a holy day even though the drawing of blood is not normally allowed on these days under Jewish law. [Source: BBC |::|]

“According to the Torah (Genesis 17: 9-14), Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself, all male members of his household, his descendants and slaves in an everlasting covenant. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. |::|

20120505-Circumcission Map_of_Male_Circumcision_Prevalence_at_Country_Level.png
Map of Male Circumcision Prevalence at Country Level

“Under Jewish law, failure to follow the commandment given to Abraham incurs the penalty of karet (being cut off from the rest of the community of God). The Torah (Genesis 16:14) also says: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreksin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." |::|

“Supporters of circumcision argue that there is no real alternative. Circumcision is a religious and cultural act that is fundamental to their religion. They believe that circumcision is divinely mandated. The reality is that few Jews are willing to break what they believe to be a covenant with God. There are many reasons why most members of the Jewish community continue to support circumcision. Here are some of them: 1) It is an important physical statement about man's covenant with God; 2) A covenant of the flesh is akin to a covenant of the heart - the foreskin is like an unneeded part of fruit. Rather like the stem of an apple, it is important at one stage but ultimately it is not part of that fruit; 3) It recognises that God has ownership of the body and it is God who gave the command to circumcise; 4) It is a profound statement of dedication towards one's ancestors; 5) It is an historic act that binds circumcised males to their ancestors and peers; 6) It is a cultural and physical sign that is symbolic; 7) It gives a sense of belonging.” |::|

According to the Financial Times: “Israel has probably the world’s most extensive experience of 100,000 adult male circumcisions since the arrival of previously uncircumcised Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1980s.”

Abraham Nearly Sacrifices His Son

Circumcision for Jews is derived by the episode in the Bible about Abraham and His Covenant with God and the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac. In Beersheba, Abraham had a vision in which God told him to take Isaac “to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on the mountains," meaning Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the precious heir to God's promise. Abraham obeyed the first part of the order and took his son to Mount Moriah (later the site of Solomon's Temple and the present-day Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem.

On Mount Moriah, Abraham erected an altar. He tied up Isaac and placed him on a pile of wood. Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, according to Genesis 22:4, God sent an angel to tell Abraham: “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad and do nothing to him. Now I know thou fearest God...Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore." Instead of Isaac a ram was grabbed from a nearby thicket and offered to God as a sacrifice.

Christians tend to see the idea of a sacrificial son as a hint of what will happen later with Jesus; Jews tend to view the event as a parable of the suffering of the chosen people. The story of Abraham and his son also shows that human sacrifice was a real possibility in Biblical times. Jewish scholar Isaac Elchanan of New York's Yeshia University told Time, "Why did God test Abraham? So the world would know that if anyone tells you, "I am committing murder in the name of God, he's a liar."

Muslim Circumcision

Muslim boys are supposed to be circumcised, but it is not a requirement and when it is supposed to take place is not specified. For most Muslims it is a kind of coming of age rite generally performed when a boy is six or seven, and is usually done at least before the onset of puberty. In a few Muslim communities it is done shortly before marriage. Muslim circumcision is often seen as a ritual that marks a boy’s prompt entrance into the religious community. It is typically celebrated with a large party. Sometimes animist practices accompany the ritual.

Circumcision is practiced by most Muslim men — with it being pretty much universal in some communities — even though the Shafi legal school is the only one that makes it obligatory. Circumcision was not mentioned in the Koran and Muslim tribes did not practice it but it has been practiced since early times by Muslims presumably to distinguish Muslims from Christians, Persians and Indians who did not practice it.

According to the BBC: “Islamic scholars differ over whether circumcision is compulsory for Muslim males: some regard it as obligatory, whereas others view it as an act to be recommended. It is carried out to maintain hygiene and Muslim boys are usually circumcised before they reach puberty. For the majority of Muslims, circumcision is seen as an introduction to the Islamic faith and a sign of belonging. [Source: BBC, |::|]

Circumcision and Christianity

According to the BBC: “Since the early days of the Church, Christians have not been required to be circumcised. In the Old Testament circumcision is clearly defined as a covenant between God and all Jewish males. Circumcision is not laid down as a requirement in the New Testament. Instead, Christians are urged to be "circumcised of the heart" by trusting in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. As a Jew, Jesus was himself circumcised (Luke 2:21; Colossians 2:11-12). However, circumcision was a big issue in the early Christian Church. Adult Greeks, in particular, who converted to Christianity were unwilling to undergo the painful operation. [Source: BBC, August 3, 2009|::|]

“The ritual was not enforced amongst non-Jewish converts and circumcision was even seen by some as being contrary to the Christian faith. It became a sign of separation between circumcised Jews and new adherents of Christianity. The issue was debated in the Didache, one of the earliest Christian documents discovered, pre-dating the New Testament. A section of The Didache describes the process leading to the baptism of Gentiles wishing to convert to the (Jewish) Jesus movement. It does not require them to be circumcised - and thus does not require them to become Jews as a preliminary step.” |::|

Turkish boy dressed up for his circumcision day

After his birth, before the Wise Men visited, Jesus was circumcised. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: When we think of the birth of Jesus, we think of the traditional images of Christmas: the shepherds, the angels, the farm animals jostling to see the Christ child, the swift removal of his foreskin a week later. It’s true that the Christmas story is more babe in a manger than bris in the synagogue, but as a Jewish male infant Jesus was circumcised and, chronologically speaking, on the eighth day—and thus before the appearance of any wise men from the east. And yet somehow with all the food, presents, and Santa-fetishizing, the circumcision of Jesus doesn’t get a look in. But as debate about the ethics of circumcising children rages on, perhaps it really should. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, December 27, 2015]

Jesus was a Jewish man. He preached in synagogues, was called a rabbi, and—like other Jewish men—was circumcised eight days after his birth (Luke 2:21). There was nothing strange or unusual about this event; it was something done in fulfillment of a law handed down by God to Abraham in Genesis 17. Strikingly, however, the Apostle Paul did not require that Gentile followers of Jesus circumcise themselves in order to join the movement. Even though many Christians today circumcise their sons it’s not a religious requirement and Paul’s sharply worded letter to the Galatians stresses that non-Jewish followers really should not do this. In fact, he accuses those who do this of mutilating themselves. Paul’s opinion won the day and it’s easy to see why: beyond the fact that circumcision is a tough sell for adult men it was viewed with suspicion by many of Paul’s contemporaries.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, May 2, 2021]

History of the Christian Attitude About Circumcision

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Over the centuries circumcision became increasingly unpopular among mainstream Christians. Dr. Andrew Jacobs, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and author of Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference, told me that as the most famous marker of Jewish identity circumcision was a way for Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews and from what would later be called “heretical groups.”

Later sources, Jacobs said, refer to groups of unorthodox Christians who allegedly practiced circumcision. The fourth century theologian Epiphanius claims in his lengthy encyclopedia of heresies that at least three groups—the “Cerinthians,” the “Nazoreans,” and the “Ebionites”—practiced circumcision ‘like the Jews.’ Jacobs mentioned that Epiphanius tells us that the Cerinthians and Ebionites claimed to be following Christ's example when they were circumcised. The difficulty is that we can’t be sure that these groups existed, much less that they did the things that Epiphanius claims they did. “Epiphanius is certainly no stranger to exaggeration (and even lying),” said Jacobs, “But other ancient sources talk about forms of Christianity that adhered to the laws of Moses… so we have to imagine at least some people who considered themselves Christian may have been circumcised, and may have claimed they were following Jesus' example.”

All of this anti-circumcision conversation, however, created a problem. For Christians who used circumcision as a means of distinguishing themselves from Jews the body of Jesus was something of a rub. “Christians had to figure out,” Jacobs told me “how and why (or even if) their savior had this paradigmatic Jewish mark on his body.” The difficulty was only exacerbated as Christian theologians began to emphasize Christ’s divinity “even as an infant he must have been aware of and in control of what happened to his person!” Why did baby Jesus let this happen?

By the Middle Ages, Christians had worked out sophisticated arguments for why Jesus’s circumcision was not about his Jewishness. They argued that he was circumcised to prove that he was actually a human being; to put an end to the law by fulfilling it once and for all (a similar idea about sacrifice is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews); or his circumcision confirms his masculinity. The medieval bestseller The Golden Legend even claimed that the day of circumcision has salvific function as it was the day when Jesus began to shed blood for humanity. It was, Jacobs said, “anything but a concession to Jewish law!” This theological maneuvering allowed Christians to reclaim the foreskin of Jesus as a holy relic. But there was still a problem—where was it?

Pluses and Minuses of Circumcision

pre-circumcision parade in Egypt, 1836

According to the BBC: “Circumcision is a controversial topic that provokes strong arguments for and against the practice. Benefits: 1) Circumcision reduces the risk of developing urinary infections and cancer of the penis. 2) Studies also show that circumcised men have less chance of getting sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, herpes and syphilis. 3) The World Health Organisation recommends male circumcision - alongside condom usage and fewer sexual partners - as a prevention of heterosexually-acquired HIV. 4) In 2002, scientists found that women who have sex with a circumcised man were at a lower risk of developing cervical cancer. 5) Medical research in 2009 also showed that male circumcision reduced the risk of human papillomavirus (HPV) which can cause genital warts in both sexes, as well as cervical cancer in women. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Disadvantages: 1) Evidence that the foreskin has a large proportion of sensitive nerve endings has led critics to say that circumcised men experience less pleasure during sex, although there is no conclusive proof for this. 2) Opponents also argue that potential post-operative complications, such as excessive bleeding and infections, overshadow any possible benefits. They say that circumcision is an unnecessary procedure. 3) Another criticism is that the procedure tends to happens when a boy is too young to make an informed decision about whether he should be circumcised. 4) Some also refer to circumcision as genital mutilation. |::|

“Supporters also maintain that eight days is the ideal time to circumcise a child. They say the operation only takes a few minutes to perform and the wound has usually healed after five days. They do not accept that circumcision is harmful to newborn babies or causes unnecessary pain. In an online article on male circumcision, Dr Morris Sifman, medical officer of the Initiation Society of Great Britain, observes: "It is worth mentioning that many fathers and others have remarked that the baby's cry does not change at the moment of incision." However, if the decision is left until later in life, anaesthetic is usually needed and there is an increased risk of medical complications and infections.” |::|

In 2006, World Health Organization researchers announced that circumcising men routinely across Africa could prevent millions of deaths from AIDS. Reuters reported: “They analyzed data from trials that showed men who had been circumcised had a significantly lower risk of infection with the AIDS virus, and calculated that if all men were circumcised over the next 10 years, some two million new infections and around 300,000 deaths could be avoided. Researchers believe circumcision helps cut infection risk because the foreskin is covered in cells the virus seems able to easily infect. The virus may also survive better in a warm, wet environment like that found beneath a foreskin. So if men were circumcised, fewer would become infected and thus could not infect their female partners. [Source: Reuters, July 12, 2006 /|]

Jews and Muslims Cooperate to Support Circumcision

circumcision in ancient Egypt

In 2009, Jews and Muslims united to share their expertise of circumcision as part of an effort to limit the spread of HIV in Africa. Andrew Jack wrote in the Financial Times, “ Five specialists from Senegal, which is predominantly Muslim, attended a seminar in Jerusalem organised by Operation Abraham, a group of Israeli-based Jewish experts, signalling the start of joint programmes to train doctors across sub-Saharan Africa in adult circumcision. The action adds African Muslims to Operation Abraham’s own efforts over the past two years to train doctors in Swaziland, with other formal agreements already signed with Lesotho and Uganda, and interest from half a dozen other countries. [Source: Andrew Jack, Financial Times, July 10 2009 \=/]

“It signals a fresh engagement between the two religions at a time when international public health specialists have tried to accelerate cooperation between different faiths in efforts to better tackle life-threatening diseases including HIV and malaria. Religious and moral sensitivities have in the past limited united efforts to use religious organisations tackle HIV through programmes such as the distribution of condoms or discussion around safer sexual practices. But the shared practice of circumcision offers common ground for Islam and Judaism. \=/

“Inon Schenker, one of the organisers, said: “Abraham brought [Jews and Muslims] together with circumcision 3,000 years ago.” A delegation of five surgeons and public health specialists from Senegal concluded a four-day workshop on Friday following a formal agreement between Senegal’s ministry of health and its medical association with the Jerusalem Aids Project, a backer of Operation Abraham. The meeting was the culmination of many months of discreet work to build interfaith links between Jewish and Muslim medical specialists keen to apply their skills collectively while seeking to avoid inflaming any political and religious sensitivities. An Israeli-based Muslim surgeon accompanied Jewish specialists on Operation Abraham’s third trip lto Swaziland, which has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world,” in 2008.

In 2017, the Jerusalem Post reported: “A spokesman for Europe’s major intergovernmental agency assured Jews and Muslims in Amsterdam that attempts to limit religious customs like kosher slaughter and circumcision are forms of “intolerance and discrimination.” Ilan Cohn of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, made the assertion at the end of a two-day round-table meeting on non-medical circumcision of minors, ritual slaughter of animals and other religious customs that it organized in the Dutch capital this week for European Jews, Muslims and anti-racism activists. [Source: Jerusalem Post, JTA, July 2017 ^^]

“Dozens of Jewish and Muslim community leaders, as well as anti-racism activists, attended the event — one of the largest Jewish-Muslim joint gatherings ever held on these issues in Europe. “Diverse communities must join together in the face of intolerance and discrimination,” Cohn, a project manager at the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said in a statement about the meeting. ^^

“Among the participants were Rabbi Andrew Baker, the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office on combating anti-Semitism; Bülent Senay, his counterpart at the OSCE for combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims, and Joel Rubinfeld, the president of the Belgian League Against Antisemitism, or LBCA. Cohn’s office said the summit provided an “opportunity for Jewish and Muslim community leaders to learn how to build sustainable national advocacy coalitions that promote tolerance and non-discrimination.” The event included work sessions that featured case studies and exchange of information on the status of religious freedoms in European countries and initiatives to limit them. ^^

“In recent years, a growing number of European governments and parliaments have introduced legislation and regulations limiting religious customs, and particularly non-medical circumcision and ritual slaughter of animals, which are performed by Muslims and Jews. In 2012, a court in Germany ruled that non-medical circumcision of boys younger than 18 constituted a violation of their rights, triggering several bans, which were ultimately lifted. ^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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