a physical sign of a boy or man’s Jewish identity
probably the most widely observed of all Jewish practices
a religious requirement that has become arguably the most important and recognisable element of Jewish culture
an integral part of bringing up a boy in the context of his family’s traditions.
Professor Michael Freeman* explained the role of Milah thus:
Milah is part of Jewish cultural identity – “a sense of belonging to a religious and cultural group. represents a fundamental human right”
Milah is reasonable – “it is not reasonable to expect a parent to have a boy circumcised. But it would be unreasonable to expect a Jewish parent not to do so”
In medical terms, Milah has been defined as non-therapeutic, neo-natal male circumcision for social, religious and cultural reasons.
*Professor Michael Freeman’s full article can be read here. Professor Michael Freeman is Emeritus Professor of Law at UCL. He is an international authority on the rights of the child. His most recent book was published in 2020 entitled ‘A Magna Carta for Children: Rethinking Children's Rights’.
Milah is carried out by a “Mohel” (plural “Mohelim”)
Mohelim are expected to:
undertake both religious and practical training
undergo child safeguarding training and certification
keep accurate and detailed records
take part in audit, appraisal and continuing education.
The Initiation Society (IS) is the oldest Jewish organisation in the UK, founded in 1745.
The members of the IS are all mohelim. Each mohel is an independent provider of Milah services, but they come together in the IS to discuss issues of joint interest.
The IS provides support and guidance for both mohelim and parents, and has an important role in ensuring good governance.
For more than 100 years, the IS has had an important medical advisory role in Milah. The medically qualified mohelim who are members of the Society often provide educational and practical support to other mohelim.
This oversight is provided by an IS Medical Board which oversees practice, advises the IS, and handles any relevant queries and complaints that may arise. The IS is responsible for training and monitoring its members; the training process is rigorous and can take many months to complete.
The IS Medical Board provides full support not only to mohelim and those in training, but also to parents on matters relating to their child’s health, aftercare and all aspects of the procedure.
The Association of Reform and Liberal Mohelim provides regulation, education and support for those who perform Milah, according to the traditions of their communities, and to parents.
In accordance with the tradition that Abraham circumcised his son Isaac on the eighth day, the duty for Milah falls, in principle, on the father to do so on that day.
However, in practice it is performed by a trained Mohel.
There are three blessings said during the ceremony:
on the commandment itself, indicating that the Mohel is acting in place of the father and on behalf of the family
on the role of Milah as defining entry into the covenant of Abraham
on the role of Milah to remind us of Isaac, and to ask G-d to protect both us, and this newborn child.
Milah is never performed if the procedure could pose a danger to the child. Before Milah the mohel is required to obtain consent from the boy's parents; the mohel must also be completely satisfied that the boy is in good health.
Even when a boy has relatively minor conditions (such as mild jaundice, which is common in children in the neonatal period), mohelim will often postpone the circumcision. Other medical reasons for delay include infection, abnormalities of the penis and foreskin, and familial bleeding conditions.
In the same way as “best interests of the child” play a role in determining why Milah is respected as a traditional practice, so the “best interests of the child” are taken into account when deciding whether the child can undergo Milah, or Milah be postponed.
A flawed comparison is sometimes made between Milah and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is illegal in the UK. It is a serious criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Male circumcision is not illegal.
Key differences include that FGM:
involves injury to the genitalia, which can be associated with their partial or complete removal
can cause a number of serious medical complications
makes intercourse difficult
represents a method of controlling girls‘ and womens’ lives
is never mentioned as part of the Jewish tradition in Biblical or Halachic writings
is not regulated and there are no training requirements for those who perform it.
Milah, as explained above, is carried out in a defined and regulated way, with detailed precautions taken to minimise risk, within a context of Jewish law and tradition.
FGM is not only a criminal offence but also an extremely serious breach of Jewish law.
Milah is a well established, legal and safe practice and is a requirement of Jewish law.
It is impossible to say with any certainty the extent and nature of any discomfort or pain that a boy will feel during Milah and after the procedure. Many mohelim report that babies do not begin to cry when Milah is performed. Rather, they do so when the nappy is removed before the procedure or when their legs are adjusted and held in position. Mohelim report that babies who have been fed before Milah fall asleep minutes after the procedure has been completed.
As part of their training, mohelim are instructed in up-to-date methods for relieving any pain or discomfort in accordance with modern best practice in medicine. It is an issue that is often raised in discussions with parents.
Mohelim encourage the use of topical anaesthetic cream. Association of Reform and Liberal Mohelim members also use injectable (lidocaine) nerve blocks. Both at the time of Milah and post-Milah, parents are advised that they can use standard infant analgesic syrup.
Opponents of Milah argue that it infringes a child’s rights because an eight-day-old boy cannot give consent. They say that parental consent is not appropriate.
The alternative view is based upon the notion that parents make choices for their children which have a profound impact. For example, where and how they sleep, what they eat, and whether they should have their ears pierced. Another example is immunisation. Immunisation has known therapeutic advantages; there is robust scientific evidence that not immunising children creates serious risk of illness or even death – but parents still have the right to refuse to have their child immunised. To say, therefore, that Milah infringes a boy’s rights runs counter to the traditionally understood role of parents.
The Jewish tradition holds that Milah should be carried out at eight days after their birth or as close as possible after that date.
A Jewish man who has undergone Milah in the traditional way, at the traditional time, knows that he has entered his covenant with G-d in the way his people have done for millennia. This is a keystone of his faith and identity.
Conversely, failing to enter a relationship with G-d (without clearcut health and safety reasons), means a boy loses part of his sense of Jewish identity. His parents will have made that decision without his consent, denying him the right to his own cultural heritage and interfering with his right to freedom of religion.
Opting for Milah is also a decision based on data – the anecdotal experience and opinion of most Jewish men. The number of Jewish men who express dissatisfaction with Milah is small.
A leading British legal authority* on children’s rights maintains that, in all actions concerning children, the “best interests” of the child must be the primary consideration. “Best interests” does not exist in a vacuum - it must be viewed in its cultural context. Furthermore, “best interests” should not be short-term only: a longer term perspective must be taken, and long-term benefit could override transient discomfort. Thus “the best interests” of Jewish (and Muslim) boys can be abstracted from the generality of children: for these boys circumcision is in their “best interests”.
Some secularists counter this, by arguing that there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish child’ or a ‘Muslim child’ - there are only 'contextless' children who happen to have parents of a certain ethnic or religious background. This atomised view of humanity misunderstands how Jewish (and Muslim) people have traditionally lived their lives. Individuals see themselves as part of a wider community which helps to define their identity. The ability to inherit one’s social, cultural and religious identity fully – a fundamental expression of human nature – is itself a human right.
*Professor Freeman’s full article can be read here.