BeliefWatch: Circumcision Debate

Poor "Misha." Caught in a terrible custody war, this 12-year-old boy from Washington state has become a cause célèbre for a diverse group of activists. Here are the facts, in brief: Misha lives with his father, who has sole custody and who recently converted to Judaism. The father wants Misha to convert as well, and so he wants Misha circumcised. The boy's mother, who is Russian Orthodox, is against it. Doctors Opposing Circumcision, an activist group, started circulating Misha's story online, asking for donations for Misha's defense. A lower court affirmed the father's right to circumcise his son but has allowed the mother to exhaust her legal options before he does so; now the mother hopes that her case will be taken up by the Oregon Supreme Court. The boy's own desires remain unclear.

Two weeks ago, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford don, noted atheist and author of "The God Delusion," posted Misha's story on his Web site. Dawkins was irate, calling Misha's father's intentions "religiously inspired child abuse." While court documents clearly paint a picture of a marriage and divorce so acrimonious and bizarre as to strain credulity, the questions Misha's case present remain interesting. What is the contemporary religious justification for circumcision? How do couples deal fairly with religious differences in situations of divorce and remarriage?

Jews are generally circumcised as a symbol of Abraham's covenant with God. But as circumcision rates in America have declined dramatically over the past 40 years, from 90 percent to about 60 percent by some estimates—and as the debate about the health benefits of the practice continues to inflame parents-to-be—a few Jews, especially in affluent, assimilated quarters, have begun to wonder if it's necessary. DOC posts a list of rabbis nationwide who will perform a religious ritual welcoming boys into the world without cutting. More to the point, though, is how couples work out their religious conflicts in divorce agreements. Raoul Felder, the Manhattan divorce attorney, says he's seen several custody cases in which one parent confesses to having had a baby baptized in secret. But "it's a little hard to hide a circumcision." Perhaps Misha's parents need to step back and consider the case of Schmidt v. Niznik, decided last fall. In that instance, a divorced mother wanted to circumcise her 9-year-old son over the father's objections. The judge asked her to wait until the boy was old enough to decide for himself. Misha may well need a lawyer, but what he needs more are parents who will cease inflicting pain upon him, psychic or otherwise.

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