Science Learns the Value of Male Circumcision


A new scientific discovery explains the benefit, but not the value of circumcision. The value, as Jews and Muslims have always known, is in doing something that God wants Muslims and Jews to do. But in the last few years scientists have discovered that a benefit of circumcision is that it provides heterosexual men with considerable protection against infection by HIV and other sexually transmitted viruses. Christian men in Africa are now being urged by doctors to become circumcised. 

The new discovery is that uncircumcised men harbor more bacteria around the head of the penis than do circumcised men, and the mix of microbial species is decidedly different in the two groups. These changes in microbial numbers and diversity may explain why circumcised men are less likely to get infected with HIV. The report, which appeared April 16, 2013 in mBio, finds that when the foreskin is removed from the head of the penis, resident microbes become exposed to oxygen and many bacteria flee the scene. The scientists suggest that high amounts of bacteria, and the presence of poorly understood anaerobic microbes in uncircumcised men, might contribute to inflammation, which would facilitate infection by HIV lodged in the foreskin.

Of course, Muslims and Jews have been circumcising their sons for many centuries; long before any human knew of the medical benefit of this religious duty. For most religious Jews and Muslims, it comes as no surprise that a traditional religious duty should have beneficial physical effects. God could not be expected to instruct people to do things that are harmful to themselves. But Muslim and Jewish philosophers have long debated the following question: are all religious laws rational (meaning that if we had enough knowledge we could rationally understand why everyone should obey these laws for our own benefit); or are some/most religious laws transrational spiritual laws, that help the members of each religion become closer to God. Muslim philosophers like Al-Biruni (973-1048), Ibn Sina (980-1047), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) debated this question, Jewish philosophers also did so in the same way. People who know the teachings of various Muslim philosophers will see how similar the following Rabbis are to Muslim philosophers. 

Saadia Gaon (882-942), thought some of the commandments are an obligation because they are required by reason; while other commandments are transrational and given only through revelation. The latter must be accepted for no other reason than that they were proclaimed by God.

Boys ages about 7-8 years old, in line to be circumcised in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Bachya ibn Pakuda (11 century), whose outlook was very similar to that of his Sufi friends, combined Saadia’s division of the commandments with his own focus on “duties of the body” and “duties of the heart”. Bodily duties are of two kinds: duties of reason, and duties neither demanded nor rejected by reason (like the prohibition of eating milk and meat together). The “duties of the heart,” are intellectual reasons or emotional reasons, such as trusting and loving God. For Bachya, commandments with no apparent reason are simply opportunities for spiritual growth, reverence and love that are intended to bring people closer to God.

Judah HaLevi (1075-1141), a poet and philosopher, classified the commandments under three headings: rational laws which had to do with belief in God and ethical justice; governmental laws having to do with the general functioning of a society; and revealed divine laws whose function was to elevate people, especially Jews, to commune with God. 

Maimonides (1135-1204), perhaps the greatest of all Jewish philosopher did not distinguish between so-called “rational” and transrational laws. In his opinion, all of the commandments in the Torah had useful purposes and reasons for the welfare of the soul or the body.

Nachmanides (1194-1270), a mystically inclined commentator on the Torah, maintained that there was a reason for every commandment in the Torah, although many of the reasons were transrational and would only become clear on Judgement Day or in the world to come. 

I believe that most, but not all, of the ethical commandments in each revealed religion are very similar to each other. Any person who lives up to the teachings of love. peace, compassion and goodness in his or her own religion, will not behave very different from good, kind, loving people in other religions. Religions differ primarily, although not entirely, in their spiritual activities: holy days, prayers, dietary rules etc. in the same way that loving couples treat each other similarly but vary greatly in the forms that they use to express their love. These forms are very important and unique to each couple because love resides in specific details. Rumi says: “Ritual prayer differs in every religion, but belief never varies.” This also means that belief/faith is a constant that expresses itself in every religion’s ritual and prayer in an unique and special way. The commandments we cannot rationally explain are the ones best suited for expressing our love. 

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Rabbi Allen S. Maller retired after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is rabbimaller.com.



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