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What Is Ritual Circumcision?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ritual circumcision is any process that is highly culturally valued and involves cutting off the foreskin of a male human. Most of the time, female circumcision is also steeped in ritual, but this type of circumcision is much more controversial and is usually referred to as female genital mutilation no matter how culturally important it is considered within a given society. Male ritual circumcision is often performed on young boys or infants and may involve parties, religious ceremonies, and, if the boy is old enough, male bonding with other boys being circumcised. Even though the specific meaning of ritual circumcision depends on the culture in which it is practiced, this type of activity often symbolizes becoming a man or becoming part of a religious group.

The origins of ritual circumcision are different in various cultures, with many citing Biblical passages as justification. It is possible that this practice originated in Egypt and is related to the shedding of a snake's skin. In a practical sense, the purpose of this type of ritual is to physically mark males as members of a specific cultural group. The ethics of the ritual physical alteration of minors is often hotly debated, and in many areas, ritual circumcision is highly stigmatized if not illegal.

One of the best-known types of ritual circumcision is the brit milah, which is a Jewish ceremony performed on infants. The ritual aspect of this ceremony is clear not only in the activities of the people attending the ceremony, but also in the requirement that blood be drawn for the circumcision to count. Muslim circumcision rituals are much more varied and occur at a variety of ages, although it is more common for the procedure to occur in public and involve several boys.

In Africa, ritual circumcision may involve all boys within a certain tribe being circumcised at the same time. Like many circumcision rituals that focus on turning boys into men, showing no fear and being strong in the face of pain are highly encouraged. Unfortunately, any circumcision ritual that is not well regulated and involves the circumcision of multiple boys using the same instruments has the risk of spreading diseases. This has been a problem in many cultures, including cases of Herpes being spread during a brit milah.

Just because an act is a ritual does not mean that it is exempt from the moral standards of the country in which the ritual is practiced. In countries that value the use of anesthesia or consider freedom from genital mutilation a serious issue, the circumcision of minors is often highly regulated. The ritual aspects of circumcision must often be observed within a medical context in these locations, or the person providing the circumcision must be specially trained in some way.

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