A JEWISH WOMAN DENOUNCES CIRCUMCISION
Several weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a blessing for my friend Julia's baby, Madeleine.
Julia is a Mormon so the blessing took place at her church. The blessing began when Monte, Julia's husband, took Madeleine to the front of the chapel. Then as Madeleine lay peacefully in Monte's arms, several men formed a circle around them and said a prayer. Many babies, I'm told, cry all through their blessings, but Madeleine didn't utter a sound. She was as peaceful and happy a baby as I've ever seen.
After the blessing, Julia stood up in front of the congregation and talked about her wonderful home birth. Clearly this was a subject that was quite foreign to most of the members. She spoke of the trauma surrounding her first birth (an unnecessary cesarean), and the absolute joy of giving birth naturally this time, with only her husband and friend Jenny by her side. Then, much to my surprise, Monte stood up and he, too, testified to the wonders of home birth. Many eyes were opened that day.
As I sat there, I thought about what a wonderful gift this blessing was to Madeleine - two loving parents and numerous church members all saying a prayer for this newborn baby. All babies should begin their lives this way.
Ironically, I had spent much of the previous week conversing with various people about a "blessing" of another sort - a bris, a ceremony held for Jewish boys on their eighth day of life. The difference, however, between a Mormon blessing and a Jewish one, is that at a bris, a circumcision is performed.
I was raised as a Jew and yet I never even considered circumcising my sons. Reason told me that God or nature doesn't make mistakes. Obviously there is a vast intelligence behind all of life, and just as our eyes have eyelids to protect them, foreskins must serve a similar purpose. Why then do people choose to circumcise?
To answer this question it helps to know a little about the evolution of self-consciousness. According to psychological historian Gerald Heard, for as long as humans have been on this earth they have been evolving psychologically. Contrary to what many people believe, there is a purpose to this evolution and that purpose is to create a rational, critical, thinking human being who is capable of understanding both herself and her non-physical source. For it is only when we become fully aware of ourselves as individuals that we can truly become co-creators with God, or the larger consciousness.
Before we developed a self-consciousness, we were more like the animals. We felt connected to God (and when I say God I don't mean "the man in the sky") and to each other. But without a strong sense of self, we were limited emotionally, spiritually, physically, and psychologically. Hence the need to break away from the "safety" of the herd mentality and develop a self-consciousness.
Self-consciousness, however, brings with it its own set of "problems" or challenges. Fear is a natural consequence of becoming self-conscious. We fear ourselves, our world, and the non-physical source we are slowly becoming distanced from. No longer can we rely on instinct alone to guide us. We must think for ourselves, and sometimes that's frightening.
Awareness of self also brings with it a sense of guilt and shame. A baby is not ashamed to be naked, nor does she feel guilty about taking up a good amount of her mother's time. But as we grow older and grow in self-consciousness, things change. A nine-year-old will generally cover her body in shame, and a thirty-year-old will often feel guilty about having her own wants and needs met. These are beliefs that come with the awareness of self. They can, however, be overcome.
What, you may be asking, does all this have to do with circumcision? Circumcision began at a time when humanity as a whole was growing up and entering a new level of self-consciousness. Sexual guilt and shame were strong, and those who were able to suppress their sexual feelings were looked upon as virtuous and God-like. Sex was dirty and babies, which were a result of sex, were thought to be dirty as well - unless they were cleansed of their mother's sin by either Baptism or circumcision. There are actually Jewish writings stating women are "unclean."
Circumcision was also a way of dominating the individual and subjecting him to the control of the group. Individuality is frightening to those whose identity is totally wrapped up in the group. Losing a member means losing a part of what they consider "the self." And so, just as the cutting of the hair in the military sends the message that the individual is now the property of the state, the cutting of the penis sends the message that he is now the property of his religion or the institution.
Thankfully humanity is evolving and many of the barbaric rituals of the past are no longer being carried out. Among many Jews, Muslims, Africans, and Americans, however, circumcision is still prevalent. Why?
The first answer is ignorance. Many people are unaware of the realities of circumcision. Inaccurate "studies" of the supposed benefits of circumcision are still being quoted by doctors and religious leaders. However, all of the so-called benefits have now been disproven and even the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Pediatric Urologists Association have all stated that circumcision should not be performed routinely; the former stated that "there are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period."
In fact, not only is circumcision unnecessary, it is also dangerous. According to anti-circumcision advocate Frank Garcia, on any given day at least one hundred routine infant circumcisions will result in complications, irreversible surgical trauma, penile loss or even death. Meatal ulceration, or inflammation of the urinary opening happens to half of all circumcised infants. This condition does not occur to intact infants. This is because without a foreskin, the delicate glans is constantly exposed to urine, feces, and abrasive diapers.
Sexual sensitivity is decreased when a boy is circumcised. The foreskin contains many nerve endings which of course are destroyed when it is removed. However, the exposed glans is also affected. According to Dr. Dean Edell, over 75% of the glans near surface nerve endings are destroyed in the years following circumcision by friction between the glans and clothing. Layers of nerveless skin cells, at least ten times thicker (and therefore less sensitive) than the normal glans surface, are grown by the denuded glans to protect itself.
Dr. George C. Denniston writes in his article "Unnecessary Circumcision" (The Female Patient, Vol. 17, July 1992), "If there is any possibility that the foreskin can contribute significantly to sexual enjoyment, is that not a cogent reason for rethinking our motives for this ritual procedure?"
It goes without saying that circumcision is a very painful procedure. M. Pickard-Ginsberg, a Jewish man who regretted having his son circumcised wrote in his article "Jesse's Circumcision" (MOTHERING No. 11, Spring 1979):
I can still hear Jesse's crying...begging for someone to stop the pain...screaming of being violated. Elizabeth, with tears streaming down her face, soaked a washcloth in wine, which Jesse intermittently sucked. His little hands clutched my thumb. Sharon's "Om's" occasionally drifted between screams - bless her. Steve (the urologist) was explaining that Jesse's foreskin was unusually tight; a dorsal slit was necessary. He asked how we were, while holding the hemostat on Jesse's bloody penis after each cut.
Hemorrhaging was important to avoid.
Why didn't we stop him? Shock?
He cut again. Pulling back the foreskin, Steve revealed the tip of Jesse's penis, which was the color of raw liver. This was a circumcision? Finally, he put the bell clamp around the tip of Jesse's penis and clamped it. Jesse let out a scream we will never forget. It crescendoed up and up until his mouth hung open, face distorted, and no sound came out. Pure anguish.
Twenty-five minutes had passed. A sacred boundary had been crossed. Never again will a son of mine be circumcised without medical reason.
As was traditional, we said a few blessings and served cake and wine. To me this seemed barbaric. What had Jesse gained from this "tradition?" What meaning could it have for him? How could Elizabeth and I justify violating his body?
We couldn't and can't.
M. Pickard-Ginsberg is not the only Jew who has taken a stand against circumcision. Jews have been debating this issue for years. Nelly Karsenty writes in her article "A Mother Questions Brit Milla" that she was stunned to realize that questioning this ritual is the ultimate taboo among American Jews. In Europe, she says, many Jews reject circumcision as an archaic and barbaric ritual. She speculates as to why American Jews seem to accept it so readily.
Perhaps, she writes, it is because "circumcision is seen as a symbolic loyalty oath stating that one belongs to the Jewish tribe. It is easier to do so by circumcising one's son than by demanding of oneself to pray three times a day or to observe the dietary laws or the Shabbat each week."
In Europe, she says, Jews have divergent approaches to this issue just as they do with other aspects of Judaism. Or maybe, she writes, it is because brit milla (circumcision) is one of the major ways in which Judaism differs from Christianity. Therefore many Jews feel that rejecting circumcision implies an embracing of Christianity.
As I stated earlier, many Jews are simply ignorant of the realities of circumcision. They still believe the inaccurate studies concerning cleanliness and disease. And of course, some believe that circumcision has been mandated by God. There are even those like Dr. Henry Romberg who insist upon traditional methods such as the use of fingernails as cutting instruments and the taking of the bleeding penis into the mouth to suck the blood.
The good news is that circumcision is going the way of the tonsillectomy. In the 1970's, 90% of American males were circumcised. Today less than 60% are. Only 15% of males are circumcised world-wide.
When all is said and done, circumcision is really a human rights issue. What right do any of us have to permanently remove a normal, healthy, sensitive part of another person's body without their consent? I have no problem with an adult male who chooses to be circumcised. I do have a problem with an adult who makes that decision for a child. I have known too many men, both Jewish and Christian, who resent the fact that they were circumcised.
While writing this article I dreamt that my newly married sister, Janet, was having a blessing for her newborn baby. In reality, Janet has yet to conceive (as far as I know!). Janet is a loving and creative person and I'm sure she could put together a beautiful blessing ceremony for her baby. I only pray that if she does have a son someday, she will love him enough to leave him intact. We all have a right to wholeness.
Postscript: This past December my sister gave birth to a little boy. She and her husband decided not to circumcise him.
For more information about circumcision, please visit:
Jewish Circumcision Resource Center.