links are highly recommended for those concerned with the religious
aspects of preserving the foreskin:
>Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain
Circumcision in the News
>THE 8th DAY, A
documentary by Keren Markuze.
A delicate ritual (brit milah)
Surgery of Ritual Circumcision
son at the cutting edge
Thoughts of a Jewish
(?) Unitarian Universalist President to condemn male circumcision
Catholic Moral Law
Wednesday, January 10, 2001
, Chapel Hill, NC.
On Saturday I
attended a brit milah, Hebrew for the covenant of
circumcision. The baby boy was, according to Jewish law, eight
days old and
healthy. Also according to Jewish law, he was incomplete and the
alteration that marked him as a Jew had to be performed to
complete him in
the eyes of God and man.
marking is the most ancient of Jewish rites mentioned early in
Chapter 17 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The Orthodox
the question of why did not God create boys already circumcised,
both the physical and spiritual aspects of the (hu)man need to be
by acts in this world. That perfecting starts with the
circumcision. It is
done on the eighth day to indicate, symbolically, that the
is complete and this is time to begin creation of the soul.
There are a
variety of religious answers to why Jewish girls are not
circumcised, ranging from "they are already perfect in God's
eyes" to a much
more patriarchal approach that essentially keeps them out of a
God. There is no equivalent naming or blessing ceremony in
Jewish religious practice although most modern Jews formally name
their girl children.
While there is no
indication that the ancient form included a prayer
service, set ritual and liturgy, the service now used is codified
generally done at home. Aside from any pain and trauma, the ritual
and loving, beginning the night before the ceremony with the
father and his
colleagues staying up all night studying the Torah at the new
bedside. Young children are invited in to say prayers over the
are rewarded with sweets.
The day of the
brit, the boy's mother hands the baby to the woman of a
pre-selected honored couple, godparents, who hands him to the man
couple, who places him in a special chair reserved for Elijah, the
Elijah is said to be invited to all brits as an honored guest. The
or honored man (like a grandfather), picks up the baby and is
hold him during the ceremony. Candles are lit and a series of
recited over the act, the naming of the child and sanctifying the
child as a
Jew. During this series of prayers, either the child's father or
or ritual circumciser acting as his agent, does the cutting. For
information on the ceremony, see two Web sites http://mohel.com and
While the ritual
is beautiful, it is also chilling. This is a blood
sacrifice, a very ancient tribal rite. In the dozen or so brits I
attended, I have never failed to get a chill up my spine when the
are being recited invoking the covenant between Abraham and God.
because I remember that Abraham was 99 years old when he was
God. Or some visceral memory of my own experience. I have seen
of these baby boys, including my sister-in-law, then a neo-natal
leave the room during the act.
An infant is being
subjected to what is now widely perceived as a medically
unnecessary procedure. In fact, the mohel said to me on Saturday,
"I do not
recommend this for non-Jews." The American Association of
not endorse it anymore. Nonetheless Jews have clung to this rite
intensely than any other. Even now, many Russian Jewish immigrant
were not circumcised at birth, due to fears of anti-Semitism,
seek out a ritual circumcision on arrival in this country or
medicine. Powerful ritual.
The ritual has its
detractors. In fact, a whole industry has risen in the
past 10 years to try to eliminate secular circumcision, and some
included religiously based ritual in their call for abolition of
"unnecessary operation." Recent books including Billy
Ray Boyd's "Exposing
Circumcision," Ronald Goldman's (not the deceased waiter)
Trauma" and his somewhat heretical "Questioning Circumcision,
Jewish Perspective" pile up evidence that the majority
culture in this
country may have erred in adopting circumcision as a universal
They are having an effect; circumcision rates have fallen
this country -- below 50 percent in some states.
What of the
religious ritual so fiercely protected and defended by many Jews
around the world for thousands of years and still almost
embraced? Is it more than a cultural rite of passage justified by
writings? How does a modern person, confronted with the evidence
non-necessity and possible trauma, rationalize this act when his
has eliminated many other customs also commanded in the Bible such
sacrifice and stoning people to death for various crimes.
Finally, given the
recent world-wide attention and general opposition to
involuntary female circumcision, how does one reconcile support
for his own
cultural norm of circumcising the male in a way that will
not as completely, reduce his future sensitivity and
My attendance at
the inherently joyful event of greeting a new baby on its
entry into the covenant and to humankind was not supposed to evoke
contradictory feelings and thoughts. My attendance at the brit
meal afterwards I considered a mitzvah or good deed and still do.
contradictory thoughts and feelings are mine to wrestle with.
lives in Chapel Hill where he frequently wrestles with the
contradictions and often loses. He can be reached at email@example.com
[The Jewish method is
perfectly defined and described in Jacob Snowman's]
THE SURGERY OF RITUAL CIRCUMCISION,
3d ed., London 1961:
Stage I. The root of the
penis is taken between the index and middle fingers of
the right hand palm downwards, and pressure is made firmly
backwards, the index
finger being against the
scrotum, the middle finger against the lower portion of
the abdomen. This steadies the penis, keeps away the skin of the
helps towards producing an erection.
Stage II. Keeping these
fingers in this position, the thumb, index finger and
middle finger of the left hand are placed around the shaft of the
penis to grasp
the amount of foreskin that is to be removed. This consists of
that skin which
covers the whole of the glans before an erection is effected and
precise position where the shield is to be placed. When this
position is accurately made out, the whole of the skin in front of it is
withdrawn beyond the
glans by the thumb and fingers and very firmly held upwards away
from the scrotum.
Stage III. The fingers are
now to be removed from the root of the penis, and the
shield is taken into the right hand and adjusted on the prepuce
exactly at the
level of the finger tips which are grasping it. The direction of
the shield is
important. It must not be put on at right angles to the penis, but
upwards, i.e., the part of the shield held in the hand must
incline towards the
abdomen of the infant, and the other part away from it, care being
taken that the
scrotum is not caught up in the shield which should grip the
foreskin firmly. In
this way the circumcision will take off the foreskin in a quill
shape, and it
will leave a sufficient amount of skin on the under surface of the
penis. If this
precaution is not observed there is a great risk of denuding the
the skin almost as far as the scrotum.
Stage IV. The knife is then
taken in the right hand and with one sweep along the
shield the foreskin is amputated. The knife must be handled
firmly, and the cut
made from the heel. The shield falls off and the cut circular edge
of the skin
immediately retracts behind the corona, though on the under
surface the small
amount of skin remaining may fall short of this level. and so on
The Independent, 17
My son at
the cutting edge
There were tears and
tantrums the day Jack Shamash had his baby son circumcised. They mostly
came from his wife
The ceremony was easy for
me. But for my wife, it was a little harder. She went upstairs with a
couple of friends, got quite drunk and wept buckets.
Five months ago my wife
gave birth to a son, and we decided to have him circumcised. It was not
a straightforward decision. Over the past few years, circumcisions have
come to be seen as almost bestial. Campaigners against circumcision -
and there are many - lament the barbarity, the trauma to the child, the
loss of sexual pleasure for the adult and the lasting physical and
The best-selling guide to
childcare, Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach, claims that some
babies go into shock during circumcision, and that the procedure leaves
some men with a life-long sense of being deformed. She says: "There
is no possible good to balance out the probable harm."
I decided to disregard this
advice and go ahead with a circumcision - not just because I'm an
unfeeling brute, but because we're Jewish and that's what Jews do. And
also because - to be honest - I think uncircumcised penises look funny,
and I don't really want my son to look different from me.
Jewish circumcisions are
done by mohels (special circumcisers), most of whom have no formal
medical training. Jewish boys are usually circumcised at the age of
eight days, so after the birth we had to work quickly. A friend of ours
who had recently had a son recommended a mohel from Stamford Hill in
north London - an area which has become almost a Chasidic ghetto - so we
The following day, a large
Renault Espace pulled up outside our door. Out stepped two fat men with
long beards and forelocks. They wore formal garb. Black silk kaftans
belted around the waist, white stockings and polished black slippers. On
their heads were the large, fur hats known as shtreimls. They looked as
if they'd come straight out of central casting.
The older rabbi was called
Rabbi Ashkenasy - it seemed an impertinence to ask his first name. My
wife asked whether the baby would suffer any pain. The rabbi dismissed
this suggestion contemptuously. He seemed to imply that there was
nothing a Jewish boy liked better than to have the end of his penis
hacked with a blade.
He said the only problem
was that the mothers often became agitated, and this could
communicate itself to the child. "I tell you this," he said,
"When I hand him back, he will be
completely happy and peaceful."
The rabbi gave us his card
- on the back of which was a shopping list of things we had to provide
for the operation. They included a sterile dressing-pack, six packs of
gauze swabs, five disposable nappies, cotton wool, a pillow, two prayer
shawls, a bottle of Kedem Traditional Kiddush wine and an unopened
bottle of olive oil. We also bought a tube of anaesthetic cream -
although the rabbi told us it would have no effect.
The day of the circumcision
arrived. For Jews, circumcisions usually involve a party - a bit like
weddings or bar mitzvahs. I can't say I enjoyed this one very much.
The circumcision was held
at my mum's house, which was packed with guests. We were late. My wife,
Carol, dashed upstairs, and drank a large glass of whiskey - partly to
calm her nerves and partly so that the alcohol in her milk would subdue
the baby. She was too upset to face the crowds.
Half an hour later, the
rabbi arrived with his assistant. They set up shop on a small
card-table, bringing out bandages, surgical clips and beakers, as if
they were about to perform a bloodthirsty conjuring trick.
I brought the baby
downstairs. It is regarded as a blessing to help carry the baby to the
circumcision, so he was passed through the crowd from hand to hand.
During the operation, it is
traditional for the baby to be held by his Godfather. We had picked my
wife's cousin Graham for this job. Unfortunately, Graham faints at the
sight of blood. The rabbi assured Graham that he would be fine, so
Graham sat there with a fixed smile on his face, imagining he was
The rabbi asked me what
name I'd chosen for the baby. I told him we were calling him Nathan,
which in Hebrew means "given". And then the rabbi called for
hush and started chanting. As the rabbi recited the prayers, he grasped
a clip from among the tools on the card-table and put it over the baby's
foreskin, pulled it forward and, with a yank of his knife, the foreskin
came off in one clean movement. The baby cried, blood flowed on to his
penis and - as the rabbi had predicted - Graham did not faint. The rabbi
then bent over the baby and sucked the wound.
I know this sounds awful,
but it is part of the Jewish tradition. It's supposed to help the
healing. He then gave the baby a few drops of kosher wine as a primitive
The rabbi had lied to us.
The baby was not at all happy and peaceful after the operation. He was
in a horrible mood and whined intermittently for the next day or so. It
was tricky changing his nappy - we used two nappies at a time to ensure
that the wound wasn't disturbed. After a week, we were allowed to bathe
the baby and the dressing floated off. His penis looked rather as one
might have expected: a bloody mess. Over the next few days, the bruising
went down and the penis began to look like a purple acorn.
Do I have any regrets? None
at all. Nathan is a happy, lively boy. And his penis? It's delightful -
just like his dad's.
Contact details for The
1 Canada Square
NEW YORK MAGAZINE
Live and Uncut
With circumcision rates dropping in America,
some squeamish Jews are trying out a bloodless Bris. But is it kosher?
BY GERSH KUNTZMAN
A man holds his newborn grandson before the
crowd and announces that the uncircumcised tot is "whole" and
"perfect" in God's image, says a prayer, drinks some wine,
puts him down, and has brunch. The only knife involved is the one used
to cut the bagels.
You call that a Bris?
It was for the kid's mom, Elizabeth Glass, a
self-described "liberal, hippie, cultural Jew." She defied
that most basic of Jewish tenets last month by hosting the cut-less
"Bris Shalom." "There's no reason to hurt my child to
prove he's Jewish," she says.
While there's no hard data that Jews are turning
away from it in droves, America's world-leading circumcision rates have
been dropping for two decades, thanks to doctors' increasing ambivalence
and the effects of anti-circumcision activists. Books such as Ronald
Goldman's Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Kristen and Jeffrey
O'Hara's >Sex as
Nature Intended It argue against it, and groups like noharmm,
nocirc, and norm are getting their message out via the Internet.
"I'm busier than ever," says Moshe
Rothenberg, a "Jewish educator" who officiates at the
sliceless ceremonies. He admits that three quarters of his clients are
"not affiliated with a congregation," but describes them as
"very committed, secular and cultural Jews" who have concluded
that circumcision is one ritual, like sacrificing a lamb, for which they
no longer have a use. Or, as one 31-year-old Jewish man, who chose not
to circumcise his son last year, explains it: "I thought about how
I don't go to temple or keep kosher and I began to see that my original
attachment to circumcision was arbitrary."
Anti-circumcision activist Goldman said he's
heard from "hundreds" of Jewish parents who've skipped
circumcision. "Often, it's when they hear a child scream at a Bris,
or they read about the 'hygiene myth,' or they just believe their child
is perfect the way he is."
It's not that rabbis aren't sympathetic.
"Even I get chills," says Rabbi Yael Ridberg of the West End
Synagogue. "No parents want to intentionally cause pain."
But to the devout, Bris Shalom is an inherent
contradiction that gropes for legitimacy in biblical inconsistencies or
out-of-context quotes. After all, circumcision is nothing less than a
commandment handed down by God himself in Genesis: "The child whose
flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised . . shall be cut off from his
"The covenant between God and Abraham
involved cutting -- for better or worse," says Ridberg. "It is
inscribed in your heart and in your flesh."
But Elizabeth Glass -- who doesn't doubt her
Jewishness -- felt the inscription could be limited to one place:
"My son's faith will exist in his heart, just not in his
[Thoughts of a Jewish
A while ago, Gary
___ expressed to me his concerns about the accusations of antisemitism
coming from circumcision advocates and suggested that, in my capacity as
Intact-L's most recent Bar Mitzvah, I take up the unenviable assignment
of countering the inflammatory hecklings of Laura Schlessinger and her
I'm not sure I'd
be any more qualified than any of the rest of you on the list-- the
refutations to Laura's charge are succinct and familiar-- but perhaps
the slightly unusual perspective of a fourth-generation Northern
Irishman whose chose Judaism but not circumcision might be useful.
To me the basis of
traditionalist Jews' overwhelmingly illogical response to those daring
to question circumcision is predictably twofold: 1) To attack
circumcision is to attack Jewish identity; and 2) Those who protest are
really just a small but vociferous minority. It is essential to try to
understand both these attitudes.
Down through most
of our history Jews have existed politically as a banned people. Most of
the same dominant cultures that attempted to loosen the bonds of
theocracy and other forms of tyranny such as genital mutilation failed
to acknowledge the basic humanity of their Jewish subjects. Such was the
case with both Hadrian and the Syrian Greeks who, although banning
circumcision on ostensibly humanitarian grounds, directed their bans
toward Jews in a spirit of persecution and threat. Fearing for their
survival, Jews responded in kind, to the point of internalizing and
pursuing the threat against themselves. Humanist rabbi Sherwin Wine
writes how Judas Maccabeus and his followers, contrary to subsequent
mythmaking, were scarcely populist rebels; instead they rounded up
Hellenized Jews by the hundreds and circumcised them on pain of death.
Those seeking insight into official Judaism's intransigence about
circumcision will need to appreciate, though not condone, how the
classical Israelites paradoxically regarded circumcising Pharaohs and
bris-banning emperors as enemies alike....
Jews didn't invent
circumcision, we only persist in staking an identity upon it. Why? Since
the current Jewish male population in America amounts to less than one
in fifty, we're lost in the sea of the more than four out of five
circumcised American men: where's the identity? I think the key to this
riddle lies in confronting another riddle-- that of the "tiny
vociferous minority." How can this be? Why small, when the
demographic of men coming to understand what we've lost is so
overwhelming? And why vociferous, when the voice of adult protest so
often vanishes among conventional lies and complacency?
My inkling came
when I attended my first (and last) bris. The chair of Elijah, legendary
protector of children, was empty. We all sang the familiar prayer for
good health, "refuah sh'lemah," and not one of us looked at
the baby. That's when it hit me. They say the voice of God is present at
every bris milah, and now I knew that was so. Only that voice was not in
the family's songs nor the mohel's "blessings," but in the
Looking back now,
I believe what I experienced was the presence of the true "tiny,
vociferous minority" which engulfs and binds all of us, victimized
child to unconsciously grieving parent, Marilyn Milos to Dr. Laura, John
Erickson to Rabbi Malka, Howard Stern to Larry King. All of us.
Kushner once wrote, "The voice, if it be truly the voice of the
Holy One of Being, speaks both from without and within. And it is the
And it was his
voice. It was our voice once. And it can be again-- strengthened by
words, bonded by common outrage, and dedicated to making real the true
cornerstone of Jewish identity, the accomplishment of "gemilut
chasadim," of righteous loving deeds.
First Unitarian Universalist
President to condemn male circumcision.
Pelkola, duly elected
Chairman (equivalent of President over here) of the Unitarian
Society of Finland, has today, September 5, 2001, clearly stated his
censure of male circumcision.
following is an English translation (from Finnish) of his words: "As a Unitarian, I believe in naturalness and the freedom to choose
as basic guidelines. As long as it has not been proven otherwise, circumcision represents not only an act against nature but a procedure
which encroaches on a child's right to self-determination, from which
commercial advantage is obtained primarily by physicians and self-styled
barbers (in the event they are paid for their work), as well as bigots
wish to identify those of the "right persuasion" on the basis
of their physical appearance. God, I feel, looks elsewhere.
and fingernails can be cut -- they grow back. Irreversible operations
are, however, even at their most beneficial, akin to cosmetic foolery
which should -- in appealing specifically to the protection of children -- be
A Conservative Jewish Physician Speaks Out
David Reiss, M.D.
773 Duncan Street
San Francisco California 94131
phone 415- 647 2687
fax 415- 6476129
September 9, 2001
I am a 68 year old retired physician, a Jew who is an active member of a
Conservative synagogue, and a grandfather.
When I was in Medical School in the '50s, almost all newborn males were
Despite the fact that prophylactic surgery was not generally
we were taught that circumcision was the correct and healthy thing
do. It was thought to
control masturbation, reduce the incidence of
tract infections, decrease cancer risk, and help curtail sexually
diseases. We learned
nothing of foreskin anatomy and function.
nervous systems were thought to be undeveloped and their pain was so
that it was almost ignored. As
a young physician, I participated
many circumcisions. Over
the years I've witnessed brit milah in the homes
friends and family. I was
uncomfortable with the practice, but like most
and like most Jews, I said and did nothing to question
Two years ago, as I was about to become a grandfather for the first
in the subject became more focussed.
I learned that more and more
now realize that any potential benefits of circumcision are far
by its risks and drawbacks. The
American Academy of Pediatrics
stated that "Routine circumcision is not necessary".
Whether done by a
in the hospital, or a mohel in a ritual Brit Milah, the procedure
significant complication rates of infection, hemorrhage and even death.
may actually be higher than thought since some of these deaths have
been attributed to circumcision, but listed only under their secondary
such as hemorrhage or infection. I've
learned of the very important
the foreskin has in the protection of the head of the penis in the
and in sexual functioning in adulthood.
It has also been shown that
newborn feels pain even more acutely than adults do, and that many of
who stop crying during circumcision are actually in a state of
shock. To my amazement I
learned that the USA is now the only
in the world routinely circumcising for non-religious reasons.
With these overwhelming reasons not to circumcise, I began to look at
of ritual circumcision in the Jewish community and I learned that:
is NOT an identity issue. You do not need to be circumcised to
Jewish any more than the need to observe many other Jewish laws.
line is, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, period.
Europe, South America, and even in Israel, circumcision is not
growing numbers of American Jews are now leaving their sons intact as
view circumcision as a part of Jewish law that they can no longer
Alternative "Brit b'li Milah" ceremonies (Ritual naming
cutting) are being performed by some Rabbis.
Increasing numbers of
boys are going to religious school, having Bar Mitzvahs, and taking
place as young adults in the Jewish community.
As a Jewish grandfather, I want to assure young couples about to bring a
into the world, that there are other members of the Jewish
including other Jewish physicians, and even some Rabbis, who feel
do. If your heart and
instincts tell you to leave your son intact,
Catechism (2297) states:
performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly
amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent
against the moral law."