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Religious Considerations 2
A Conflict of Rights

Religion1    >CIRP Circ History   >CIRP Religious Docs
  These off-site links are highly recommended for those concerned with the religious aspects of preserving the foreskin:
>Circumcision Resource Center
>Questioning Jewish Circumcision
>Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain
>Jewish Circumcision in the News
[bad link?]
>THE 8th DAY, A documentary by Keren Markuze.  

On this Page:
A delicate ritual (brit milah)
The Surgery of Ritual Circumcision
My son at the cutting edge
Live and Uncut
Thoughts of a Jewish intactivist
First (?) Unitarian Universalist President to condemn male circumcision
Catholic Moral Law


Village Voices Wednesday, January 10, 2001, Chapel Hill, NC.

A delicate ritual

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 surgical alteration that marked him as a Jew had to be performed to complete him in the eyes of God and man.

This ritual marking is the most ancient of Jewish rites mentioned early in Chapter 17 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The Orthodox Jews answer the question of why did not God create boys already circumcised, saying that both the physical and spiritual aspects of the (hu)man need to be perfected by acts in this world. That perfecting starts with the circumcision. It is done on the eighth day to indicate, symbolically, that the physical creation 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 covenant with God. There is no equivalent naming or blessing ceremony in traditional Jewish religious practice although most modern Jews formally name and bless 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 and generally done at home. Aside from any pain and trauma, the ritual is long and loving, beginning the night before the ceremony with the father and his colleagues staying up all night studying the Torah at the new born's bedside. Young children are invited in to say prayers over the newborn and 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 of that couple, who places him in a special chair reserved for Elijah, the prophet. Elijah is said to be invited to all brits as an honored guest. The sandek, or honored man (like a grandfather), picks up the baby and is designated to hold him during the ceremony. Candles are lit and a series of blessings are 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 the mohel, or ritual circumciser acting as his agent, does the cutting. For extensive information on the ceremony, see two Web sites 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 have attended, I have never failed to get a chill up my spine when the prayers are being recited invoking the covenant between Abraham and God. Maybe it's because I remember that Abraham was 99 years old when he was summoned by God. Or some visceral memory of my own experience. I have seen many mothers of these baby boys, including my sister-in-law, then a neo-natal nurse, 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 Pediatricians does not endorse it anymore. Nonetheless Jews have clung to this rite almost more intensely than any other. Even now, many Russian Jewish immigrant adults who were not circumcised at birth, due to fears of anti-Semitism, immediately seek out a ritual circumcision on arrival in this country or Israel. Strong 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 have also included religiously based ritual in their call for abolition of this "unnecessary operation." Recent books including Billy Ray Boyd's "Exposing Circumcision," Ronald Goldman's (not the deceased waiter) "Circumcision, the

Hidden Trauma" and his somewhat heretical "Questioning Circumcision, a Jewish Perspective" pile up evidence that the majority culture in this country may have erred in adopting circumcision as a universal approach. They are having an effect; circumcision rates have fallen dramatically in 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 universally embraced? Is it more than a cultural rite of passage justified by biblical writings? How does a modern person, confronted with the evidence of medical non-necessity and possible trauma, rationalize this act when his religion has eliminated many other customs also commanded in the Bible such as animal 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 similarly, though not as completely, reduce his future sensitivity and responsiveness.

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 such contradictory feelings and thoughts. My attendance at the brit milah and meal afterwards I considered a mitzvah or good deed and still do. The contradictory thoughts and feelings are mine to wrestle with.

Blair Pollock lives in Chapel Hill where he frequently wrestles with the contradictions and often loses. He can be reached at or 932-2019.


[The Jewish method is perfectly defined and described in Jacob Snowman's]
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 scrotum, and 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 marks the 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 obliquely 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 under-surface of 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 December 1997

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 psychological wounds.

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 called him.

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 somewhere else.

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 anaesthetic.

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 Independent:-
The Independent
1 Canada Square
Canary Wharf
E14 5DL



Live and Uncut

With circumcision rates dropping in America, some squeamish Jews are trying out a bloodless Bris. But is it kosher?


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 people."

"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 genitals."


Thoughts of a Jewish intactivist]:

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 like.

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 child's agony.

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.

Rabbi Lawrence 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 same voice."

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.

Antti Pelkola, duly elected Chairman (equivalent of President over here) of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Finland, has today, September 5, 2001, clearly stated his censure of male circumcision. 

The 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 who wish to identify those of the "right persuasion" on the basis of their physical appearance. God, I feel, looks elsewhere. 

 "Hair 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 completely prohibited."


A Conservative Jewish Physician Speaks Out

Mark 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 circumcised.  Despite the fact that prophylactic surgery was not generally performed, we were taught that circumcision was the correct and healthy thing to do.  It was thought to control masturbation, reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections, decrease cancer risk, and help curtail sexually transmitted diseases.  We learned nothing of foreskin anatomy and function.

Infant nervous systems were thought to be undeveloped and their pain was so trivialized that it was almost ignored.  As a young physician, I participated in many circumcisions.  Over the years I've witnessed brit milah in the homes of friends and family.  I was uncomfortable with the practice, but like most physicians, and like most Jews, I said and did nothing to question circumcision.

  Two years ago, as I was about to become a grandfather for the first time, my interest in the subject became more focussed.  I learned that more and more physicians now realize that any potential benefits of circumcision are far outweighed by its risks and drawbacks.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that "Routine circumcision is not necessary".  Whether done by a physician in the hospital, or a mohel in a ritual Brit Milah, the procedure has significant complication rates of infection, hemorrhage and even death.

Mortality may actually be higher than thought since some of these deaths have not been attributed to circumcision, but listed only under their secondary causes, such as hemorrhage or infection.  I've learned of the very important role the foreskin has in the protection of the head of the penis in the infant, and in sexual functioning in adulthood.  It has also been shown that the newborn feels pain even more acutely than adults do, and that many of the infants who stop crying during circumcision are actually in a state of traumatic shock.  To my amazement I learned that the USA is now the only country in the world routinely circumcising for non-religious reasons.

  With these overwhelming reasons not to circumcise, I began to look at the practice of ritual circumcision in the Jewish community and I learned that: Circumcision is NOT an identity issue. You do not need to be circumcised to be Jewish any more than the need to observe many other Jewish laws.  The bottom line is, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, period.  Among Jews in Europe, South America, and even in Israel, circumcision is not universal, and growing numbers of American Jews are now leaving their sons intact as they view circumcision as a part of Jewish law that they can no longer accept.  Alternative "Brit b'li Milah" ceremonies (Ritual naming ceremony without cutting) are being performed by some Rabbis.  Increasing numbers of intact boys are going to religious school, having Bar Mitzvahs, and taking their place as young adults in the Jewish community.

  As a Jewish grandfather, I want to assure young couples about to bring a child into the world, that there are other members of the Jewish "older" generation, including other Jewish physicians, and even some Rabbis, who feel as I do.  If your heart and instincts tell you to leave your son intact, listen!


The Catholic Catechism (2297) states:

"Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law."






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