CIRCUMCISION AND JUDAISM
Genesis: Ch. 17: 7 – And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee.
8 – And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
9 – And God said unto Abraham Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou and thy seed after thee in their generations.
10 – This is my covenant which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee. Every man child among you shall be circumcised.
11 – And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
12 – And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.
13 – He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
14 – And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people, he hath broken my covenant….
23 – And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day as God had said unto him.
24 – And Abraham was ninety years old and nine when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
25 – And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
26 – In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.
27 – And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.1
The origin of circumcision is lost in prehistory, but it predates the Biblical account by at least thousands of years. The Abrahamic covenant is estimated as having taken place around 1713 B.C.2 The Biblical account, however, is part of the late Priestly Code which was written during the fifth century B.C.3 Therefore, the story of the Abrahamic covenant was repeated orally through countless generations before it was written down in the account that we know of as Genesis.
Moses, who was raised by the Egyptians who did not circumcise infants, apparently was never circumcised. A mysterious account appears in Exodus, in which God becomes angry about Moses’ lack of circumcision, and Moses’ wife, Zipporah remedies the situation:
Exodus: Ch. 4: 24 – And it came to pass by the way of the inn, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him [Moses].
25 – Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said “Surely a bloody husband thou art to me.” So he let him go; then she said, “A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.”4
It appears that despite the covenant with Abraham, circumcision was practiced only sporadically by the Hebrews during ancient times. Under Joshua, several generations later, circumcision took on a new meaning. Joshua was instrumental in making the ritual obligatory for all Israelites. Evidently all the Hebrew males that came out of Egypt were circumcised, but those born in the wilderness during the forty year aftermath were not circumcised. Therefore God called upon Joshua to enforce circumcision upon all the people. From thereon, circumcision became universal among the Hebrews.5
There is also a Biblical account of an outrageous misuse of circumcision. A number of soldiers were conquered in a battle and subsequently circumcised. Then, three days later, when the men were too sore to fight, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, “took each man his sword, and came upon the city and slew all the males.”6
Further on in the Old Testament, mention is made of the metaphorical “circumcision of the heart.” In other words, mere cutting of the flesh is not enough without inner fervor and commitment to the religion’s ideals. Jeremiah especially preached this message:
Jeremiah: Ch. 4: 4 – Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.7
The unsolved riddle is why … ? Why does a religion with the dignity of Judaism, one of the major religions of the world with widespread influence in Western thought, place central importance upon cutting off part of the penis?
Fears and superstitions about blood have prevailed among many primitive peoples. Fear of blood pollution is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament.
One writer explains:
“The sight of blood brought consternation into the mind of primitive man. He was unable to account for its mysterious power. In one moment he saw a person flushed with life and strength; in another moment he saw this same person inert, motionless, helpless and dead, only because the blood had oozed from his body. He was dead beyond all efforts to revive or resuscitate….
“Primitive man was awed by the puzzling element of life that was in that blood. He began to fear it. Thus was born the superstitious belief that blood had power within itself to wreak vengeance or bring injury upon another. For fear of being contaminated by the mysterious power inherent in blood, primitive man could conceive of no other way to avoid contamination than by making taboo those capable of polluting others; and if contaminated, then some form of blood expiation was necessary for purification … primitive belief of blood contamination brought into existence elaborate and myriad forms of blood expiation, from that of uttering a prayer upon the killing of an animal to the cutting off of the foreskin of a male child, on the eighth day (after) its birth.”8
In particular, concern about blood contamination and impurities was directed toward any woman with an “issue of blood” such as during menstruation and following childbirth. In Leviticus, laws that concerned blood taboos surrounding menstruation and postpartum bleeding are clearly written out. Anything that is touched by a woman who is menstruating, recently delivered, or otherwise bleeding vaginally is considered unclean. Anything that she lies on or sits on is contaminated. Anyone who touches her bed or anything that she has sat on must wash his clothes and bathe himself. If a man has sex with her during this time he is considered unclean for seven days. After the woman has finished bleeding she is still unclean for seven days. “Nidah” is the name given to this traditional Jewish practice (today largely abandoned) by which women abstain from sexual relations during menstruation and for seven days thereafter. The period of abstinence is followed by a ritual, “purifying” bath called “mikvah” before she and her husband can resume marital relations.9
These fears and taboos surrounding women’s vaginal bleeding were obviously a manifestation of an extremely patriarchal society which considered women inferior beings. In regards to the postpartum period, the law states:
Leviticus: Ch. 12: 2 – Speak unto the children of Israel saying, if a woman have conceived seed, and borne a man child, then she shall be unclean seven days: according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
3 – and in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 – And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days: she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.10
The infant boy, of necessity, had to be in contact with his mother following birth. Some authors have interpreted the above passage in Leviticus to mean that the newborn infant boy was considered “unclean” due to contact with his mother who was bleeding, and the blood of his circumcision was an “atonement” for this impurity … a protection against evil forces.
It must be noted that today, with modern plumbing and disposable sanitary pads and tampons, menstruation and postpartum bleeding can be dealt with easily. In a primitive land without flushing toilets, showers, or modern sanitary products, the same process was certainly much more disagreeable. Additionally, women can die from excessive postpartum bleeding. Today such hemorrhages can be treated readily with medications and procedures which were not available to primitive peoples. Occasional encounters with death from hemorrhage following childbirth also certainly contributed to primitive peoples’ fear of this bleeding.
Yet another consideration – among peoples who practiced early marriage, repeated pregnancies, large families, and prolonged breastfeeding, most women did not experience regular menstrual cycles. Usually only the barren woman, who was in a position of shame and sorrow, experienced regular monthly periods. Therefore menstruation was a less familiar occurrence to such people and when it did occur it was often connected with the stigma of being unable to conceive.
But is the “impurity” of the mother’s postpartum bleeding the true, original reason for the circumcision of Jewish infant males? At best it appears to be only a partial explanation.
Most historians believe that circumcision of male infants by the Jews was preceded by the practice of adolescent circumcision. Therefore it cannot have begun as a postpartum blood taboo. Also, when the Abrahamic covenant was established and Abraham circumcised himself and his son, there was no menstruating or recently delivered woman around to necessitate a “blood atonement.”
If baby boys were considered in a state of danger and impurity from the mother’s postpartum blood, and therefore in need of circumcision, why wasn’t a similar rite necessary for equally “contaminated” baby girls? Were female children not “important” enough to warrant such “consideration”? Were infant girls at one time circumcised, but the practice proved too dangerous for females? Were mothers able to protect their girl children from this painful procedure, but lacked similar control over the fate of their male children?
Women also had to care for their children during menstruation, but children were not made to go through a similar “purifying” rite every time their mother menstruated. Women frequently had to care for their older children during the postpartum period, but these children were not put through any blood purification rite as a result.
However, the blood shed by the infant during circumcision definitely is an important part of the ritual. The occasional baby born without a foreskin must still have the ceremony with a small amount of blood drawn from his penis or another partof his body. Among Orthodox Jews, modern clamp devices cannot be used for circumcision because they do not allow for enough bleeding.
There are references in Jewish literature which associate the blood shed by the infant during circumcision with the blood of the sacrificial Passover lamb, and also with the blood of the Jewish martyrs.11,12
The Significance of Cutting
Erich Isaac comments on the act of cutting in itself being an important aspect of the Jewish circumcision ritual:
“…the ancient custom of using cutting or dismembering rites in connection with treaty and covenant obligations…. Jeremiah mentions a dismembering rite similar to Abraham’s first covenant ceremony. The nobility of Judah pledge themselves to set their slaves free by dividing a calf and walking through the parts…. The whole notion of cutting as a covenant sign seems strange to us, for we associate covenants and treaties with binding together. Yet it was the cutting of the Gordian knot by Alexander the Great which was to bind Asia and Europe together, and even today we cut silk ribbons when inaugurating bridges and highways. We thereby symbolize the joining together of places that were previously separate. In terms of ancient ritual too, the act of severing was not symbolic of separation, but rather of a prior and subsequent state of wholeness.”13
Blood taboos and atonement interconnect with the concept of sacrifice as related to circumcision. There has been considerable speculation that circumcision either shared a common origin with or developed as a more humane replacement of human sacrifice.
Jewish historical sources often state this clearly:
“A man who brings his son to be circumcised is to be compared to a High Priest bringing a meal offering and libation to the Temple altar.”14
“…By fulfilling the Commandment of Circumcision every person has an opportunity to bring a sacrifice to the Almighty.”15
Sacrifice of animals in the form of burnt offerings placed upon the altar of the Temple was a frequent practice of the ancient Hebrews. Such a sacrifice was required of a woman following the birth of a child … further evidence that she was considered to be in a state of “impurity” and in need of “atonement”.16
Belief in evil spirits prevailed among the ancient Hebrews. The mother and child were considered in danger during the first eight days prior to circumcision – the operation somehow “warding off” evil spirits.
“All diseases were manifestations of the wrath of God for transgressions or due to the attack of demons or to the breach of a taboo or to the Evil Eye. The whole world was filled with demons; every phase and every form of life was ruled by them and they had to be cajoled, appeased, bribed and rewarded. ALL people believed in demons, among whom Lilit was a favorite. In the Talmud she is the wife of Adam before Eve was created and became the mother of demons – those creatures whose haunts were ‘uncultivated wilds and deserts and bleak summits of mountains.’ Lilit was a nocturnal specter bent on mischief. She caused men to waste their seed (semen) and weakened boy babies during the first eight days. (One of the attempts to explain circumcision after the origin had been forgotten may have been inspired by the legend of Lilit.)”17
Circumcision was connected with a promise of fertility on the part of God to the Hebrew people. In Genesis it is clearly stated along with the Abrahamic covenant:
“…For a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee….”18
Other evidence of the relationship between circumcision and fertility is illustrated in the use of the term “circumcision” in reference to fruit trees and fields to be harvested. In Leviticus mention is made of “uncircumcised” trees, the fruit of such trees being “taboo” during the first three years of production.19
Reference is also made to
“…the feast of circumcision of the field … It is the marriage feast of the field as an introduction to its actual time of fertility.”20
(While “circumcised fields” and “uncircumcised trees” sounds ludicrous to us, undoubtedly much of the meaning is lost in translation!)
All of this indicates the concept that fertility, through circumcision, is not merely a matter of removing a supposed physical handicap of the foreskin as a hindrance to conception, but that the act, or sacrament of circumcision, as a ritual, is being offered in return for the gift of fertility from the deity.
Identity as a People
Possession of a penis that lacks its foreskin has often served to signify membership within the group for many peoples, including the Jews. This appears to be a result of the practice rather than the original motivation.
The Jews were without a homeland for centuries, until Israel was re-established in the 1940s. Therefore, Jews have been a unique cultural group throughout the world. They have frequently been misunderstood, shunned and persecuted for many reasons including their practice of circumcision. Frequently other peoples have forbidden Jews from practicing the rite. Due to both their lack of a homeland throughout the ages and the persecutions that they have suffered for practicing circumcision, the circumcised penis has become a symbol of common identity for Jews. Reverse psychology came into effect, with the attempts of others to put an end to Jewish circumcision making the Jews more determined than ever to perpetuate the rite while other practices such as sacrificing animals or observance of Nidah have been largely abandoned by Jews today.
Another consideration is the fact that circumcision is an event that occurs only once in an individual’s lifetime and is an “all or nothing” condition. Therefore the Jew who is not strongly observant in some aspects of his religion may, for example, eat only Kosher foods during Passover and other special Jewish observances, but eats pork and other non-Kosher foods on ordinary days. But one either has a circumcised penis or he has a penis with its foreskin.
Why Did the Jews Choose to Circumcise Infants?
The vast majority of circumcisions throughout ancient history were performed on older individuals, usually adolescents during initiation rites, or captured slaves and enemies. Circumcision of infants and small children has been a relatively recent innovation.
Bryk mentions that the Hebrew terminology “hatan” meaning “bridegroom” apparently also means “newly circumcised” and “hoten”-father in law-means the same as “circumciser.”21
The Biblical account in which Zipporah, to appease the Lord’s wrath, circumcises their son, throws the severed foreskin at Moses’ feet and calls him a “bloody husband,” has been interpreted as meaning “You are now that to me, what you should have been as a bridegroom, that is one consecrated for marriage through such a shedding of blood.”22
These instances suggest that at one time among the ancient Hebrews, or their predecessors, circumcision was an initiation rite through which the youth became marriageable. “21
If the rite did begin as a procedure done to adolescents why was it changed to infancy? Young Jewish men observe an adolescent initiation ritual – a Bar Mitzvah ceremony when they reach the age of 13. This is preceded by years of study of the Torah and Jewish history. Bar Mitzvah is the official Jewish introduction into “manhood.” Did the precursor of this rite include circumcision at age 13 as well? If Jewish boys today were being circumcised at the time of their Bar Mitzvah instead of as infants, would the operation have remained as popular as has infant circumcision? Would our present-day medical profession have been as eager to follow suit and advocate routine circumcision of teen-aged non-Jewish boys?
“It is no wonder that the marriageable youth, considering the fear circumcision must have exercised, resisted the establishment of the new custom. It can be determined almost exactly, even among the Jews, how long it took for the custom of circumcision to become firmly established. The young people generally offered opposition to it and had to be coerced by means of whippings, threats of death, and torture.”23
Therefore it appears that somewhere in prehistory the ancient Hebrews switched to circumcising infants because it was easier. The infant could not put up any resistance, nor express his needs or feelings except by crying. Of course, in ancient times people had no effective anesthesia, suturing, or antiseptic procedures for surgery. Therefore circumcision of older individuals was much more painful and risky than it is today. Perhaps during previous ages the amputation of the foreskin of an infant who healed rapidly and grew up with no conscious memory of the event, did appear more humane than performing the same procedure on an older child or an adult. However, today with effective modern anesthesia, suturing and sterile techniques, the argument that “circumcision is less painful for babies” is hardly balanced!
The platitude that newborn babies have little or no feelings is not a new concept. In the 13th century the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides comments:
“This law can only be kept and perpetuated in its perfection, if circumcision is performed when the child is very young, and this for three good reasons. First, if the operation were postponed until the boy had grown up, he would perhaps not submit to it. Secondly, the young child has not much pain, because the skin is tender, and the imagination weak. For grown-up persons are in dread and fear of things which they imagine as coming, some time before these actually occur. Thirdly, when a child is very young, the parents do not think much of him because the image of the child, that leads the parents to love him, has not yet taken a firm root in their minds. That image becomes stronger by the continual sight. It grows with the development of the child, and later on the image begins again to decrease and to vanish. The parents’ love for a newborn child is not so great as it is when the child is one year old, and when one year old, it is less loved by them than when six years old. The feeling and love of the father for the child would have led him to neglect the law if he were allowed to wait two or three years, whilst shortly after birth the image is very weak in the mind of the parent, especially of the father who is responsible for the execution of this commandment.”24
Why the Eighth Day?
Why has the eighth day of life been the particular day chosen for Jewish circumcision?
In the Bible certain numbers often have had significance. The earlier discussion of circumcision being a blood atonement from the contamination of the mother’s postpartum blood mentioned that the baby and mother were considered to be in a state of danger from evil spirits for the first seven days and were then redeemed and purified on the eighth day by circumcision.
Most new mothers are stronger and more recovered from childbirth after the first week. If a newborn baby is not going to survive, he is most likely to succumb during the first few days after birth.
One Jewish scholar quotes:
“…What is the reason that a child is circumcised on the eighth day? Because the Almighty had mercy on the baby and required waiting until the baby gathers his strength….”25
“The circumcision must take place on the eighth day … because all living beings are after birth, within the first seven days, very weak and exceedingly tender, as if they were still in the womb of their mother. Not until the eighth day can they be counted among those that enjoy the light of the world.”26
Today it is a known medical fact that newborn babies are deficient in vitamin K, a blood clotting factor, during the first few days of life. Normally vitamin K is produced by intestinal bacteria. For a newborn baby the digestive process is just beginning. Not until after the first week are his intestines fully functioning with vitamin K stores at normal levels. Today artificial vitamin K injections are available for newborn babies and are almost always given as a precautionary measure to all infant boys who are to undergo circumcision.27
In previous times, when artificial vitamin K injections did not exist, perhaps circumcision was safer, with the baby running less risk of hemorrhaging, if circumcision was delayed until after the first week. One wonders if the practice of postponing circumcision until the 8th day came about as a result of tragic instances of trial and error. (Of course if the baby is ill or premature, Jewish law provides that the circumcision rite is to be delayed until he is healthy enough to withstand the operation.)
Another reason that Jewish ritual circumcision is delayed until the eighth day is that in Jewish tradition there is a celebration held for the newborn infant on the first Friday night, which is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath (Jewish Sabbath is observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) after his birth and before the Bris. This observance is called the “Sholom Zochor.” Eight days must elapse before the circumcision ceremony to insure that a Sabbath will occur before the Bris.28
The Jewish Circumcision Ceremony:
The Sholom Zochor
The Hebraic word “sholom” means completeness and peace. “Zochor” means male. The celebration for the infant male on the Sabbath preceding the Bris is a feast which has been described as filled with a sense of Jewish spirit of happiness, good feeling, and love called “nachas” (parental bliss).29
The Night Before the Bris
“Van Nacht” is the term for the night before the day of “entering into the covenant of Abraham.” The custom is to be awake and guard the newborn from forces that seek to disrupt the observance of this important “Mitzvoh” (Divine Commandment). Traditionally candles are burned. This relates directly to the belief in evil spirits which supposedly endanger the mother and infant prior to the Bris. Food and drink are served and prayers and Psalms are recited.25
The People Involved in the Bris
It is considered a great honor to participate in a Bris. Many people are involved in the actual circumcision ceremony.
A “Godmother” and “Godfather” are selected (usually a husband and wife, but sometimes a father and daughter or mother and son).
“The mother hands her child to the Godmother and by this act signifies her consent to entrust the child to God’s care. The Godfather takes the child and hands him to a designated individual whose honor is to place the infant on a cushion on the “Kidei Shel Eliyohu” (chair of Elijah ).25
The Godfather, called “Sandek” is described as “he who holds the child during the ‘Miloh’ ” (cutting). He sits on a table or in an elevated chair to facilitate the “Mohel’s” maneuvering during the course of the “Bris.” He is usually the rabbi of the community or its most illustrious figure. It is the most important honor bestowed at the “Bris.”21
Other people involved in the Bris include “Amido Livrocho — He who holds the child during the recitation of prayers and name giving” and “Brochos” – He who recites the prayers, usually the mohel himself, and then gives the name.29
Whenever possible it is preferable to have a “minyan” ten men over the age of 13, including the father and the mohel, present at the Bris.
Sometimes the Bris ceremony is performed in the synagogue. In modern times the ceremony more commonly takes place in the parents’ home. Some hospitals, especially in communities with large Jewish populations, have special rooms available for this purpose.
The Chair of Elijah
The prophet Elijah is invited to all Jewish Bris ceremonies and a special chair is set aside for him, placed to the right of the Sandek. The Mohel recites certain prayers and then the father lifts the child (out of the chair of Elijah) and places him in the lap of the “Sandek.”29
One author explains the significance:
“Elijah championed the covenant when the Children of Israel had forsaken it, and thus had a special role in the ceremony. It is suggested by some in discussing the symbolism of the rite that the story of Elijah’s resuscitation of the widow’s son may mean that the symbolic presence of the prophet refers to the possible need for the first aid should there be any complication at the operation, threatening the life of the child.”30
Prayers and Procedures that Begin the Bris
“At the loud call of one of those present, boys bring the instruments necessary for the ceremony, a flaming torch, the knife, powder to spread on the wound, a bandage to tie up the wound, a goblet of wine, and basin of oil and another of sand, and take their places near the circumcisor. At the door of the synagogue the Godfather receives the child from the hands of the Godmother, brings it to the gathering, and the mohel cries ‘Blessed be the newborn!’ The whole gathering repeats these words. Then the Godfather lays the child on his lap….”31
According to Remondino, the Mohel recites the following as the operation commences:
“Blessed be Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine! Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God! Who hath sanctified His beloved from the womb, and ordained an ordinance for His kindred, and sealed His descendants with the mark of His holy covenant; therefore, for the merits of this, 0 living God! Our rock and inheritance, command the deliverance of the beloved of our kindred from the pit, for the sake of the covenant which He hath put in our flesh. Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, the Maker of the Covenant! Our God and the God of our fathers! Preserve this child to his father and mother, and his name shall be called in Israel, A, the son of B. Let the father rejoice in those that go forth from his loins, and let his mother be glad in the fruit of her womb, as it is written: ‘Thy father and mother shall rejoice, and they that begat thee shall be glad.’ The father of the child then says the following grace: ‘Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe! Who hath sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to enter into the covenant of our holy father, Abraham.’ The congregation answers: ‘As he hath entered into the law, the (nuptial) canopy, and the good and virtuous deeds.”33
Bryk relates another most curious variation of the mohel’s prayer:
“After the mohel has spoken on the institution of circumcision, as it is known from the Bible, and implored the blessing of God, he thanks God that the child has not been born a woman or slave [!]. As a sign of the seal of God, he implores: that the circumcision might keep the child from sexual acts with animals, be it mammal or bird, with a non-Jewess, with an unmarried woman, with the bride in the house of his father-in-law, against intercourse ‘in the manner of beasts,’ against intercourse during menstruation, and against masturbation. He is never to change his religion, neither of his own free will nor by force. The concluding words are: ‘and receive my service in this mitzvah (duty), as if I had brought a sacrifice to thine altar, even as the sacrifice of Isaac.’
“After the blessing of the mohel and then of the father, the congregation present pronounces the following words: ‘As he has here been initiated into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, into matrimony, and into all good deeds.’ “33
Miloh –The Cutting of the Foreskin
“The securely wrapped child is placed so that the penis is easily accessible, and … the mohel pronounces a Hebrew prayer and then makes the cut (chituch). He takes the member by the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and then rubs it several times gently to evoke an erection; he then takes hold of the outer and inner lamellae of the foreskin on both sides and draws them down over the glans, pressing them smooth, by lifting his hand upward at the same time and thus giving the member a vertical position. The mohel now takes a pair of small pincers in the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and inserts the foreskin into the crack in such a manner that the glans comes to be behind it and the foreskin that is to be cut away in front of it. Then he takes hold of the knife…. With one vertical motion downwards he cuts off close to the plate the part of the foreskin that is before it…. If this has been done according to prescription, then, after the cut has been completed, the outer lamella of the foreskin is drawn back over the crown of the glans, the glans itself is clipped at the tip, resulting in an opening about the size of a pea.”34
Furthering the description:
“As he takes hold of the knife, he says in a loud voice, ‘Praised be Thou, 0 Lord, our God, King of the earth, who hast consecrated us and hast commanded circumcision unto us.’ At the last word he cuts away the foreskin and throws it into the pot of sand. To stanch the blood somewhat, he takes a sip of wine, besprinkles the wound with it, and, if the child becomes weak, its face also…….”35
Periah –The Tearing of the Inner Membrane
Originally only the first step, the cutting off of the prepuce, was done. Jews, wishing not to be identified as such, soon learned to pull down the remaining foreskin over the glans, stretching it to make it appear as if they had never been circumcised. Therefore the act of Periah, the uncovering of the glans following the amputation of the foreskin, by which the remaining foreskin mucosa is torn back, usually with the Mohel’s sharp fingernails, is done to prevent this from happening.
“Directly after the cut has been made the mohel puts the tip of his thumb nail (which, as a rule, has been cut long, lancet-shaped), or, as is generally customary now, a lancet-shaped pair of scissors into the opening of the inner lamelia of the foreskin, grasps the foreskin by it with the help of both index fingers, splits it on the back of the glans by means of slitting up to the crown of the latter, and shoves the slit foreskin up over the glans. Finally the mohel tears the whole foreskin off all around the corona of the glans by taking hold, with his thumb and forefinger, of the flaps of the foreskin….”34
According to Jewish law, in the Joreh Deah no. 246,
“The tender covering under the skin is to be rent with the nails. Circumcision without tearing is equivalent to no circumcision at all.”36
Today most Reform and Conservative mohelim have abandoned the older techniques, believing the modern clamp devices for circumcision to be safer and more humane. If a bell and clamp device such as the Gomco clamp is used, by which the small metal bell is first inserted beneath the foreskin and over the glans, then the clamp applied and the foreskin sliced off, the act of Periah is unnecessary because the bell automatically forces the glans away from the inner lining and membranes. Orthodox Jews do not believe in the use of clamp devices (because not enough blood is shed) and therefore continue to practice Periah. Some practitioners insist that: the use of instruments is safer for this procedure because fingernails are not sanitary. Others insist that
“…circumcisors can feel much more sensitively and surely with their thumbnails, knowing just when to stop tearing, than they could with a knife or pair of scissors…”37
Probably both techniques are equally painful for the baby.
Mezizah -The Suctioning of the Blood
The third step of the Jewish circumcision procedure is for the Mohel to apply his mouth directly to the newly circumcised penis and suction the first drops of blood.
“Now follows the exsuction of the wound in such a manner that the mohel takes the circumcised member into his mouth and with two or three draughts sucks the blood out of the wounded part. He then takes a mouthful of wine from a goblet and spurts it, in two or three intervals, on the wound.”34
This apparently was intended as a technique to stop the bleeding. Mezizah has been largely abandoned in the 20th century. The few who still practice it today usually use a small glass tube for the suction instead of direct application of the mouth. Many complications have resulted from Mezizah and the practice is surrounded by considerable controversy which will be discussed shortly.
Procedures Immediately After the Operation
“…Then [the mohel] bandages the child with linen, wraps it up again, and washes his mouth and hands. Once again the Godfather faces him with the child and the circumcisor concludes the procedure with a prayer, that God keep the child alive and that he afford his parents much joy.”35
“Many hold the child over sand or water, that the holy blood may flow into it. In fact those standing about have to wash their faces with the mixture of blood and water. The water has usually been boiled beforehand with aromatic and narcotic ingredients. Or the mohel pours the blood mixed with wine behind the cabinet in which scrolls of the law are kept.”33
Treatment of the Amputated Foreskin
Commonly the amputated foreskin is buried in a small bowl of sand that is provided-a custom which apparently originated with the Israelites’ desert ancestry. Some Jewish groups burned the foreskin instead, in the manner of a sacrificial offering. Yet another practice is described as follows:
“The days preceding the circumcision, the foreskin of a child previously circumcised is put into the mouth of the infant who is about to undergo the operation … !
“It is a wonderful charm; the night before circumcision, measures were taken to ward off attacks by demon Lilit. After circumcision, the bloody foreskin is placed in a bowl containing water and spices, and each member of the congregation as he leaves the Synagogue, would bathe his hands and face.”38
According to another writer:
“…On the death of the Mohel, or Circumciser, the foreskins of the children he had circumcised were sometimes buried with him to drive away the demons and destroyers who would seek to do him harm after death. It is also commonly believed by the Orthodox that some form of magic prevails over those who have circumcised a certain number of children. This is supposed to prevent putrefaction of their mouths, as well as to prevent their mouths from becoming food for worms after their deaths!”39
The Festive Meal Following the Bris
This is called the “Seudo Shel Mitzvo: (The Meal in Honor of the Commandment of Circumcision) which is considered a religious feast. “Throughout the millennia a regular meal was served with fish, meat and ‘Shabbos Chalas’ but in our American society where everyone is in a hurry to get to his office and job, a hasty meal is served, usually bagels, lox, and coffee with liquors and cakes.”40
Feelings at the Time of the Bris
A wide range of feelings on the part of the adult participants in the circumcision ritual has been related by different authors:
“…All celebrate the reception of a new member, with brandy and honey cakes, hearty ‘mazltovs’ and innumerable toasts … God is increasing the number of His Chosen. His people are fulfilling their part of the pact, the promise of the future is one step nearer to fulfillment, and in the present a living source of joy and honor to the family has been added for all to admire… “41
In contrast, another writer condemns the ritual:
“The rite is retaliation for parricidal wishes…. In primitive rites, this affect is reinserted in action – the boys are beaten mercilessly, and made to run the gauntlet. In the Jewish ceremony, too, an effort is made to bring the appropriate sadistic affect into conjunction with the act-and this is done by the recitation of a formula … the congregation recites ‘If this act is performed timidly, or with a soft heart, it is null and void.’ At the same time, the sadistic affect is projected and bound in the strict institutionalization of the ritual…. This is the celebration: the relief at the lifting of the father’s guilt and removal of the anxiety by the accepted mutilation of himself in the person of his son.”42
A modern day Rabbi describes the occasion in terms of specialness and holiness:
“It is a milestone in the lives of both the parents and the youngster.”25
“Rabbi Shimon ben Yoichoi said: ‘Come and observe! There is nothing more beloved to a person than his son, yet he circumcises him; why is this so? Rabbi Nachman bar Shmuel said: ‘In order to fulfill the will of the Creator. A person sees blood spilling from the circumcision of his son and accepts it with joy.’ Rabbi Hanino said: ‘Not only is that so, but the person also pays the expenses incurred and celebrates the day as a Holiday….’ ” (Midrash Tanhumo-Tazrea).43
Circumcision and Anti-Semitism
Throughout history, Jews have been hated and persecuted by other groups of people. Frequently their practice of circumcision has been a target of such persecution.
In some instances people who left the penis intact ridiculed the Jews and other groups who practiced circumcision, considering the penis with an exposed glans to be ugly, ridiculous, or obscene in appearance. In ancient Greece:
“The Greeks in everyday life did not wander around in the nude. However, for the Greeks nudity was an inherent part of the aesthetics of athletic competition…. The Greeks had clearly defined ideas about masculine beauty and fine distinctions were made about forms of nudity. While most peoples of the Mediterranean were circumcised, the Greeks and Romans were vehemently opposed to circumcision. It’s thought that the Greeks preserved the foreskin believing that this would maintain the sensitivity of the glans…. [A story is told about a] … team of circumcised non-Greeks who turned up at the Olympic Games in Roman times and became the laughing stock of the assembled Greek athletes – so much so that the next day, the foreigners returned with false foreskins! The foreskin was essential to Greek modesty. The bared glans was considered indecent and even obscene — probably because normally it was on view only when the penis was erect, which was, except in the case of satyrs, never in public.”44
If circumcision is the oldest form of surgery, “uncircumcision” – an operation to make the penis appear that it still has its foreskin, is one of the second oldest types of surgery.
The following is a description of the practice of the Jews who came under Greek influence and wished to appear as if they had not been circumcised:
“The Hellenizers pulled this fragment [of foreskin] forward manually, stretched it, and even applied blistering agents thereto, in order to make it cover the glans.”45
(It was because of this that the second step, “Periah,” was added to the Jewish circumcision ritual, to prevent the individual from becoming “uncircumcised.”)
Under some rulers the Jews were forbidden to practice circumcision. The motivation for this was not simply a matter of not liking the looks of circumcised penises, nor of merely picking on Jews by forbidding them from practicing one of their religious rites. Circumcision was believed to grant fertility. Therefore, theoretically, circumcision meant more Jewish people, a situation not desired if one hated Jews.
The decree of Antiochus, 167 B.C., consigned every Hebrew mother to death who dared to circumcise her offspring.46
Adrian, A.D. 130, inflicted the death penalty. Antoninus, A.D. 140, for a time permitted it, but in A.D. 160 it was again forbidden. When Christianity became the official state religion under Constantine, A.D. 315, Jews were permitted to circumcise their own children, but not non-Jews. A liberal view was taken by Charlemagne, then for about three centuries the whim of various ruling princes governed the matter. From about A.D. 700 and approximately seven centuries thereafter, while Spain was the cultural center of Jewry and was under the rule of the Moors, persecution was cruel.47
Sometimes in times of persecution the Jews performed circumcisions secretly on their dead, “that the spirit of the law of their fathers might be carried out.”48
The Jewish circumcision rite has persisted throughout history, in part as a result of the Jews’ lack of a homeland and repeated persecution by others. Remondino comments:
“No custom, habit, or rite has survived so many ages and so many persecutions. Other customs have died a natural death with time or want of persecution, but circumcision, either in peace or in war, has held its own, from the misty epochs of the stone age to the present.”49
During times when Jews were hunted down by their enemies, possession of a circumcised penis oftentimes became a disadvantage, serving as a mark of identity by which he could be singled out as a Jew. During Hitler’s regime this was especially so:
“Escape from the Ghettos set up by the Germans in Poland was difficult but possible. On the ‘Aryan side’, life for the Jew remained dangerous. No matter how ‘good’ the visage nor how well-forged the Kennkarte (identification documents), the male Jew carried with him incontrovertible proof of his origin.
“The blackmailers and extortionists known as schmaltzovniks (from the Polish szmalec’ meaning ‘fat’) used circumcision as the criterion of Jewishness….
“These scum would approach their victims with the words, ‘Hand over your fat.’ They were a terrible plague upon the Jews who lived on the Aryan side. In addition to the Gestapo, SS men, and others who hunted them relentlessly, the Jews lived in constant danger from these dregs of Polish morality, who make a business of Jewish lives. Hundreds were engaged in this hateful occupation – searching out the unfortunates who now lived on Aryan documents or who hid under the protection of Gentiles … Jews who had nothing and were not profitable were handed over to the Nazis. Others had to pay monthly blackmail. When they finally had nothing left for the blood tax, they were handed over to their fate … They operated in gangs … They would pull their victim into a doorway or an alley and rip open his trousers, looking for the fateful sign…”50
During the Nazi holocaust, various methods of “uncircumcision” were attempted as a life-preserving measure to enable the Jewish male to hide his identity. The operation basically consisted of freeing the inner shaft of the penis from the surrounding skin, pulling the skin forward, drawing the scrotal skin onto the shaft of the penis and making a new “foreskin” out of the penile skin in front. Attempts were also made to construct a foreskin, made of skin grafted from another part of the person’s body. Additionally, many Jewish male infants were left with prepuces intact, in the hopes that they would escape torture and extermination under Hitler.51
Many writers have commented on the psychology of anti-Semitism as it relates to circumcision. Included in Freud’s theory about the “castration complex” is his idea that:
“Society despises the woman and the Jew … the woman because she is missing a penis and the Jew because he is missing part of his penis.”52
One author explains:
“…[Circumcision] is a partial actual castration and promotes anti-Semitism by making Jews despised as women; that the circumcised state is used to work out bisexual fantasies with the removed foreskin representing the female part; … in the service of anti-Semitism, it may cause the Jew to be regarded as castrated and effeminate, or conversely as a sacrifice of a portion of the phallus to ensure preservation of the male portion….”53
Another writer comments:
“The circumcised Jew is often represented as a mutilated person and this fantasy is repeatedly stated in the literature. An uncanny feeling is said to exist in some to whom a Jew is a reminder that one can be castrated. The unconscious fantasy develops that a mutilated people desire revenge and want to circumcise (castrate) the non-Jew.”52
In the United States today, where most non-Jewish males have also been circumcised, the above situation does not exist. Although routine neonatal circumcision as a medical procedure has not come about as a result of any conscious Jewish plot to deprive the rest of America of their foreskins, the American Jew is at an “advantage” in that he is hardly unique by having a circumcised penis. Many Jews have felt reassured by our medical system’s endorsement of circumcision as a supposed “health” measure.
Now that the medical advisability of circumcision has been found lacking, and concern grows for the feelings of infants and the rights of individuals, the trend is increasing for American parents to leave their sons intact. In the future, Jews may again be the only people to cut off infant foreskins. It is hoped that the rest of us will develop attitudes of tolerance and understanding for other peoples’ religious beliefs and anti-Semitic attitudes will not result. Certainly the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the past over circumcision was not out of concern for the feelings of tiny babies!*
( Please note here – for anyone who has read the original 1985 version of my book and may have wondered why there was a large gap between the paragraphs on p. 50 – there had been a paragraph here that Bergin & Garvey decided to delete [and then didn’t bother to correct the paste up!] The essence of what I said was as follows:
While most ethnic stereotypes are rarely valid and should never be used to to demean or belittle any group, I cannot help but wonder in empathy with the commonly held image of the Jewish mother. She has been typified as unusually protective, controlling and continually worried about her children, especially her sons. This behavior may have true justification in that the Jewish mother was forced to witness the torture of her newborn infant when she was powerless to protect him. )
Conflicts Within Judaism Concerning Circumcision
There are three major branches of Judaism. Reform Judaism is the most liberal, Conservative is in-between, and Orthodox adheres the most strictly to the old traditions and laws. Within these groups are different factions and a vast range of conflicting beliefs about a large number of Jewish observances, including circumcision.
Mohelim vs. Doctors
Should Jewish ritual circumcision be a medical procedure performed in a hospital, or does this detract from its religious significance? Should the operation be done by a mohel or a doctor? Who is better skilled and qualified to perform the operation?
For the Orthodox, Jewish circumcision is not valid unless a mohel performs the operation. A modern-day mohel writes:
“Thus it follows that a ‘Bris-Miloh’ should be performed only by a competent, Torah observant Jew, who understands the significance of ‘Miloh’ and its proper application. It does not make sense for a Jew who is having this noble ‘Mitzvah’ performed, not to avail himself of the opportunity to have the circumcision performed in the correct and prescribed way. A competent ‘Mohel,’ trained in the age-old method used by the Jewish people in accordance with ‘Halacha’ (Jewish Religious Law), and trained to take advantage of the most current medical knowledge is the most appropriate person to perform a ‘Bris.'”54
Other branches of Judaism feel differently, for frequently the Bris is performed with a doctor doing the operation and a rabbi officiating the ceremony with prayers and recitations. Preferably the doctor should be Jewish, but sometimes non-Jewish doctors are called upon to perform the circumcision for a Jewish Bris. While most mohelim are rabbis, some Jewish doctors are licensed as mohelim.
A newer variation, practiced by some Reform Jews is the “Baby Naming” ceremony. Several years ago my husband and I attended such a celebration. The parents had chosen to have their son circumcised shortly after birth in the hospital, because their insurance would cover the cost, rather than pay the substantial sum of money required for a mohel to perform the same operation at a Bris. Their baby was about two months old when they had his “Baby Naming” ceremony, complete with a large feast, many friends and relatives present, and a rabbi who performed a ceremony for the baby, saying prayers, naming him, and dedicating him to a life within Judaism. (Some have combined the ceremony with the Pidyon ha-ben redemption ceremony which takes place on the thirty-first day after the birth of a first-born son.) Some factions of Judaism would consider this a sacrilege.
The argument over whether a mohel or a doctor is better qualified to circumcise babies is similar to the controversy over obstetricians versus midwives. The medical profession claims that mohelim, simply by virtue of not being medical professionals, are automatically less competent. In the past much of this criticism was based on the mohelim’s lack of medical equipment and the less than sanitary practices of tearing the prepuce with the thumbnail and the sucking of the wound. Proponents of mohelim claim that the following of a “4,000 year old technique” is safer than that of “an average surgeon whose technique and instruments seem to change with every decade.”55 This is questionable however, for most mohelim today do use modern medical techniques for the procedure. Four thousand years ago circumcision was done with a flint knife.
Much of the concern over safety is based less on which type of operator is more competent than over the fact that the Orthodox Jews do not believe in using modern clamp devices for circumcision. Therefore, the baby circumcised by the older techniques runs a greater risk of hemorrhaging.
There is concern that a doctor would lack the religious “spirit” of the Bris, his presence making it seem merely a surgical procedure. One Rabbi comments:
“Brith [Bris] Milah is a most sacred religious ceremony. Its whole purpose is not medical and there is a vast difference between the normal medical approach and the requirements of Brith Milah. Thus, Jewish religious requirements are not met by mere surgical circumcision.”56
Circumcision is the only operation that a mohel is trained to do. The Jewish Bris ceremony takes place in a highly religious atmosphere with many people present. These factors would tend to cause the mohel to be more conscientious about his technical skill. No doctor specializes in doing circumcisions. He either delivers or cares for babies, and does circumcisions as a sideline – the operation being only one of his many medical skills. To most doctors, infant circumcision seems trivial compared to the more serious operations that they must do. Routine circumcisions of newborns are usually performed hastily in a hospital nursery with only a nurse or two present. Frequently a doctor may circumcise three or four babies after he “makes his rounds” of patients, and before he goes to his office. The setting hardly has the same “aura” that surrounds the Jewish Bris. Therefore the doctor may not be as likely to be as conscientious about performing circumcisions.
There are probably more differences between the skills of individual operators, than there are between doctors and mohelim per se.
Where the Bris should take place is also widely debated. As with birth, the hospital is better equipped to handle emergencies. Blood is available for transfusion. Doctors are readily available to handle complications. On the other hand, the home lends a more personal atmosphere to the occasion. Also, the chances of infection tend to be greater in a hospital with its resistant strains of germs. A Bris performed in a synagogue would certainly emphasize the religious nature of the ceremony, although today it is not common to perform a Bris in that setting.
If mohelim are to perform circumcisions, they should seek to avail themselves of as much skill, knowledge, modern techniques and equipment as possible. These are certainly not the exclusive property of doctors.
Use of Clamps
Circumcision in ancient times was performed with knives, often with a precursor of the clamp device called a barzel, which kept the foreskin up over the glans while the knife severed it. Earlier techniques employed flint knives or pieces of stone.
Today nearly all doctors, and most mohelim use modern clamp-type devices for infant circumcision. The precursor to the Gomco clamp was invented by a Jewish physician, Hiram Yellen, in the late 1800s. The present Gomco clamp, with its metal bell and circular clamp, was developed in 1934 by Aaron Goldstein.57 “Gomco”, the medical company that supplies this device, is an abbreviation of “Go(ldstein) M(edical) Co(mpany).”58
This device, and others based on the same concept such as the Plasti-bell (See Plasti-bell Chapter 5) usually produce an even, symmetrical cut. The sealing of the edges by the clamp minimizes the amount of bleeding and accompanying dangers.
A Rabbi explains the Orthodox’ opposition to the use of clamps:
“This ‘Midrash’ [interpretation of the Scriptures in reference to the Blood of the Passover Sacrificial Lamb and the blood of circumcision] teaches us the great importance of blood flowing during circumcision and that a “clamp” or “clamping instrument” which prevents bleeding in a ‘Bris-Miloh’ may not be used. Rabbinical authorities in Jerusalem and throughout the world have asserted that the useage of “clamps” or “clamping instruments” that prevent bleeding during circumcision is not in accordance with ‘Halachia’ [Jewish Religious Law].”11
Other Rabbis, among the Conservative and Reform branches, recognize the dangers of excessive bleeding in a tiny baby and believe that the drops of blood that are shed with the initial dorsal slit are sufficient to fulfill this part of the scriptural requirements.
The third step of the circumcision ritual, in which the Mohel applies his mouth to the baby’s freshly circumcised penis, has been surrounded with an extreme amount of controversy and consternation.
“The ‘mohel’ took some wine in his mouth, and applying his lips to the mutilated organ, sucked the wound, expelling the mixture of blood and wine into a receptacle especially provided for the purpose. This suction was repeated several times, after which the operation was completed by apposing the skin and mucosa back of the glans and applying a retentive dressing of linen …”59
In the old tradition this act was considered “the greatest honor of all.”60
At one time there was a stipulation:
“If … mezizah has not been performed upon it, it is at least to be considered circumcised (as opposed to if periah is omitted) but such a mohel shall hereafter be denied the practice of the berith (Bris) because he has omitted a hygienic (!) measure.”60
One author speculates about a number of possible motivations for mezizah:
“It may represent the most infantile concept of the mode of implementation of castration … It may reflect the blood – brotherhood of males … an analogy to that portion of the primitive rites in which blood from the incised penis is permitted to drip into the water, which is then drunk by the elders of the tribe. It may be an affectionate reaction by the grandfather for the mutilation inflicted.
“Following removal of the prepuce, the mohel recites this sentence: ‘0, Living God, command to preserve our beloved flesh from destruction’… suggest-[ing] another meaning for the sucking at the penis – which is plainly a passive homosexual act. It may be the reflection of another … defense against castration, universally present in repression, and frequently rising to overtness, namely homosexuality….”62
Others deny that Mezizah had any overt homosexual or sadistic motivations, but believe it was merely the only means known at the time for stopping the bleeding.
“…Persons wounding their fingers will instinctively carry them to their mouth, and it may be that the suction practiced by the Hebrews had its origin in this natural hemostatic suggestion. Wine as a hemostatic aid and as an emblem of thanksgiving and an acceptable offering naturally came in as an accessory.”63
Tragic results have occurred due to Mezizah:
“Cases of disease and even death have repeatedly occurred as a result of this unhygienic measure, children being infected with syphilis or tuberculosis, or conversely circumcisors receiving inherited maladies from their patients. During the years 1805-1866, eight syphilis epidemics have been known from London to Krakow, caused by syphilitic circumcisors. In Krakow over 100 cases were listed (1833). Even in the year 1923 … two four month old children were infected by one and the same circumcisor with skin tuberculosis in the penis.”36
Because of the dangers, Mezizah has been almost entirely abandoned in recent years. Among some extremists who could not be persuaded to abandon the practice, direct application of the mouth has been replaced with the use of a small glass tube.
Attempts by the Jewish Reform Movement to Abolish Circumcision
During the 1800s the Jewish Reform movement exerted considerable effort to abolish the ritual of circumcision. In 1892, the requirement of circumcision for adult converts to Judaism was abolished (except for the Orthodox)
“…on the grounds that it is “a measure of extreme cruelty when performed upon adults.””64
Attempts were made to abolish circumcision altogether. Baltz proposed that not children, but adults, be circumcised when they came into the full possession of their faculties, and then only the tip of the foreskin.65
Others attacked it due to the “low standard of the art of ritual circumcision from the sanitary point of view.” Few regulations existed, and many children were greatly endangered and exposed to disease.
Others spelled out:
A.) Circumcision could be derived from no moral law but from an Abrahamitic. Consequently circumcision did not by any means make one an Israelite. B.) The commandment of circumcision did not appear among the laws in the Pentateuch. C.) Moses did not have his sons circumcised. D.) According to Joshua all those born in the desert during the forty-year period were not circumcised. E.) From the fact that the daughters of Israel enter Judaism without any rite at all, it may be concluded that according to the principles of the Mosaic belief it is birth that makes one a Jew, and one born of Jewish parents belongs to the Jewish religious community so long as he does not forsake his belief.65
Felix Adler also opposed Jewish ritual circumcision:
“To Adler, at that time a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and soon thereafter founder of the Ethical Culture movement, this ritual appeared as ‘simply barbarous in itself and utterly barbarous and contemptible in its origin.’ Coming from a former rabbinical student and son of the leading Reform rabbi, Samuel Adler, this declaration called forth sharp condemnation even from Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the recognized leaders of the Reform movement…. The issue was debated time and again in both Germany and America. Yet circumcision has remained the accepted form of admission to the Covenant of Abraham among the overwhelming majority of Reform Jews.
“On the other hand few reformers entertained the same scruples about other provisions of Talmudic law, especially those relating to the Sabbath commandment or to ritually permissible food ….”66
Mutilation of the Body
Leviticus: Ch. 19: 28 – Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I AM the LORD.67
Many critics of Jewish circumcision find that the practice conflicts with the basic Jewish laws against most pagan practices of cutting of the flesh or mutilation of the body. Isaac comments on this paradox:
“Circumcision is a surprising rite to find prescribed in the Bible. It was, of course, widely practiced among Israel’s pagan neighbors: … the whole tenor of the Bible is against the pagans and their practices. Moreover, it is, in general, strongly opposed to any form of bodily mutilation or deformation, ritual or otherwise. Thus tattooing and scarification, for example, are forbidden for the explicit reason that the Israelites are the children of God.”56
Yet another puzzle in Old Testament writings is the concept that “God created man in his own image.” (Genesis: 1: 26) Did God really make a mistake when he created the male body? If he had wanted men to be without foreskins, why did he not simply create them that way?
“Amazing inconsistency! What motivates this attitude of having God in special rendezvous with Abraham in order to tell him that he must cut off his prepuce? Who created this prepuce anyway? God, of course. Who was not aware of His mistake for attaching to the organ of procreation and life itself such filthy imperfection … ? In the first place, why didn’t Jehovah notice this imperfection after creating Adam, and revise His masterpiece afterwards?”68
Attitudes about Circumcision by Jews Today
Not all Jews are content with or accepting of circumcision. Many do question it. Some Jewish parents have chosen to leave their sons intact. Others agonize over the decision. Some Jewish parents choose circumcision with no feelings of religious observance, but merely out of conformity to the American middle class, or belief that they have ascribed to a medically preventive measure. A modern day Rabbi, seeking to preserve the significance of ritual circumcision for Jews, finds the act glorified and beautiful:
“– The Almighty praised-be-He wanted to permanently affix a symbol on the bodies of the people He chose to be called in His name. The purpose of this symbol is to physically differentiate the Chosen People from others, just as they are distinct spiritually and differ in their actions.** The ˜Golden Circle”** [circumcision] was perpetuated as the symbol because this is the source from which the perpetuation of the species emanates. Circumcision completes and perfects the physical appearance of the body. The Almighty desires the character and traits of the Chosen People to be perfected and He wants this perfection to be accomplished through human action. The reason the Almighty does not create the human being complete in the mother’s womb, is to indicate to us that just as the physical aspects of the body can be made better by human deeds, so it is within human power to perfect the soul by correcting one’s actions.”69
In contrast, a personal letter from a friend tells of feelings of outright hatred that some Jews have for circumcision:
“…Some of the most adamant and powerful arguments AGAINST the practice have come from Jews! I once had some very close Jewish friends. The mother was such a great person. They were from Germany. We had many very long talks about circumcision, and she was so much against the practice you wouldn’t believe it! She told me… ‘In America you don’t see it like you would if you were in Germany. You see, NO boys are circumcised except the Jews … In this way it is very easy indeed to see clearly the definite negative effects it has upon Jewish boys and men!… That’s our religion and my own son is circumcised too … but I think it is time the Jewish people gave up this horrible ancient practice in accordance with every day modern living.’ She was so disgusted that so many Jewish doctors actually forced young mothers into having their baby circumcised … with very harsh words for Jewish doctors, as she felt they were the ones REALLY responsible for routine circumcision in our hospitals. Once I knew the son of a rabbi who told me ‘It is quite impossible for me to put into words the deep-seated hate … pure HATE … I have for circumcision. I mean ALL circumcision. It is ugly, disfiguring and most unaesthetic!’ So the general public’s opinion that ALL Jewish people are all for circumcision is not true either. Many of the leaders feel the same way…’It has worn out its time,’ etc. I recall well one Jewish Boy Scout who told me…’Why should I have to go all through my life with my penis all exposed and skinned back …. just to belong to some Congregation? No matter WHAT my father says, I think it’s a hell of a lousy deal….’ “70
“No one who performs circumcision on babies does so out of any deliberate intent to torture infants. It is with great difficulty that people are coming to accept the fact that the newborn is indeed a sensitive, feeling human being who is just as capable of feeling pain as any other person. If it is true that the infant experience a severe amount of pain while undergoing circumcision, then the practice conflicts with some basic Jewish ideals of kindness, compassion to other living beings, commandments not to assault another or cause pain to any living creature.”
*Yet many other groups, including the American middle class, also practice circumcision, therefore the Jews certainly are not unique in their practice. -R. R –
**It is most interesting to note that the crippled, deformed feet of women in ancient China, which resulted from tightly binding the feet of little girls, have been referred to as “Golden Lotuses.” (Daly, Mary, Gyn Ecology, Ch. 4, “Chinese Footbinding: On Footnoting the Three-Inch ‘Lotus Hooks’ “, p. 134-152, Beacon Press, Boston, MA., c. 1978.) What is there in human mentality that wants to attribute “goldenness” to body mutilation?
The Jewish Ideal of Kindness
Few people, especially parents, doctors, or mohelim want to believe that the infant feels any significant pain as his foreskin is smashed, slit, torn back from his glans, clamped and sliced off. No one who performs circumcisions on babies does so out of any deliberate intent to torture infants. It is with great difficulty that people are coming to accept the fact that the newborn is indeed a sensitive, feeling human being who is just as capable of feeling pain as any other person. If it is true that the infant experiences a severe amount of pain while undergoing circumcision, then the practice conflicts with the basic Jewish ideals of kindness, compassion to other living beings, and commandments not to assault another or cause pain to any living creature.
” ‘If a man shows no mercy,’ says an ancient source, ‘what difference is there between him and a beast which can callously stand by and not feel the anguish of its fellow creature?”71
“The Torah prohibits the torture or causing of pain to any living creature. One is duty bound to save every living creature from pain or distress. . . .”72
“It is forbidden to assault another. One who physically assaults another violates Torah commandment….”73
“The first words of any introduction to the Jewish daily way of life must speak of kindness, because we believe that Jewish religious faith and ritual observance aim, above all, to achieve a perfection of the human relationship and to create a better society…. When the Talmud speaks of the characteristics of Israel, it does not do so in terms of the unique ritual observances and disciplines. Rather it adopts humane criteria: ‘Three characteristics does this people possess: they are merciful, modest, and perform deeds of kindness’ (Yevamot 79a).”74
Considerations for Today’s Jewish Parents
All people’s religious beliefs and practices must be respected. My own major concern, and the primary focus of the anti-circumcision movement has been directed against circumcision as an American medical fad that has come about within the past few decades, not the Jewish ritual that has existed for thousands of years.
If only Jews were circumcising their babies, I would not have written this book, yet a book about circumcision is certainly not complete without thorough consideration of the Jewish practice. (This is not meant to be construed that I have no concern for Jewish babies, only that I, as a non-Jew, would have considered the Jewish ritual alone simply out of my area to question.)
Religious tolerance is important, although this places the anti-circumcision activist in a “can’t win for losing” situation. What stand to take in regard to Jewish ritual circumcision has been the stickiest aspect of the entire dilemma. For the underlying tenet of religious and individual tolerance is “one should be free to do whatever one wishes as long as it does not hurt anyone.” But neonatal circumcision DOES hurt someone – the helpless infant involved!
If we take a stand against Jewish ritual circumcision we run the risk of being labeled anti-Semitic. Yet if we take a stand of tolerance for the Jewish ritual, others accuse us of not caring about the pain inflicted on Jewish babies. For certainly the Jewish baby feels just as much pain and torment when his foreskin is cut off as does any other baby. He knows nothing about the ancient Jewish laws and traditions. All he knows is that his body is being assaulted. And the Jewish male is just as deprived of his foreskin as any other circumcised male.
However, those of us who oppose infant circumcision should look to the examples throughout history of other groups who have wished to put an end to Jewish ritual circumcision. Whatever their motivations, their efforts have been futile. Pressures upon the Jews to stop circumcising, coming from outsiders, have only left the Jews more determined than ever to perpetuate the rite. The lesson is: Only the Jews themselves can decide whether or not to continue circumcising their babies. If Jewish ritual circumcision is to come to an end (and there are many Jews today who would like the practice to stop) that effort will have to come from within Judaism. If this is to happen, it will have to begin with many individual Jewish parents personally deciding to leave their sons intact, before Judaism as a whole makes a united effort against it.
Jewish parents of baby boys should not automatically choose circumcision. They are challenged to do a great deal of thinking about how much the Abrahamic covenant truly means to them. For many Jews today, circumcision has little meaning as a religious observance, yet they still choose it according to the same platitudes that the rest of us have heard the supposed medical arguments, beliefs that “it is cleaner” or “looks better,” or for mere conformity. I have heard, i.e. Jews describe circumcision as a “tradition” among their people, but have little awareness of the religious meaning ascribed to the Bris ceremony.
If the Abrahamic covenant has little or no meaning for Jewish parents, then they should question circumcision along with everyone else. Certainly Jewish parents who leave their sons intact will encounter questioning and criticism from their relatives, but many non-Jewish American parents with intact sons encounter the same from their families. Practices in all aspects of child rearing have changed so drastically within the past several years that almost all new parents encounter some criticism over many things such as natural birth, prolonged breastfeeding, “on demand” feeding (instead of schedules), delayed starting of solid foods, dolls for boys … the list could go on endlessly. Conflicts between family members can be heartrending, but should not stop us from doing what we believe is best for our children.
Conformity and acceptance by the group is an important consideration, and some Jewish parents have made the decision that having an intact penis within a culture where the circumcised penis is the norm would be more “traumatic” than the initial pain of the operation and the lifelong deprivation of one’s foreskin. However, non Jewish American parents are faced with the same pressures of “conformity.” This concern will only remain as long as everyone “follows the herd,” but will soon change as more and more parents choose to leave their sons intact.
Jewish parents who decide that their infant sons must be circumcised can take a number of considerations to help ease the baby’s trauma:
1.) Perhaps a local injection, a dorsal nerve block, can be used to help ease the baby’s initial pain. Because this is medication, a doctor would probably have to administer it, even if a mohel were to do the operation. Opinions will vary about the use of this, for some believe that the ritual is “null and void” unless the infant feels a great deal of pain. Please refer to the final chapter of this book on “Humane Alternatives?” for further discussion of this technique.
2.) Do have genuine concern for your baby’s feelings as he is being cut, and during the following days as he heals. Give him a lot of love and physical contact by holding him close. A child fares better from any injury if he can sense his parents’ genuine concern.
3.) Remember that the baby born in the past had all the benefits of the “old fashioned” concepts of baby care that today’s new parents are struggling to relearn. The baby born in previous ages was always born at home or in a home-like setting and immediately after birth was placed in his mother’s arms. He was always breastfed, usually for the first couple of years of his life. Too many of today’s babies experience the first days of life away from their mothers in a sterile hospital nursery, and know only lifeless bottles instead of their mother’s breasts for nourishment. So if your baby must undergo circumcision, do all the other positive, beneficial things that you can for him. Give birth to your baby in a loving, non-traumatic environment. Nurse him at the breast the way God intended all babies to be fed. Have him grow up in a loving and caring environment. All these things are important to his well-being, whether or not he keeps his foreskin.
Jewish parents who wish to leave their infant sons intact, yet wish to do something in observance of the Abrahamic covenant can consider a number of other alternatives.
“Some Jewish parents choose circumcision with no feelings of religious observance, but merely out of conformity to the American middle class, or belief that they have ascribed to a medically preventative measure.”
Recently a midwife wrote about the following observance:
“Last year a baby boy was born to Jewish parents. The parents wanted to give the child a Brith without inflicting the pain of circumcision. On the eighth day friends were invited to their home. A friend who is a rabbinical student read the appropriate scriptures, blessed the child with a Hebrew name and at the time of circumcision a large organic carrot was produced and the tip severed. It was a joyous moment for all involved.
“You will all have your own personal reaction to this ceremony. For those who want to keep with the tradition, but do not feel it is necessary to cause your newborn unnecessary pain, try cutting a carrot! Do it with sincerity, respect and love. We can only pray for God’s Blessings and offer our actions unto him. Perhaps this is the alternative some of you may have been looking for.”75
As another option, I have been told that in Russia, Jews follow a ritual for the newborn, but do not amputate the foreskin, but instead only draw one drop of blood from the prepuce in observance of the ceremony. In some countries, where the rest of the population has intact penises, Jews also have wished to keep their foreskins. This may be less contradictory to the ancient covenant than it appears, for there is considerable speculation that during ancient times the prepuce was merely gashed and bled rather than cut off. ***
As was previously discussed, some Reform Jews have a “Baby Naming Ceremony,” a Jewish ritual for the male infant, without circumcision (circumcision having been previously done in the hospital). Perhaps some progressive rabbis would be willing to perform a similar ceremony for a baby who was not circumcised, because the parents wished to spare him the trauma. One Jewish couple who wished to leave their infant son intact reported the following:
“We went to a Reform temple and had Joshua ‘named’ at a Sabbath service. We now have a certificate with his Jewish name and the family is happy because now he’s ‘Jewish.’ The rabbi never asked and we never volunteered the information that Joshua wasn’t circumcised.”76
Regardless of the various personal choices that will be made by individuals, it must be strongly emphasized that this book, and the growing movement opposing infant circumcision, have absolutely no intention of being anti-Jewish. For Jews too are becoming increasingly concerned about circumcision. Some are choosing against it for their own sons. Many are concerned that a large number of Jewish parents chose it only as a supposed medical consideration, similar to routine immunization, rather than as a religious rite. (For the devout Jew, medical circumcision is not considered “true” circumcision.) Many Jews advocate circumcision only as a religious observance, and urge non-Jewish parents not to follow suit.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides summed it up in the 13th century:
“No one … should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith….”77
Today, even that faith is being questioned by some.
- Genesis: Ch. 17: 7-14, 23-27.
- Waszak, Stephen J., M.D. “The Historic Significance of Circumcision” Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 51, No. 4, April 1978, p. 500.
- Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I., p. 629.
- Exodus: Ch. 4: 24-26.
- Joshua: Ch. 5: 2-9.
- Genesis: Ch. 35: 24-25.
- Jeremiah: Ch. 4: 4.
- Lewis, Joseph In The Name of Humanity! Eugenics Publishing Company, New York, c. 1956, p. xii-xiii (preface).
- Leviticus: Ch. 15: 19-28.
- Leviticus: Ch. 12: 2-4.
- Shechet, Jacob, Rabbi & Mohel The Layman’s Guide to the Covenant of Circumcision, p. 3.
- Isaac, Erich “The Enigma of Circumcision” Commentary, January 1967, p. 55.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- Hertzberg, Arthur Judaism Washington Square Press, c. 1961, p. 75.
- Schechet, p. 17 (Menoras Haraor).
- Leviticus: Ch. 12: 6-8.
- Carter, Nicholas Routine Circumcision: The Tragic Myth Londinium Press, London, England, c. 1979, p. 26.
- Genesis: Ch. 17: 5-6.
- Leviticus: Ch. 19: 23-24.
- Weiss, Charles, M.D., Ph.D. “Ritual Circumcision; Comments on Current Practices in American Hospitals” Clinical Pediatrics, Vol. 1, no. 1, Oct. 1962, p. 223.
- Bryk, Felix Sex & Circumcision: A Study of Phallic Worship and Mutilation in Men and Women Brandon House, North Hollywood, CA., c. 1967, p. 36.
- Ibid., p. 37.
- Ibid., p. 217.
- Maimonides, Moses The Guide for the Perplexed Dover Publications, Inc., New York, c. 1956, p. 378-379.
- Shechet, p. 6 (Devorim Rabon 6).
- Maimonides, p. 379 (quoting Leviticus 12:27).
- Korones, Sheldon B., M.D. High-Risk Newborn Infants The C.V. Mosby Co., St. Louis, c. 1976, p. 188.
- Shechet, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 13-14.
- Conard, Robert, M.D. “Side Lights on the History of Circumcision” The Ohio State Medical Journal, Vol. 50, No. 8, August 1954, p. 771.
- Bryk, p. 50.
- Remondino, P.C., M.D. History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present Ams Press, New York, c. 1974, (1st ed., F. A. Davis Co., c. 1891), p. 149.
- Bryk, p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 51.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 53.
- D’Alba, Alexander, M.D. Circumcision: The Savagery of the Cradle, p. 26.
- Lewis, p. 63 (quoting Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 95).
- Shechet, p. 15.
- Zborowski & Herzog Life is With People Schocken Books, c. 1952, p. 318-319
- Malev, Milton, M.D. “The Jewish Orthodox Circumcision Ceremony,” p. 513.
- Shechet, p. 10.
- Conrad, Andree “What’s Behind the Sports Myths About Sex?” Sexual Medicine Today, p. 27.
- Tushnet, Leonard, M.D. “Uncircumcision” Medical Times, Vol. 93, No. 6, June 1965, p. 588.
- Remondino, p. 63.
- Conard, p. 773.
- Remondino, p. 67.
- Ibid., p. 68.
- Tushnet, p. 590-591.
- Ibid., p. 592-593.
- Glenn, Jules, M.D. “Circumcision and Anti-Semitism” Psychoanalytical Quarterly, Vol. 29, 1960, p. 397-398.
- Malev, p. 510.
- Shechet, p. 4.
- Mendelsohn, Robert A., M.D. “Circumcision View Solicited” People’s Doctor (newspaper column), Hayward, CA. 1978.
- Wood, Jeffrey R. “The Circumcision Controversy” (Information sheet for INTACT Educational Foundation) Quoting Rabbi Morris Shoulson, author of Circumcision in Jewish Law and Modern Medical Practice.
- Carter, p. 69.
- Yellen, Hiram S., M.D. “Discussions of Bloodless Circumcision” Brochure for Gomco Surgical Manufacturing Corp., Buffalo, N.Y. (from American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, July 1935).
- Kiser, Edgar F., M.D. “Ceremonial Circumcision” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 203, No. 17, Oct. 23, 1930, p. 836.
- Zborowski & Herzog, p. 319.
- Bryk, p. 56.
- Malev, p. 514-515.
- Remondino, p. 151-152.
- Lewis, p. 153.
- Bryk, p. 234-236.
- Schwarz, Leo W. (editor) Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People The Modern Library, New York, c. 1956, p. 366.
- Leviticus: Ch. 19: 28.
- Isaac, p. 51-52.
- Shechet, p. 16.
- Pablo de la Rosa (personal correspondence).
- Donin, Rabbi Hayim Halevy To Be A Jew Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, N.Y., c. 1972, p. 45.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 41.
- Burns, Nancy Rama “Alternative Circumcision?” Mothering, Vol. 13, 1979, p. 85.
76. Steinberg, Linda (personal correspondence).
- Maimonides, p. 378.
Rabbi F.S. Gartner
The following interview with Rabbi Gartner is the only one in this book that is in favor of circumcision. I of course disagree with much of what he has to say. However, I do consider his views worth sharing.
He was an older man who was born in Europe and lost several relatives during the Nazi regime. This interview took place in 1979. Rabbi Gartner died in 1984 at the age of 86.
Prior to this interview I showed him a copy of the proposed outline for this book. Included in the outline was mention of the chapter “Is Circumcision Traumatic for a Newborn Baby?” Because he saw this, he was quite defensive about this point, insisting that the operation could not possibly be painful for a baby.
I include this interview with little comment. I made no attempt to argue any of the points on which he and I disagreed. I only ask that this interview be read in context with the rest of the book.
Rabbi Gartner: Circumcision is not an exclusively Jewish rite. It was, and still is practiced among peoples all over the world. Today many European and American Christians practice circumcision for reasons of health. According to some physicians, circumcision is beneficial in avoiding cancer.
R: I have articles that present both sides of that question. Many would disagree with that.
G: It is estimated that one-seventh of the world’s population are practicing circumcision at present. In ancient times the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, just as the Jews, practiced circumcision. The Philistines, Syrians, and Canaanites were not circumcised. The Arabs circumcised their sons at the age of 13 years. This is based on Genesis: 17: 25: “And Ishmael was the son. His son was 13 years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.” Since the Mohammedans base their beliefs to a certain degree on the Bible and the Pentateuch, they still usually practice circumcision at the age of 13. It’s not a very comfortable procedure, as you can well imagine.
R: I’m sure it isn’t at any age.
G: In the past they didn’t use anesthesia. It was painful and the boys had to really be “heroes.” The Jews circumcise on the eighth day, which is, according to every authority I know, the ideal day for circumcision. Sensitivity is still at a low and the coagulation which goes back to 30% in the earlier days is restored normally at the eighth day. That’s the ideal day as far as sensitivity, pain and feelings.
R: You believe that they’re less sensitive to pain on that day than any other day?
G: Yes, definitely. I’ve performed quite a few hundred circumcisions and very often I didn’t even hear a peep out of the baby. The baby is held comfortably and sucks on a piece of sugar. We put the sugar on a piece of gauze and the baby doesn’t even react. It reacts when you spread the legs. The baby doesn’t want to be tied down. That has to be done for reasons of security.
R: Do you use the circumcision board where the baby is strapped down?
G:I usually use it. Sometimes a nurse would hold the legs. I usually do it in the hospital or at home. The Jewish hospitals in large Jewish cities have special rooms set aside for the festivities that take place. Everything is done in the hygienic way. That’s my main concern.
In Hebrew, Brith is the right pronunciation. This means covenant. We used to pronounce it Briss because of the old fashioned way of pronunciation of Hebrew. The Israeli pronunciation has taken over more recently.
It’s a sign of the covenant of Abraham. Circumcision assumed a deep spiritual meaning. It is still the outward mark of belonging to the Jewish community. The hostility of other groups has only intensified the determination of Jews to continue circumcising. Circumcision has been performed in secret and very often turned the Jews into martyrs. Jews were ready to and did die for their belief. They call this “Al-Kiddush-Hachem,” “for the sanctification of God’s name.” The circumcision ceremony has become a religious ceremony of great significance. Attached to it are benedictions, joy, and feasting. Oil lamps were burned and the operation is done by a specially appointed skilled man known as Mohel.
In the Middle Ages, the ceremony was transferred from the home to the synagogue and the “Chair of Elijah” was added. Also the Sandek, which means “Godfather,” the assistant to the mohel was added to the circumcision ritual.
In modern times the Reform Jews in Western Europe discarded circumcision together with other rituals, but later restored it. Often it was performed during modern times by a physician if there was no qualified mohel available. The mohel has to have special training which he gets in hospitals.
During the 19th century the ceremony again was reverted to the home instead of the synagogue. Circumcision has to be performed even on the Sabbath. Also it is done on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. At the circumcision ceremony, the baby is given the Hebrew name.*
R: Do they do any kind of ceremony for baby girls?
G: There are some people who circumcise women too. I think it was practiced in Abyssinia. The clitoris was cut. There is no circumcision for a girl in the Jewish religion. The girl is named in the synagogue, usually within a week.
R: What is the cultural significance of circumcision for Jewish people?
G: It’s not cultural significance. You consider civilization or culture a form of development of a people, then circumcision became a part of the Jewish civilization, the culture. But it is strictly a religious ceremony.
R: Is it important as a cleanliness measure?
G: Cleanliness is practiced, especially in modern times. In ancient times I don’t know what they did. There must have been some damage by not knowing about germs. I use disinfectants and I scrub my hands and use surgical gloves. I don’t think it’s necessary though, because babies have a wonderful capacity. They’re healthy and young. * *
R: They heal very rapidly. What method do you use when you circumcise?
G: We used to use a knife. Now we use a clamp. I use the Gomco because the religious requirements of shedding some blood: “Thou shalt deliver some blood….” the blood is enough from cutting with a clamp. I cut it, and I leave the clamp on, so I draw a little bit of blood. The eighth day is very important, but for reasons of health we postpone circumcision. Also if a woman lost two children to circumcision, her third boy is not to be circumcised. This applies to her sister’s sons too. It means that this [an inherited tendency to have bleeding problems] is in the family. If there’s a danger to life, it takes precedence over any ritual or commandment.
R: I have heard of a theory that circumcision of newborn males originated as a “blood sacrifice” in order to purify the infant from the “contaminated” blood of his mother from giving birth. What are your comments on this?
G: This is theory. You can let your imagination go haywire! But we have other sources besides theory! I am sick and tired of theories! I am not the person to agree with this! It’s a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his successors that this has to be practiced.
R: I have also heard of a theory that circumcision of newborn males began as a “token sacrifice” replacing the earlier practice of sacrificing the baby. This would have been far back in ancient times.
G: The Jewish religion is completely against that! The practices of the ancient Babylonians had the sacrifice of children to the God Moloch and burned the children alive. This was an abomination to the Jewish people. The greatest part of the Jewish religion deals with commandments not to follow those practices and never to be cruel! The Jewish tradition teaches us to be kind to animals too, and not to cause any pain. The laws of killing animals were made for this reason. People were too cruel and the Jews were always considered to cause the least pain. So this is completely out of line for the Jews. We never sacrificed. We were warned in the scripture never to fall back on this abomination.
R: Why has the ritual of circumcision persisted among Jewish people, even when they no longer choose to observe other practices such as dietary laws?
G: Perhaps it is because Jews are not a nation. Therefore it’s a mark of civilization that Jews have developed.
R: Even among some Jewish people who have dropped following the Kosher diet and so forth?
G: Yes, and are not observant, but they still want to be classified as Jews.
R: Of course in the United States most males are circumcised, so being circumcised does not set one apart as being Jewish.
G: Yes, the Christians do it for health reasons. I know there are some opinions saying that this is not true, but I have spoken to doctors. They say that when a person is not circumcised, in old age he suffers with cleanliness problems. Then the circumcision has to be performed in old age, and it’s not a very pleasant procedure. From a hygienic point of view, physically, circumcision is of tremendous value.
R: I have read descriptions of the three basic steps to the Jewish ritual. They are described as the “milah” which is the cutting off of the foreskin, the “periah” which is the pushing back and tearing of the inner membrane with the thumbnail, and “mezizah” in which the blood is sucked from the baby’s penis. Is the ritual still done in this manner?
G: The milah is the cutting off of the foreskin, but this is done in modern times not by tearing the foreskin. It is done with scissors. Then the glans comes up, the skin is pushed back, and the glans appears very clean.
R: So the clamp takes care of that part?
G: The clamp is used but the pushing back is done by hand. The pushing back of the inner membrane with the thumbnail is not done that way any more. It is taken care of in a more modern way. Mezizah has been abandoned a long time ago because of the dangers involved. I think it was the only thing they knew how to do to stop the bleeding. Some fanatics will still observe the old time ways.
R: How is the mohel trained?
G: Religiously it is combined with the training for a Rabbi, but he also goes to a hospital to get experience with circumcision. In times past one mohel would simply teach the other.
R: Do you believe that circumcision traumatizes the baby or causes any lasting psychological ill effects?
G: Well, I believe the human race is a little bit more sturdy than this. There are traumatic experiences, but I think it’s a rather wild assumption. I don’t agree in many aspects with psychiatrists. We have a tendency to go haywire and we should stick to realities. If you want to get into culmination and imagination, there’s no end to it.
R: You really don’t believe that it has any ill effects?
G: No. I argued vividly with the psychologist that tried to bring that theory up in the presence of other doctors. The doctors agreed with me and so did the nurses. This was at a very good hospital.
R: I’ve certainly talked with other people who feel quite a bit differently about that!
G: Yes, but they are usually leaning toward psychiatry or psychoanalysis. They are not what I would call practical physicians. You also give the baby a little slap when it is born.
R: That isn’t usually done any more.
G: But I don’t think that causes any trauma. Those things are forgotten. There is no proof that such things really affect the future of the babies. They forget it, just like the bleeding stops. I don’t believe it. You are entitled to your opinion and so am I. Psychiatrists…what would they have to do if they wouldn’t bother with such things? They would be standing idly around.
R: I have known some Jewish couples who have had their baby circumcised in the hospital by a doctor to save money. Their insurance would cover it in the hospital but not for a mohel to do it. But then later they had a “Baby Naming Ceremony.”
G: Then they didn’t perform according to Jewish tradition! For traditional Jews the circumcision cannot be varied! I do not insist when I convert a person of full age to Judaism that a circumcision be performed, because I think it’s a major surgical involvement which causes pain and sometimes people cannot afford. If a child is converted with the parents I will draw one drop of blood from the foreskin which is not a traumatic shock. I personally regard the sensitivities of the child at this age (past the newborn age) very important. If it can be a traumatic experience I will not practice it.
Now those Reform Jews who have the baby circumcised in the hospital by a doctor and then name the baby in the Temple … they are not very firmly grounded in the Jewish tradition. It’s a matter of convenience rather than sacrifice which you have to bring for every idea you believe in. They don’t comply! You can eat matzoh with ham on it! I can’t keep you from it if you are Jewish! But it’s not according to the Jewish law.
R: If the baby has been circumcised as a hospital procedure that’s not really circumcised according to Jewish tradition?
G: Then it’s a medical performance rather than the real tradition. All the paraphernalia and all the reciting are part of it. It has to be by a certain ritual.
R: What if some people were a practicing Jewish couple and they had a baby boy and they didn’t want him circumcised. What would the Temple do?
G: If it’s Reform, the Temple would not react. They would accept their judgment. If it’s any other like Conservative or Orthodox, you are not considered a Jew because this is one of the main things which brings you into the covenant … the Brith. You cannot say “I subscribe to the American constitution, but when it doesn’t fit me I don’t do it.” Unfortunately this is done and that’s why we have such a restless society. This has its advantages and great disadvantages. The Jewish people have always been encouraged to ask questions and arrive at answers. That’s why we have a Talmud, where opinions of opponents are also written down.
R: Are you Orthodox?
G: No, I’m Conservative.
R : I understand that in Russia and in some other parts of the world even Jewish people don’t circumcise.
G: I don’t know about that. I’m sure that the Jews do it in secret. They have done it over the centuries for thousands of years, even when they were threatened with death. So you speak about expenses, it might cost a few more dollars to have a Rabbi do it in a ceremony than to have a doctor do it in the hospital. But this was not a sacrifice that comes to dollars … but life!!
R: Do you have any idea how circumcision came to be popular in American hospitals as a medical procedure? Until the turn of the century most non-Jewish people in this society did not practice circumcision.
G: We were considered brutes! It was thrown into our faces, “You are Barbarians!!” But finally hypocrisy and prejudice gave way to reason. Even if you don’t believe in it as a covenant, as the Jews do, it is still subscribed to from the medical point of view. I think if he is not circumcised, the baby gets into trouble later on when he grows up.
R: There are many Jewish doctors in the United States. Do you think that their influence could have anything to do with the popularity of circumcision in the United States today?
G: I doubt it. We keep our ceremonies to ourselves. We have no missionaries.
R: If an adult man converts to Judaism and is not circumcised, does he have to have it done?
G: In the Orthodox way, if an adult wants to convert to Judaism he has to be circumcised. The Reform don’t insist. The Conservatives are flexible because we consider what is involved. It’s a major surgical step. Some Rabbis would perform the circumcision after the person departs.
R: If an adult man did become circumcised when he joined the Jewish religion, would they do a ceremony for him the same way?
G: Yes. This is considered indeed a great sacrifice. The person is practically considered a holy man.
R: Do the Jews still have to circumcise a dead baby before burial?
G: Yes. The ceremony is limited. The joy is not there. If the baby didn’t live thirty days it doesn’t have to be done. But there’s no harm done in bringing it into the covenant post-mortem.
R: Could a non-Jewish couple take their baby to a mohel to be circumcised?
G: No. The Rabbi has no right to perform a circumcision for a non-Jewish baby. I have a right to perform for Jewish people only. Otherwise I would compete with physicians. I am not permitted by state law.
R: How do you personally feel about doing circumcisions?
G: I feel all right. My personal experiences have been fine.
R: Have you had any bad experiences with it?
G: I had some in which I was apprehensive because the baby had difficulties immediately after birth. The blood wasn’t okay. They had to drain the blood out and replace it with new blood. (He was probably referring to the RH factor. – R.R.) But the circumcision went okay. I was watching for hours to see if there was any bleeding.
R: Why couldn’t God have just made penises that way in the first place? If he didn’t want males to have foreskins, why did He put them there in the first place?
G: It’s a speculation. Why did God not create all men perfect? He could have. God is almighty! Why do we have to have crooks? Why do we have to straighten out people? They could have been born ideal. Some people would tell you that God made them that way because God wanted the Jews to prove themselves and take upon themselves some obligations and sacrifices. Not sacrifices in the sense that we sacrifice the foreskin, but sacrificing from pain or discomfort. But this question … you could just as well ask why is a person not born smart and fully developed? Why does he have to be a baby and grow?
*Some modern Jewish parents give their children, both sons and daughters, a name in Hebrew in addition to a conventional “American” name. Frequently the conventional name (by which the child will be known) and the Hebrew name are chosen to start with the same letter sounds.
* *I was trying to ask him, “Do Jewish people consider circumcision an important measure of personal body cleanliness?” He misunderstood the question and thought I was asking him about cleanliness measures taken during the operation.
Elizabeth and Marsh Pickard-Ginsberg – young Jewish parents: Bellingham, Washington
Marsh: I grew up in a very traditional Jewish family. For the last few years I have lived as an artist. I teach Tai Chi. For the last two years we have been in Iowa City, Iowa. Elizabeth and I have just moved to Bellingham.
Rosemary: You had a home birth. What were your feelings and plans for that choice?
M: We were living in San Francisco and we were considering an alternative to hospital birth.
Elizabeth: We didn’t have much education about pregnancy or birth. We moved to Iowa in November 1976. Jesse was born in February 1977. 1 hadn’t had any prenatal checks (by November) but I knew I felt healthy. I went to a women’s clinic and started exploring alternatives to a regular hospital birth. Hospitals were so foreign to me that I didn’t feel that would be the best place where I could open up and relax. Everything I’d read about giving birth said that where it feels most comfortable is safest. We were frightened by the idea of home birth, too. There was so much we didn’t know.
R: I think every expectant couple has some fears.
E: We had a strong feeling that there wouldn’t be any problems with the birth.
R: And it was a normal birth?
E: We considered going to the hospital. I went into labor on a Friday and Jesse was born the following Monday. During that time the labor would stop. It was actually a lot of pre-labor.
R: I’m sure that must be terribly discouraging.
E: I had a lot of anxiety about wanting to get labor over with before I was really ready.
R: It’s hard to deal with. You just feel like the baby’s never going to come.
E: From Sunday about 3 p.m. to Monday 3 p.m. when he was born, there was hard labor. It was a good thing it was at home. Had I been in a hospital that 24 hour period might have really been … I feel … a lot more difficult.
R: They might have induced you to speed it up.
E: I might have ended up with a Caesarian because I wasn’t dilating.
R: It can be normal for a first time mother to go slow like that.
E: It was good being with people who had the consciousness that they saw birth as a natural process. During transition, it was not one of these “blissful births.” I was screaming “Knock me out!! Take the baby out!! Do anything to me, just get it over with!!” But somehow I got through it! Second stage labor (pushing) was 10 minutes. I pushed him right out!
“It’s embarrassing to admit, but I had hardly ever heard the word or thought about what (circumcision) meant. I had never seen an uncircumcised man. I really didn’t know what circumcision versus non-circumcision was.”
R: And the baby was fine and beautiful after he was born.
E: Yes. Before the birth we’d talked a lot about circumcision, but we hadn’t made a decision by the birth. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I had hardly ever heard the word or thought about what it meant. I had never seen an uncircumcised man. I really didn’t know what circumcision versus non-circumcision was.
R: A lot of American people are in the same situation. Some people have never seen an intact penis before until they have a baby boy of their own.
E: Neither of us knew much. We read some articles by Ina May Gaskin (The Farm, Tenn.) We respected her natural views on birth. I read that she had circumcised her son herself because of infections. That made me think that maybe circumcision wasn’t such a bad thing. We also asked a few people and all they said about circumcision was “Well, they cry a few minutes, it doesn’t hurt that much.” My image was that they took a little bit of skin off the end of the penis and it was quick and painless. But I still kept saying to Marsh “Why tamper with the body? Why not just leave the body the way it is?” Then I turned the issue over to Marsh. He had more of a conflict because of his parents.
M: It was a conflict for me because I grew up in a very traditional Jewish family in which there was no question about it. If you have a baby boy you have him circumcised. When we asked questions it was “What is a circumcision? What happens?” We basically understood that there was no pain.
E: His parents sent us a check for the Bris after Jesse was born.
M: Looking back … it seems like something very cannibalistic to me, barbaric, as to what a Bris is, because it’s supposed to be something that binds all the Jews together. Bris means “covenant” between man and God. It was a conflict for me because I was just beginning to enter into a new consciousness of how much care and responsibility you have when you have a new person. Coming from a background and tradition in which you don’t question circumcision, I wasn’t questioning it as deeply as I could have. I don’t feel good that we made that decision. We were told by the urologist who was Jewish and who did the circumcision, that there was a possibility that if we hadn’t had a circumcision, Jesse might have had kidney problems when he was 10 or 11 because his foreskin was so tight. Now I question that.
E: Our midwife questioned it also. Statistics show that sometimes it takes three years to loosen.
R: It’s normal for the foreskin of a newborn to be tight and have a tiny opening.
M: I remember the confrontation with the urologist and that I wasn’t satisfied with his response.
E: Before the baby was born I kept bringing up the issue of circumcision. It was bothering me. I was pretty sure that it was a baby boy. Marsh was avoiding the issue because it was so disturbing for him. One day I said “Look, we have to make a decision about this!” We took all the facts that we had gathered at that time and sat down to make a decision. I said that I preferred not to have him circumcised, but I felt that since he was the father, there would be a strong identification there between father and son. It was very important for him to feel comfortable with the decision.
R: A lot of fathers feel that way. Even when he’s not Jewish, often a father thinks that if he is circumcised, then his son should be also.
E: We had a very emotional conversation and at the end Marsh finally threw up his hands and said “I won’t be able to relate to my son! I’ll be exiled from my family if he were not circumcised!!” That was the big thing … that there would be a lack of acceptance between father and son. That somehow Marsh would feel … that he wouldn’t be able to relate to Jesse because he wasn’t circumcised. Also that his family would not take Jesse into their hearts. So at that point we felt that he would be circumcised. The issue was still hovering. Four days after his birth we went to a Jewish pediatrician for his check up. We asked him about circumcision. The pediatrician got very pale and stern and said he didn’t do circumcisions any more!! He was upset.
M: He was a very conservative type of guy who looked like nothing could touch him, but he got really upset when we mentioned circumcision.
E: The upsetness showed by his becoming very tight.
M: It was like it was so upsetting to him that he couldn’t even approach the subject.
E: When we pressured him to talk more about circumcision, he didn’t want to talk about it. He did tell us that there was no medical reason for it, and I guess we knew that. We were looking for someone to tell us what to do. It’s such a hard decision. But he wasn’t able to. Finally, somehow, we were just going ahead with it. We’d contacted this Jewish urologist to come to our home to do the circumcision. We felt that it would be too alienating in a hospital. We might not have done it if we hadn’t found anybody to do it at home.
R: Did you have a Rabbi there for the ceremony?
E: Marsh read the Hebrew from the Rabbi’s book. We did the ceremony. The Rabbi was out of town. Our midwife and her assistant who had helped with Jesse’s birth were there. Traditionally there’s food prepared and we drank wine. The baby is given wine on a cloth.
M: I think that whole concept of “a ceremony” and having something to eat afterwards is totally barbaric! When I started to really feel that idea of cutting up this kid’s body and considering it to be what the Jews call a “mitzvah,” a “good deed,” and then everybody is all smiles and laughs and has wine and cake is just…
R: Do you still practice the Jewish faith?
M: Friday night is Sabbath for us and we light the candles and make the blessing over the bread and wine. We recognize the Sabbath as being separate from the rest of the week. We celebrate major holidays like Passover.
R: Do you go to Temple?
M: Not any more. I went to Hebrew school until I was 17 or 18. 1 went to Synagogue or Temple and I was confirmed when I was 15.
R: You had a Bar Mitzvah?
M: Yes. There was a great deal of Jewishness in my family. It was conservative. My father was brought up Orthodox. It was a Kosher household with two sets of dishes for meat and milk and two sinks. But since my going to college and basically living and opening up to what life is all about, I began to have a strong feeling that what goes on in the Synagogue is contradictory to what Judaism to me really is. I feel a lot of lip service is given in the synagogues and temples.
R: I’ve seen a lot of the same thing in Christian churches. Is Elizabeth Jewish?
M: Technically she is. Her mother is Jewish, but she didn’t practice Judaism. Her father is Episcopalian.
R: Are you Jewish now?
E: Being Jewish is a part of me. I feel a tie there in my being. I feel like myself and that’s a part of myself.
M: I feel strongly that by making people believe in and do something without feeling … you’re forcing something on them. Then what happens is two things … one is fear and the other is hate. That is what I fear is happening now. There’s a lot of Jewish things that are done on fear! Like fear of God, because you don’t have an inner feeling of what God is.
E: And He’s going to know that you’re not doing this and not doing that!
R: Do you mean a fear of your parents? Or the community? Or fear of God?
M: There’s a connection there that in a sense my father is God. That’s unconsciously tied into the Jewish religion. Also there is a fear of losing love and losing family.
E: It’s a matter of approval or disapproval if you gain or lose … not love.
M: Exactly. A banishment. That’s what happened with Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah said, “Get out of here!” and they went like that!
E: Marsh and I have gone over and over the actual ceremony in our minds. When the urologist and our two friends arrived, the doctor said, “Let’s put Jesse on the kitchen table.” And we said, “No, we want to hold him! We want him to have contact!” So our midwife held Jesse, sitting on the bed that he was born in. The urologist was facing Jesse. I was facing Jesse and Marsh was sitting on the bed holding Jesse’s hand and … Did you have to hold him down? Was I holding down his 1egs?
M: The only thing I remember is his hand holding my thumb.
E: And shrieking!! He was just clinging to Marsh’s thumb!! He had one of my thumbs too. I was holding a washcloth with wine on it that he was supposed to suck on. I can still remember all the wine dripping down on him. He was wearing a T-shirt that Marsh’s sister had embroidered with a mandala on it -a very beautiful, special T-shirt. When the doctor opened up the instruments and I saw them I just pushed away any feelings that I could stop the circumcision. I don’t know why!! All I could have said was “I’ve changed my mind” or “I absolutely won’t allow this!” But I was in shock!
M: I went into shock as soon as I saw the instruments!
E: He cut and held a hemostat on the cut. The foreskin wasn’t retractable. They couldn’t just use a bell.
“When the doctor opened up the instruments and I saw them I just pushed away any feelings that I could stop the circumcision. All I could have said was ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ or ‘I absolutely won’t allow this!’ But I went into shock as soon as I saw all these stainless steel sharp numbers. I just had no awareness that this was going to be surgery!!”
R: That’s what is normally done. They clamp it first with a hemostat to stop any bleeding and leave it on for about a minute, completely pinching off the blood vessels. Then they snip it, making the slit large enough to put the bell in. It is normal for the foreskin of a newborn to be tight.
E: He made it sound to us that this was just because his foreskin was so tight.
R: He made you feel that it was abnormal?
E: Abnormal. Right. That was why he had to … he gave us this word “dorsal slit.” So Jesse was shrieking and I had tears streaming down my face. Marsh turned gray yellow-a very odd color!! He looked like he was about to pass out. I can remember his face being in shock!!
M: It seemed like I was here and I was somewhere else. I get sick just thinking about it! Right now I just feel sick!! I also go into a rage!! If I had been in touch with my feelings at all I would have killed the guy!!
E: Or stopped it!! You would have stopped it.
M: Yeah, I would have stopped it!
E: Both of us cut off our feelings and allowed this thing to happen in our own house to our own baby because of all this … cultural stuff. We were feeling like incompetent children … as opposed to: “This is our baby. We can make a decision and a choice!! We can stop this!! We can answer his cries!! He was screaming and there was no doubt in his scream that he wanted mother, or a mothering figure to come and protect him from this pain!!
M: I know I went into shock as soon as he uncovered all the medical instruments. I saw all these stainless steel sharp numbers…
E: Razors and scalpels.
M: I just had no awareness that this was going to be surgery!!
E: We thought it was going to be just a little tiny piece of skin!
M: From my tradition I had always heard “Everybody’s going to a Bris, and oh what a great thing it is!” so there was never in my mind any awareness of this being surgery! I had heard that they put a clamp on the end of the foreskin and snap it off like that! When I was going to Hebrew school I had a teacher who did circumcisions and that’s the way he described it … that they put a clamp on the tip of the penis and in a second it’s over. But this circumcision took 25 minutes!
R: Why did he take so long? Normally it should only take a few minutes.
E: He said it was because the foreskin was so tight and because he held the hemostat a lot. I guess he was just being extremely cautious. And I couldn’t believe it, he just kept pulling back this skin and pulling it back, and finally he said “Ah, we’re finally getting to the tip of the penis!” And here’s this liver-colored, bloody thing being exposed that definitely looked like an internal organ. I thought you just cut off this little piece of skin and there’s the tip of the penis and that’s that. I didn’t know you had to pull back and cut off … do so much cutting! And I didn’t realize the tip of the penis was so obviously meant to be covered!!
R: In the intact individual the glans looks very much different. In the circumcised person it looks like the rest of his skin. In the intact person it’s like the inside of our vaginas or the inside of the mouth. It’s a totally different type of skin.
E: This is one thing Marsh also heard about circumcision. In Israeli war tribes they said circumcision helped the tip of the penis develop and made him grow into manhood faster.
R: People have all sorts of ideas. I don’t believe that there’s any truth to it.
M: I’ve never heard that idea since, but it seemed possible that circumcising the male makes the genital area grow faster, so that in time of war this was something that they needed. The Israelis are constantly in conflicts.
E: (To Marsh) You were talking about the circumcision … You always want to go into the history and Biblical aspects of it. I keep wanting to hear more about your personal feelings. It makes me realize how much pain is still there. I didn’t realize that there was that much pain still with you.
M: There’s still a lot of pain there!
R: You had described the part where the doctor had been pulling the foreskin back. Did he use a clamp then?
“He just kept pulling back this skin and pulling it back, and finally he said, ‘Ah, we’re finally getting to the tip of the penis!’ And here’s this liver-colored, bloody thing being exposed that definitely looked like an internal organ. I thought you just cut off this little piece of skin and there’s the tip of the penis. I didn’t know you had to do so much cutting! And I didn’t realize the tip of the penis was so obviously meant to be covered!!”
E: He used a steel metal ball. It was a round clamp that he placed on it. At that point Jesse screamed so loud that all of a sudden there was no sound! I’ve never heard anything like it! He was screaming and it went up and then there was no sound and his mouth was just open and his face was full of pain!!
M: He had been crying up to that point and then it was too much.
E: I remember something happened inside me the intensity of it was like blowing a fuse! It was too much. We knew something was over. I don’t feel that it ever really healed. At a certain point things metamorphosize when there’s too much pain, and we’d gone beyond!!
R: It has been over two years since it happened and you’re still recovering from it.
E: I don’t think I can recover from it. It’s a scar. I’ve put a lot of energy into trying to recover. I did some crying and we did some therapy. There’s still a lot of feeling that’s blocked off. It was too intense.
R: What was the immediate aftermath, right after the circumcision?
E: Jesse went into a coma-like sleep. And Marsh picked up his diapers.
M: Elizabeth was nursing Jesse. I picked up his diapers and they were just bloody!! I was crying! I just wept!
E: He just put his head on the floor and just shook!!
M: I don’t think I’ve ever cried like that before.
R: Were the doctor or any of the other people there aware of your feelings?
E: They were gone.
M: They were there for about 15 minutes afterwards.
E: They had cake and wine.
M: And we were left alone after that.
E: I remember Marsh … how you felt that something terrible had happened that could never be redeemed. It was like the fall from the Garden of Eden. We had this beautiful baby boy and seven beautiful days and this beautiful rhythm starting, and it was like something had been shattered!
“It was like the fall from the Garden of Eden. We had this beautiful baby boy and seven beautiful days and this beautiful rhythm starting, and it was like something had been shattered!”
M: It was a very, very strange feeling.
E: Something we could not take back. Remorse! Deep, horrible remorse!
M: Things had been really beautiful. There was a certain cadence that we had to our lives and we were pretty much alone. All of a sudden something snatched the essence of what was ever there and damaged it! It couldn’t just be given back. It’s something that I had never experienced before with anything that I can remember. It’s even hard remembering the circumcision. I get a glimpse for a split second and then it fragments.
R: Didn’t you say that you were up all night with Jesse?
E: When Jesse woke up and we changed his diaper for the first time, he started bleeding a lot, and I panicked!! I got hysterical! Marsh got on the phone. We couldn’t reach the doctor. Jesse was shrieking!! I thought I was going to have the baby hemorrhage to death right in front of me!!
M: Then I called the pediatrician. He said “If you want I’ll come over.” He was really great. He said “Put a thick dab of Vaseline on it and don’t diaper him.” I think we did that for the next day. I held him all night. We didn’t sleep most of the night. He fell asleep with his back to my chest. When he peed he just peed.
E: We left the diaper off and sat up all night holding him and dozing off and waking up with his peeing in my face and all over himself and then crying because of it. We couldn’t put the diaper on him because he was so sore, he would just shriek! Then the next day we could diaper him real loosely. It was starting to heal. It was all scabby and blistery.
M: That’s the last of anything I remember about it. It took apparently the usual amount of time that it takes to heal. After it healed it didn’t seem to bother Jesse, but I can’t imagine that something like that can happen and not affect the child. We’ve been very lucky. Nothing really awful has happened to him since then. But I know from my experience when I went into therapy and re-experienced my own circumcision, I could barely touch that.
R: What kind of therapy did you have?
M: Bio-energetics. It was a re-experiencing type of thing. When I was in therapy I went through a sort of visualization, a re-experiencing of my own circumcision. I can’t remember clearly what it was, but I know it was pretty awful. I felt at the time that I was just barely touching the surface of what it was that I experienced. Just think of being a man or a boy who is a little bit older and somebody holding you down and taking the end of your penis off. It’s no different. Some people have a crazy idea that babies feel less and experience less than somebody who is older!!
E: If anything it hurts more, if you just see it.
M: It’s a feeling of rage and anger that came out. if you just close your eyes and think of yourself as being a child, a baby, and you can’t talk, and you can’t express your feelings, and you’re being tortured….
E: Murdered!! It’s like being murdered, for a baby!!
M: Tying down your legs and arms…There is total rage there! I know that as a man, if somebody were to come at Jesse or Elizabeth with that kind of intention, I would probably kill the f ——— !! Or cause him a lot of bodily harm!! There would be no question!! Of course I have the power to reason, so I could say, “Look, I don’t want you to do that!”
E: We let our baby boy be cut up by some stranger!
M: I didn’t want Elizabeth to go to the hospital to have Jesse, even though at times it was very difficult. But when it came time for his circumcision, I just went into this other world.
“If you just close your eyes and think of yourself as being a child, a baby, and you can’t talk, and you can’t express your feelings, and you’re being tortured… murdered! Tying down your arms and legs… There is total rage there!!!”
E: There was a detachment between me and Jesse. So my therapist said “Next time you’re nursing him, put him into bed and breathe with him … often your breathing goes with a state of mind. If your breathing is shallow, you’re cutting off feelings.” I started this as he was going to sleep and I started crying and I got in touch with the real basic animal kind of feeling that … when he was first born there was a tie with my young one, my newborn.
R: You had that immediate bonding.
E: And when the circumcision happened, in order to allow it I had cut off the bond. I had to cut off my natural instincts, and in doing so I cut off a lot of feelings towards Jesse. I cut it off to repress the pain and to repress the natural instinct to stop the circumcision. What I got in touch with was a feeling of “This is my baby!” and “You’re not going to hurt my baby!” I would get glimpses of how much I had repressed and cut off. (At this point Elizabeth’s voice is starting to break and choke and she is on the verge of crying.)
R: How do you feel towards Jesse now?
E: I feel that there’s an element of detachment there. I didn’t ever really get through that pain. It was too intense.
R: What do you think it will be like when you have another child, either a girl or a boy who is left intact? Do you think you’ll have a better relationship with that child?
E: I don’t know. I don’t know how to compare. Jesse seems like a pretty happy kid. I don’t focus on the idea that I should be feeling any different.
R: (To Marsh) What about your relationship with Jesse?
M: We’re very close. Jesse slept on my chest for the first couple of night during his life on this planet. I miss him when I’m not around.
R: Do you feel resolved about his circumcision now?
M: No. It’s somewhere inside me. I don’t know that I ever will get through it.
E: We’ve just tried to really love him and go beyond.
M: There are still a lot of people that when you talk to them about your experience they block that up. I had a friend in Berkeley. He and his wife were both Jewish, and they were going to have their baby circumcised. He seemed to feel it was a good thing to do. He was totally avoiding the idea that his baby was going to be feeling a lot of pain! Judaism has done a lot of brainwashing to people.
R: And the medical profession too.
M: I think if we have another baby boy we’ll just have the Bris without the circumcision. We’ll have some kind of ceremony.
E: I’m not interested. I don’t think you need a ceremony to say there’s a “covenant with God.” By the fact that he was alive and healthy … the “covenant” to me is by his birth.
M: Basically what I’m saying is that I think the idea of a circumcision… a Bris is something that is internal. Jews have this propensity to want to externalize how they feel inside by doing a lot of different things. Unfortunately it has taken people a long way from the center of Judaism. We should share with people from the heart rather than by material things.
(Elizabeth and Marsh have since divorced. Elizabeth has since given birth to another son, Eli, who has been left intact.)
A Letter From a Jewish Mother
The subject of circumcision renewed itself for me recently as a Jewish friend was preparing to birth. In 1970 when I was pregnant with my son I gave the matter much thought. My husband is Jewish and I am too. The son in my womb – and I knew he was a he, having had a vision of him even before conception – brought up the question of circumcision. By tuning in to my deepest maternal feelings I knew that I would not violate my boy and my own maternity by inflicting willful pain on him and me. My mother-in-law was hurt by my rejection of the ancient practice. I myself was not pleased that my son would differ from his father in his masculinity, but I decided that this is an age of change and it was time to end a bad practice. My husband supported me and my mother-in-law finally accepted my decision also.
When my pregnant friend and I talked about circumcising newborn infants my old rage flared up again. She told me that her husband really wanted it done, in the traditional way, by a mohel, as a means of upholding the symbolism of a united Jewish family. I thought that a worthy goal, but suggested that if he was indeed so insistent on the tradition, that he take his child by the hand, after 7 years of age, and lead him to the surgery himself. It occurred to me that the main reason the rite is performed at birth is that at birth the mother is the main recipient of the pain – that in this paternalistic society it is better for the mother to be violated than for the father to take on the pain of a practice he upholds.
The story has a happy ending. When my friend’s husband saw his son born he decided that God had made him to perfection – nothing need be added or subtracted.
Stella Fein , Boulder Creek, CA.
http://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48939692.html (Greek influence and persecution)
http://lilith.org/articles/a-womans-view-of-circumcision/ (neutral,some faulty ideas, but interesting insights)
http://www.cirp.org/pages/cultural/hammerman/ (negative, scary perspective of the father)
http://www.drmomma.org/2009/06/circumcision-jewish-fathers-making.html (long list of resources)
http://www.nocirc.org/symposia/second/larue.html (ancient origins and tales)
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/15/nyregion/mayor-de-blasio-and-rabbis-near-accord-on-new-circumcision-rule.html?src=me&_r=2 (Diseases from metzizah)
http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-culture-war-against-circumcision/14620#.VkO_KP1dHcu (defensiveness, supposition of anti-Semitism, many good responses.)
http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-culture-war-against-circumcision/14620#.Vre9Jf3Sncu (misperception of intactivism as” anti-Semitism)
http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-culture-war-against-circumcision/14620#.VZGwRo1FDcu (controversial, defensive, but good responses)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13mvKdv65BQ (Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqgCeAFkHIM&feature=youtu.be (Tina Kimmel)