To cut, or not to cut, that is the question. At least, that seems to be the dilemma du jour as residents of San Francisco gear up to vote this fall on a proposal to legally ban circumcision of males under the age of 18. Leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities, along with others who want to protect parents’ right to circumcise their infant sons for either religious or health reasons, have been up in arms, giving interviews to Jewish and mainstream media, starting groups like the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, and denouncing the creator of Foreskin Man and his nemesis Monster Mohel.
Drowned out by all this frantic activity is the growing voice of Jews who oppose circumcision and brit milah. I’m not talking about the generally older, secular Jews involved in anti-circumcision campaigns in San Francisco and other parts of the country. I’m referring to young, Jewishly committed couples who are calling into question the religious legitimacy of bringing a male child into the covenant by surgically removing a part of his sexual organ.
Although I had heard briefly and privately from a few such couples about their rationale for not circumcising their sons, the other day was the first time I had the opportunity to read a very thoughtful and in-depth public explanation by a highly educated, active member of the Jewish community about why she and her partner decided against circumcision … but then went ahead with it under what they perceived as unbearable pressure from family and their local Jewish community.
Sarah Margles of Toronto wrote on her Radical Diversity blog:
The ritual is only performed on boys, and not just that, but it is on a boy’s sex organ. This sets up covenantal relationship as exclusively patriarchal in the extreme with a built-in sexual piece that doesn’t make sense to me. It is the epitome, perhaps even the creator, of the “boys club” and there is nothing sacred or covenantal about it. If this is really the symbol God wants, then it is a God I cannot believe in. And, it is a symbol of covenant that is entered into by a non-consenting (and unaware) infant.
Further, and even more troubling for me, it is a violent act. It is a violent act that the community gathers to witness. The trauma is not only sustained by the infant, but also by all those who witness it. The Jewish people have had so much trauma and violence in our recent history that voluntarily adding to it under the guise of celebration doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not good for us. It doesn’t help us. Our people need healing, not additional hurts. This initiation rite does not support a healthy and vibrant Jewish community. It makes it harder for our community to thrive because it’s so emotionally taxing.
I commend Margles for having the courage to start a difficult conversation (as she wrote she was trying to do with her post), but I, even as the mother of three boys, cannot empathize with her. Of course, I know how emotionally hard it is, as a new, exhausted mother awash in extreme hormonal fluctuations, to hear your 8-day-old son momentarily cry out as his foreskin is removed (I heard, but did not watch). But that moment fades quickly as far more difficult emotional trials test you as a parent as the years progress.
What remains is the joy of welcoming your child into the Jewish People through this ritual, no matter whether you are a believer, an atheist or an agnostic. For me, the covenant is not necessarily only between the Jews and God, but also between the individual Jew and all the other Jews in the world, klal yisrael. This is undeniably a tribal notion, but it is the historical weight of such rituals and customs that give our unique Jewish identity such gravity. True, ethical ideas and practices are fundamental to who we are, but they are also fundamental to billions of other people of other nations and religions.
As far as there being any trauma or violence — the new mother doth protest too much. I have yet to meet a Jewish man who remembers his brit milah, which is very minor surgery that could ultimately enhance his health or even save his life or that of his sexual partner(s) — at least according to much of the research published to date. Although the impulse for brit milah in the Bible was theological, there seems to have been some medical prescience involved.
It’s more important to me, as an M.O.T., to potentially save a life than a foreskin.