August 13, 2009

Circumcision

I am a very squeamish person. I cannot bear to look at blood, or even at TV programs about hospitals when they show some operation. I would be useless in an emergency and would certainly never, ever be able to slaughter animals or be a mohel (theory is one thing, practice altogether another). So when I have to tend a circumcision ceremony I stand as far back as I can. I am the polar opposite of the aficionados or Dracula wannabees who peer in close to take videos of the gory process. Last week I was present at the Brit of my latest grandson and made sure I was well shielded by my son-in-law.

I hate hearing babies cry, too. And even the most efficient, speedy, surgically expert circumcision is heart-wrenching. It is true the baby starts crying simply when his nether parts are exposed to the elements (in this case a typically lukewarm London summer), but the actual cut itself is over in seconds and while we hear his ongoing complaints at the indignity it has suffered, the mohel is simply bandaging up the wound. In a matter of minutes (that feel like an hour) it is over, the mandatory cup of wine is poured and the baby is happily sucking on a wine-drenched finger before it is returned to the primordial sanctuary of his mother's breast. Then, as is the norm in Jewish society, everyone gets down to the food and the drink.

I confess I do have mixed feelings. We have been doing this for thousands of years. It is one of the most significant parts of our ancient tradition. Yet I still feel a twinge, an inexplicable sense that it is all a bit primitive. At the same time, I also feel immense pride, that through thick and thin we as a people have been so loyal to this strange ritual, this act of dedication we impose on our sons. It gives us an immediate and visceral link to all the millions of Jews who have come before us who have, like me, all continued to follow, often at great self-sacrifice, our amazing and profound gift to humanity. A gift that most of humanity tries so hard to ignore, if not repudiate. It is a very moving experience. It is like so much of our religion that defies logic yet works, that appears trivial yet is profound, that strikes one as tribal and yet is also universal.

But why is circumcision so crucial? The only other physical assault on the human body is the Biblical law that imposes a pierced ear on the Hebrew slaves who prefers dependency to freedom. Otherwise the body is regarded with such reverence that even tattoos are forbidden. The bond between a human and God is not surely established by a ceremony and pain that is almost immediately forgotten. And as for noticing it later on, enough circumcised Jews have repudiated their fathers' decision. Surely commitment is in the mind and heart not the penis? Anyway is the ceremony not rather about the father's, the parents', commitment and it is this that is being passed on? And if it is so crucial to being Jewish, why does it not apply to women?

Now here is the point. I have read the endless pathetic and nasty anti-Semitic blogs and pseudo-learned essays about the evils of circumcision. I have read how it denies Jewish men the true pleasures of sex. And frankly I have laughed as I would if someone told me that having your tonsils out prevented you from enjoying food or singing. I have to say that most Jews I know do not complain about that side of the issue. That which people (wrongly) call "female circumcision" does indeed deny sexual pleasure and may be intended to; it is the permanent removal of a vital organ, which is really is excessively barbaric. But actual circumcision, as is done to males, is the removal of a totally redundant piece of skin. Not only, but evidence keeps coming in about the benefits of male circumcision in reducing the incidence of certain diseases in both men and women.

Culturally, of course, there was a time when Greeks and Romans looked down on circumcision and naked athletes of Jewish origin tried all kinds of devices to hide it, as indeed do some men in the US who seem to prefer the proboscidean state. Nowadays, what with Muslims circumcising their boys, the still common Western preferences, and Christianity happy to remind us that Jesus was circumcised on his putative eighth day it seems circumcision is mainstream.

I do often hear the complaint that there is no specific ritual to welcome girls into the covenant. But I am impressed by the mystical explanation that the regenerative blood of the monthly cycle is the female blood of the covenant, even if it is involuntary (and even if all females have it, regardless of religion). It does, after all, make up the symmetry of both reproductive organs uniting in ensuring the tradition continues.

So when all is said and done, I hate the cut and the cry, yet I am moved by context, the power of our religious tradition, the sense of continuity we are ensuring, and the feeling of shared community. As one of the most important texts of the ceremony, borrowed from the prophet and repeated at the Passover table declares, "Out of blood comes life!"

19 Comments:

At 3:30 AM , Anonymous Leila said...

Dear Jeremy,
Anyone with an ounce of humanity shudders at the baby's pain - the ritual does have its barbaric side.
However, for the majority the pain is over quickly and I never met a man who remembered it.

Jewish women rarely suffer from cervical cancer because the smegma often housed in uncircumcised penises is non-existent in Jewish men, so, although this side effect was unknown in biblical times, it can be seen to be beneficial now.

 
At 11:47 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Leila:
Thanks for that! Reinforces my position!
Jeremy

 
At 4:57 PM , Blogger nocirc said...

The foreskin doesn't cause cervical cancer. Now we understand that it's a sexually transmitted disease that condoms can prevent...as can the HPV vaccine. This is now a moot point, as it was in the 1950s when the studies saying that circumcision would prevent cervical cancer were first denounced. Please, catch up to the times before spewing more inaccurate information about circumcision and the foreskin. Remember, throughout history, all mammals--male and females alike--have been born with the foreskin. Most of the people in the world still have theirs. A sad situation for those who don't.

 
At 7:42 PM , Blogger Don't Call Me Dave said...

Dear Zadie Jeremy

Mazeltov on becoming a grandfather again! I hope he brings you much joy.

If God didn’t want men to have foreskins, why did he invent them?

 
At 1:47 AM , Blogger calice said...

Medical studies prove circumcision does not prevent infections, cancer or disease. The foreskin is NOT a birth defect!

 
At 1:44 PM , Anonymous luzrose said...

Never mind the mumbo jumbo! Good personal hygiene practices, whether you are circumcised or not, will help to reduce the risks of STD's. So does a lack of promiscuity. As a woman do you want to have sex with a man who either doesn't wash or who has been goodness knows where?

Yes J, I agree-I have assumed for a long time that there is a symmetry or even a compatible asymmetry between circumcision and Niddeh. Life is either cyclical or spiral depending on your view. They come together, at intervals along the way.

But spare a thought for Mum
-barely emerging from the trauma of childbirth she has to give up her son to the albeit temporary pain on both sides, whether she wants or not. Ouch.

I've just mistyped the word verification for this post-it said kider and I wrote kinder!

 
At 9:44 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

nocirc:
No need to be unpleasant unless you have a chip on your shoulder. I may not be a doctor, and I realize that on almost any medical issue there are different opinions, but I have enough doctor friends to know that if anyone is out of touch with medical research it's you.
Jeremy

 
At 9:52 PM , Blogger ss said...

We don't base the practice on the health question, just as we don't keep kosher for potential health reasons. That is really a side issue, one way or the other.

 
At 12:13 AM , Blogger Caroline said...

Many men do actually have a "chip on their shoulder" if you will. Because they are angry that someone made a decision they felt belonged to them! I have met many of these men.

Rabbi Rosen, I am afraid that nocirc is actually correct. No medical organization in the world recommends routine infant circumcision. And whatever you think about the HIV studies, this is not Africa. The vast majority of men who have died of AIDS in this country were circumcised.

Here are some doctors in their own words (many of them Jewish doctors) who are opposed to circumcision of infants.

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=BC354EC34E141BD3

These sites are also informative

jewsagainstcircumcision.org
jewishcircumcision.org

 
At 9:49 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Don't Call Me Dave:
If God didn't want men to kill why did He make them in the first place? The list is endless. But since God is not human we won't get an answer any better than that which the Talmud gives to the question of why, if God objected to people worshipping the sun and the moon, He created them? Which was, 'Just because there are fools in the world that is no reason to destroy it.'

 
At 9:52 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Luzrose
Fair point about the Mum, and believe me I do spare plenty of thoughts for Mums. And indeed fair point about hygiene, and plenty of circumcised men are very dirty!
J

 
At 9:53 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Caroline
I should have thought the trauma of coming out of the warm womb much greater than most of what comes after it. And if we are going to go down the path of resentment at what our parents do I should have thought parents deciding to bring a child into cruel harsh world is a far bigger complaint and if it was mindless act as in many cases it is, even more so!
J

 
At 9:53 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Calice
Science seems to be able to 'prove' almost anything you want it to nowadays!
My comments about circumcision and medicine are really afterthoughts and irrelevant to the main issue, because if you are committed to a tradition, then that is the deciding factor regardless of any other consideration apart from health. And according to Jewish law if there is any danger to a child one must not go ahead.
J

 
At 10:53 AM , Anonymous HS said...

Men are quite screwed up enough about their penises without giving them something else to worry about! They do not need religious enhancement.

If our dear leaders really think we all need to be controlled with invasive and ridiculous practises and think the scales for interference should be equally balanced between men and women, then let's invent the snotty handkerchief experts. Not sure whether your nose has stopped running or want an opinion on the shade of a nose excretion? Have a good blow on a special white square of cotton fabric and put it in the post to some rabbi trained to identify all aspects of runny noses. That will keep the unemployable employed and provide a way of giving the run around to the entire community in a gender neutral manner. I can't understand why it hasn't taken off already in preference to chopping off baby male foreskins and inspecting menstrual stains. Aren't there any better ways to preserve Judaism?

 
At 3:04 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

HS:
Why do you think it's control rather than choice (on the part of parents of course)? And it has never stopped Jewish rebelliousness! As for snotty nosed handkerchiefs, I thought only pretentious Englishmen went in for that, and opening car doors for ladies and walking on the outside.

 
At 8:49 PM , Anonymous HS said...

Are the parents ever asked "do you want your son circumcised?"

If 'yes' that's a choice.

If 'no' that's no choice.

I expect you know which is the answer.

Performing an unnecessary surgical operation without consent is indefensible. Quoting a 12th century biblical commentator with a confused understanding of menstruation just digs a bigger hole!

I don't see how this is something anyone can be in two minds about. Either it's part of a divine bargain which is obeyed to the letter because it's believed, or it's a barbaric ritual that doesn't belong in a civilised society. Where is there room to sit on the fence?

 
At 7:48 AM , Blogger ss said...

HS:
Parents are free to choose to whether to circumcise their sons, just as each of us is free to choose whether to perform any mitzvah.

Also, who is on the fence? There are plenty of mitzvahs that are difficult, unpleasant, and/or puzzling, and which ones those are varies for different individuals. But, a commitment to religious life doesn't have PDQ Bach's contractual proviso, "if I feel like it". As with any commitment, you follow through to the best of your ability, whether the thing is difficult or not.

As I'm sure you well know, in the practice of Judaism there are degrees of seriousness regarding what's required. Some things are subject to halachic debate and there may be a spectrum of opinions, even choices. Bris milah is a very basic, foundational Torah mitzvah that involves the actual commitment, itself, the covenant.

Word Verification: begraim
I'll begraimed if I'll let them rabbis cut mah son!

 
At 1:53 PM , Anonymous HS said...

ss:

Thank you for responding so clearly.

I understand and agree that commitment, of any sort, cannot also include get out clauses of 'if I feel like it'. I understand too that bris milah is a covenantal mitzvah. Taking both of these into account, I cannot see where choice fits in according to the usual meaning of the word. That is, under these arrangements, there is not a choice to be both Jewish and uncircumcised (from a cultural acceptance view if not necessarily a religious one). The choice is to choose one or the other but not both. From my perspective this is at best a diminution of choice and at worst arm twisting.

I think we are each to some degree invested in our respective positions irrespective of demonstrable evidence. If I have understood correctly, you believe that people act out of the same conviction you feel and that this conviction is what gives meaning to the ritual. I think people are coerced into conformity and that a lack of conviction is what makes this ritual meaningless. These are both hypothesis. I think we must agree to differ.

 
At 2:19 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

A very interesting exchange! Thank you both! J

 

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