The Northern California Jewish Bulletin — February 14, 1992

Mitzvah or Mutilation? Circumcision Sparks Debate

By Leslie Katz
Bulletin Staff


When Erica Gleason's son was born seven years ago, she didn't have him circumcised. ''The thought of ripping off a piece of his penis was vomitous to me," she said. "He's not any less of a Jew because he has an intact foreskin."

Seth and Michele Skootsky, on the other hand, didn't think twice about circumcising their infant Joshua. He had his brit milah in a synagogue, complete with a rabbi, mohel (circumciser), relatives, friends, and — according to the baby's father — lots of joyous tears.

"We didn't even look at it like there's a choice," he said, "because we're Jewish."

Gleason and Skootsky had their say following a panel discussion on "Circumcision in the Reform Jewish Tradition," held Sunday afternoon at S. F.’s Temple Emanu-El.

Moderated by Emanu-El's Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, the event focused on the historical significance of ritual circumcision, the role of the Reform mohel, and options for circumcision-free ceremonies for Jewish baby boys, as well as welcoming ceremonies for baby girls.

Panelists also addressed the relevance of medical considerations. Not surprisingly, that topic sparked passionate debate, reflecting the increasing controversy that has surrounded circumcision in recent years.

Many opponents of the procedure call it mutilation and worry that it may cause an infant pain. Some men argue it has desensitized them sexually and have even sought to surgically reconstruct their foreskins.

Supporters, however, maintain that circumcision is a safe procedure that can dramatically reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, chronic kidney failure and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

Presently the American Academy of Pediatrics neither advocates nor discourages circumcision. Rather, it encourages parents to reach their own educated decision.

For many Jews, circumcision is not just a medical consideration, but a religious one.

"When we have a brit milah, part of what we do is set the child on a path, a trajectory," said Temple Israel's Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann an advocate of welcoming ceremonies for baby girls. "We an entering that child into an entire world view of Jewish life."

Other panelists included Rabbi Lewis Barth, a professor of midrash at Hebrew Union College, co-chair of the Brit Milah board of Reform Judaism and editor of Berit Milah in the Reform Context; Dr. Marc Usatin, a Jewish pediatrician from Walnut Creek and a certified Reform mohel; and Emanu-El congregant Lisa Braver-Moss, an opponent of circumcision who helped organize the panel.

She did that, she said, to prompt Jewish dialogue on the topic and encourage parents not to let tradition pressure them into having their children circumcised if they are uncomfortable with the notion.

Braver-Moss now regrets having had her two young sons circumcised, and feels traumatized by the possibility of having exposed them to potential pain and risk

She had doubts, she said, but did it anyway, believing it would impart to her sons a permanent mark of Jewish identity and physical likeness to other Jewish men including their father.

"I was never as isolated and alienated as a Jew as when my sons were circumcised," said Braver-Moss, a freelance journalist who has published articles on the topic in several Jewish publications, including the January issue of Midstream.

But Karlin-Neumann, sitting next to Braver-Moss, recalled her son's brit milah as a moving entry into the world of Judaism. "I felt I had just opened up a tradition to him which was his to treasure," she said.

If the brit milah is viewed as the first in a lifetime of Jewish rituals, "you have a different understanding than if you look at it solely as a medical or ethical or perhaps emotional consideration," the Alameda rabbi said.

Passionate opinions also were expressed during a question-and-answer period following the panel.

Derek Durst spoke emphatically to the panelists "You're talking about the pain of an infant," he said. "But I'm talking about the pain of an adult who had circumcision done on him without a choice, without consent."

Circumcision he said "is barbaric. It's child abuse to trim skin from the most sensitive area of the body. God created [the foreskin] to protect that part of the body."

"We're not denying that there's pain involved," said Seth Skootsky adding that he had observed his child more agitated during a bath or diaper change than during his brit milah.

"We don't do this to inflict pain on our child. But since this is something that's gone on for 3,000 years, we can look back and see a lot of examples of people who have had this done who are OK."

Leland Traiman, an East Bay nurse practitioner expecting a child in several months, said that if he has a son, he will not have him circumcised "under any circumstances."

Traiman, who grew up Orthodox and all of whose friends were circumcised, said that as a child he saw uncircumcised penises in pictures, and knew "there was some thing missing - my choice."

Barth stressed that choice based on knowledge is a central tenet of Reform Judaism. "There are people who find [brit milah] a profoundly meaningful way of connecting with the Jewish people and there are people who don't," the rabbi said. "People have to fulfill their inner sense."

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