Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain
|Note: The arguments
in favor of circumcision are familiar and readily available. Previous
writing on Jewish circumcision has been totally supportive of the practice.
It has been rare that writing on Jewish circumcision has mentioned, let
alone elaborated on, arguments against the practice. Because the reasons
to question circumcision are not well known, they are the focus here.
Readers are encouraged to seek other sources of information and then come
to their own conclusions. For a more complete and detailed discussion
of questioning Jewish circumcision, see the book Questioning
Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ronald Goldman.
The religious origin of the Jewish practice of circumcision is written in the Torah where God promised Abraham,
|I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of
you, and kings shall come forth from
|Over the centuries there has been much written by Jewish
scholars about the importance of circumcision. Support for circumcision
in the Jewish community today is widespread. There is another perspective
on circumcision that is not openly discussed. Contrary to common belief,
circumcision has not always been practiced. Moses failed to circumcise
his son (Exodus 4:25), and circumcision was totally neglected during the
forty-year period in the wilderness (Joshua 5:5). Some Jews in the Hellenistic
period (circa 300 b.c.e.-100 c.e.) chose not to circumcise their sons in
an attempt to gain public acceptance.1
During the Reform movement in Germany in the 1840s, some parents did not
circumcise their sons. Theodor Herzl was one of the most prominent figures
who did not circumcise his son, who was born in 1891.2
Currently, circumcision is not universal among Jews either inside or outside the United States. The Circumcision Resource Center, a nonprofit educational organization, knows of hundreds of Jews in Europe, South America, and in the United States who either have not or would not circumcise a son. Even in Israel some Jews do not circumcise, and there is an organization that publicly opposes circumcision.3 The purpose of this article is to coherently explain a few of the contemporary reasons for the increasing doubts some Jews have about circumcision. Then I will apply Torah law and Jewish values to these reasons.
According to the Council of Jewish Federations 1990 National Jewish
Population Survey, "ninety percent define being Jewish as being a member
of a cultural or ethnic group."4
Only thirteen percent believe "the Torah is the actual word of God."5
Therefore, I address my comments particularly to those who reform Jewish
practice in a way that is meaningful to them. Non-traditional Jews generally
evaluate an idea by its agreement with reason and experience. Reform Jews
comprise a large proportion of this group. Eugene Borowitz, noted theologian
and scholar, states that Reform Jews "believe that we serve God best by
being true to our minds and consciences even where, in significant matters,
they clash with our heritage."6
Based on the survey, a high proportion of American Jews have this perspective.
Because most Jews are non-traditional and are not aware of the religious meaning of circumcision, most Jewish circumcisions are done for cultural not religious reasons. These cultural reasons often tend to be related to beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about Jewish survival and identity. (Jewish circumcision was never intended as a health measure, and there is no proven health benefit from circumcision.7) For example, an argument for Jewish circumcision is that it ensures the survival of the Jewish people. This contention is especially compelling because of our long history of having to fight to survive. But the biggest threat to survival today is assimilation, and there is no evidence that circumcision prevents or slows it. According to the National Jewish Population Survey, more than half of all Jews who marry choose a non-Jewish spouse.8
Associated with the desire for survival is the idea of identity. Many Jews believe that males must be circumcised to be Jewish. This is not true. As stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica, "Any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not."9 Alan Altmann, an uncircumcised son of Holocaust survivors, personally addresses the issue of Jewish identity:
|Although uncircumcised, I am a very proud Jew, with a very strong sense of Jewish identity, and never hesitate to affirm my Jewish identity to Jew and non-Jew alike, but particularly to myself. I can assure you that having a foreskin has not made me less of a Jew than those without one, and in fact has given me additional reason to think about it.10|
|Tying Jewish survival and identity to circumcision underestimates
Judaism's power and ignores its purpose. It neglects the significance of
Jewish ideas and ethical values. Is a man who is circumcised and is a member
of a cult or commits immoral acts more of a Jew than an uncircumcised man
who is committed to Jewish values and lives an ethical life? Is a circumcised
atheist more of a Jew than an uncircumcised believer in one God? Having
a body part removed has its effects, but it does not guarantee one will
be more religious or more commited to Jewish values.
Finally on this point, issues of Jewish survival and identity are related
to the social tendencies toward conformity and the desire for a sense of
connection. However, conformity without knowledge, understanding, and reflection
tends to result in a superficial type of connection. In the case of circumcision,
this goes unnoticed perhaps because we equate the longevity of the practice
with the depth of the connection.
HARM CAUSED BY CIRCUMCISION
The increasing doubts about Jewish circumcision are based on the understanding that it causes harm. Anatomical, neurochemical, physiological, and behavioral studies confirm what mothers already know: infants feel pain. Drs. Anand and Hickey, in a comprehensive review of recent medical literature on newborn pain, conclude that newborn responses to pain are "similar to but greater than those in adult subjects."11 This study is accepted by virtually all medical authorities and is often cited in the literature whenever there is a discussion of infant pain. As a surgical procedure, circumcision has been described as "among the most painful performed in neonatal medicine."12 Studies of infant responses show that the pain of circumcision is not like that of a mere pin prick. It is severe and overwhelming.
The relationship between infant pain and vocal response needs explanation. The cry may be reduced by the effect of anesthetics given to the mother during labor.13 These anesthetics enter the infant's body and, according to pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, it can take over a week to leave.14 Other factors can also account for minimal vocal response. Justin Call, infant psychologist and professor-in-chief of child and adolescent psychology at the University of California, reports that "sometimes babies who are being circumcised . . . . lapse into a semi-coma."15 Tonya Brooks, president of the International Association for Childbirth at Home and a midwife, observes, "In four of the nine circumcisions that I have seen, the baby didn't cry. He just seemed to be suddenly in a state of shock!"16 Studies demonstrate that even though an infant may not cry during circumcision, the stress hormone level in the blood still increases dramatically, and medical researchers consider this change to be the most reliable indicator of pain response.17 Therefore, lack of crying does not mean that the infant feels no pain. It could mean that he is withdrawing from unbearable pain.
Circumcision has other harmful effects. Anand and Hickey write that
|the persistence of specific behavioral changes after circumcision in neonates implies the presence of memory. In the short term, these behavioral changes may disrupt the adaptation of newborn infants to their postnatal environment, the development of parent-infant bonding, and feeding schedules.18|
|Psychiatrist Rima Laibow agrees that circumcision significantly
impairs mother-infant bonding.19
Other researchers conclude that circumcision has "behavioral and psychological
American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision notes increased
irritability, varying sleep patterns, and changes in infant-maternal interaction
Canadian investigators report that during vaccinations at age four to six
months, circumcised boys had increased behavioral pain response and cried
for significantly longer periods than did uncircumcised boys, a possible
indication of post-traumatic stress disorder.22
Other long-term effects have not been studied.
Whether an infant is circumcised in the hospital by medical staff or in the home by a mohel, there are risks as with any surgery. There are more than twenty different potential circumcision complications including hemorrhage, infection, and surgical injury.23 The rate of complications occurring during the first year has been documented as high as thirty-eight percent.24 On rare occasions death has resulted. For this reason Jewish law allows for exemptions when other children in the family have died from the effects of circumcision.25
Concerning the sexual impact, Maimonides wrote, "Circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement."26 Contemporary research supports the view that circumcision diminishes sexual pleasure. In order to appreciate the sexual impact of circumcision on adults, it is helpful to know that the adult foreskin has an area of about twelve square inches,27 and it has several functions. In the relaxed or flaccid state it protects the glans (head of the penis) from abrasion and contact with clothes. Without the foreskin, the glans "skin," which is normally mucous membrane, becomes dry and thickens considerably in response to continued exposure, and consequently its sensitivity is reduced.28 The foreskin itself is a very sensitive part of the penis and improves the experience of sexual intercourse.29 According to a study published in the British Journal of Urology, it has "specialized nerve endings"30 and represents about a third of the penile skin.31 The foreskin increases sexual pleasure by sliding up and down on the shaft, stimulating the glans by alternately covering and exposing it. This can occur during masturbation or intercourse. Friction is minimized, and supplementary lubrication is not needed.32
Only men circumcised as adults can know the difference a foreskin makes. In the Journal of Sex Research, investigators reported on men who experienced this difference.33 Changes included diminished penile sensitivity and less penile gratification. The researchers concluded, "Erotosexually and cosmetically, the operation is, for the most part, contraindicated."34
Men circumcised as adults regret being circumcised:
| After the circumcision there was a major change.
It was like night and day. I lost most sensation. I would give anything
to get the feeling back. I would give my house.35
Slowly the area lost its sensitivity, and as it did, I
realized I had lost something rather vital. Stimuli that had previously
aroused ecstasy had relatively little
Sight without color would be a good
|The reduced penile sensitivity resulting from circumcision
may affect male sexual behavior without awareness of the connection. In
a national study reported this year in the Journal of the American Medical
Association, circumcised men were more likely to engage in alternative
methods of stimulation (e.g., oral sex and masturbation) than uncircumcised
men.38 Some men who are
aware of the effects of circumcision are dissatisfied.
Circumcision also has hidden effects on the Jewish community. The generalized emotional repression around circumcision and the pressure to conform to accepted practice can undermine community integrity. Lisa Braver Moss relates her experience:
|I had profound doubts about my decision [to circumcise].
But because open discussion of Brit Milah seems to be discouraged in the
Jewish community, I experienced my doubts privately and without
|Witnessing circumcision can cause further discomfort and
anxiety, yet typically few express such feelings. Instead we sometimes
disguise them with humor. Furthermore, the feelings of the infant, the
one who is presumably being welcomed into the community, are generally
ignored. Upon closer inspection, these behaviors may limit the depth of
our connection to each other.
With all these factors to consider, no wonder some Jewish parents are reconsidering the decision to circumcise their sons, and calls to rabbis about circumcision are increasing.40 One mother wrote, "I spent most of my pregnancy crying, vomiting, ruminating, and reading about circumcision."41 Pregnant mothers sometimes reveal that they hope for a girl to avoid circumcision.
In many cases parents feel resigned to the fact that their son will be circumcised. While most Jews have their son circumcised in a hospital where it is done behind closed doors away from the mother, many Jewish circumcisions are done in the home of the parents in a ritual observed by family and friends. Although some parents may report this as a positive experience, there is another view. Witnessing the circumcision and the infant's response can shock the parents, particularly the mother. Only recently have some Jewish mothers been willing to describe their agonizingly painful experiences at their son's circumcision. Miriam Pollack reported, "The screams of my baby remain embedded in my bones and haunt my mind."42 She added later, "His cry sounded like he was being butchered. I lost my milk."43
Elizabeth Pickard-Ginsburg confronted her pain from her son's circumcision:
|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
|Another mother recalled,|
|My tiny son and I sobbed our hearts
|The lack of such responses from other parents may be due
to two reasons. First, because they are so painful and are not generally
supported by the community, these feelings may be suppressed. Second, as
mentioned earlier, if the infant goes into traumatic shock, he does not
cry, and parents tend to interpret lack of crying to mean that circumcision
is not painful. There is even a feeling of relief from some parents and
guests if the infant does not cry.
Suppressed feelings regarding circumcision have also been expressed by rabbis. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman tells of a discussion about circumcision with fifteen young male and female rabbis. Each spoke personally.
|As we went around the room, several of these young rabbis related the case of their own son's circumcision, about which, it turned out, they frequently harbored intense rage – rage at themselves for allowing it to happen, and in some cases rage at the mohel who had done it and botched the job. Only here, in the intimacy of a class composed in large part of close friends, did they feel comfortable telling their tales. Stories proved cathartic; at one point people cried.46|
APPLICATION OF JEWISH LAWS AND VALUES
Judaism values ethics above both doctrine and reason. The growing awareness of pain and harm connected with circumcision leads to questions about ethical considerations. How do we begin to justify the practice of circumcision on ethical grounds? It is significant relative to this question that, according to an authoritative book on Judaism, "the Torah prohibits the torture or causing of pain to any living creature."47 Now that we know some of the consequences of circumcision, Jewish law (Lev. 19:11; Exodus 23:1) obligates us to be open and honest about it. In addition, we may ask if, given a choice, we would consent to being circumcised. If not, then considering Hillel's encapsulation of Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow-creature" (Sab. 31a), should we force circumcision on another?
Significantly, virtually all that has been written about circumcision over the centuries ignores the infant's experience. An infant being circumcised is restrained while having part of his body cut off. Imagine yourself in the same situation. From the infant's perspective, this is a physical attack. His physical struggle to escape and his piercing screams are evidence of an appropriate response to attack. It is a violation of Torah law to physically assault or harm another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Jewish law recognizes a newborn infant as a person if the infant has been born after a full-term pregnancy.48 With circumcision, we generally overlook the humanity of the newborn infant and his awareness, perception, sensitivity, and meaningful responsiveness, though these abilities have been thoroughly documented by the latest research.49
It is appropriate to ask, Whose foreskin is it? There can be only one answer; it's the infant's foreskin. Taking it from him by force would cause him a loss. Viewed this way, we might consider the commandment that prohibits stealing (Exodus 20:13). Furthermore, Jews have a moral obligation to help those who are helpless. Newborn infants are helpless. They need us to protect them from pain and loss. (Feeling empathy for the infant makes it easier to consider these issues. This can be difficult for some men.) Furthermore, according to Jewish law, the human body must not be cut or marked (Lev. 19:28). By removing a part of the penis, circumcision involves the cutting and marking of natural male genitals. It appears that in some ways circumcision is not consistent with Jewish laws and values.
If one accepts circumcision as a divine commandment, Jews, as partners with God, still reserve the right to question and argue with God. Regarding the Covenant, Eugene Borowitz states that "each partner participates in it in full integrity; neither one is master, neither one is slave; both can make their demands, each partner saying, if necessary, a painful but self-respecting 'No.' "50 Even among traditionalists, religious laws and practices have changed because of reconsideration and the evolving social environment. Here are a few examples:
In the Torah, adultery (Lev. 20:10), fornication by women (Deut 22:21),
homosexual acts (Lev. 20:13), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), insulting one's parents
(Exodus 21:17), and stubbornly disobeying one's parents (Deut. 21:18-21)
are all punishable by death. Obviously, these laws are no longer enforced
by traditionalists. In addition, according to Torah law, only a man can
divorce his spouse (Deut. 24:1). This law was changed by rabbis to allow
a woman to terminate a marriage. The Torah law which restricted inheritance
to sons (Deut. 21:15-17) was also changed to allow transfer of property
to daughters. Awareness of this precedent for change helps us to view circumcision
with openness and flexibility.
ALTERNATIVES TO CIRCUMCISION
Despite the pressure to conform, an increasing number of Jewish parents are finding the courage to say no to circumcision. These parents listened to their inner voice, a voice that does not necessarily conflict with the voice of God. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner states, "The voice, if it be truly the voice of the Holy One of Being, speaks from both without and within. And it is the same voice."51 If human beings are created in God's image and God is spiritual, then we and God have a common spiritual essence. We cannot trust the nature of God and mistrust ourselves. When we act on our deepest, purest impulses, God is acting through us.
Some Jews who choose not to circumcise but still want a ritual, change the ritual to omit the circumcision. Instead, they include other ceremonial elements that are sensitive to the infant and the community. Such an alternative ritual, sometimes referred to as a naming ceremony or "bris shalom," has all the joy of the usual ritual without the pain of the circumcision.
The alternative ritual has other advantages. Rabbi Joel Roth reminds
us that to have meaning, religious ritual should be performed with the
This cannot be forced. Some Jews, particularly mothers, circumcise their
sons with great emotional conflict, reluctance, and regret. The alternative
ritual allows for congruence of intention, attitude, feeling, and action.
In addition, it can be used for both male and female infants. Employing
an equivalent ceremony for girls illustrates how Judaism can change to
be compatible with evolving values. Judaism, as a patriarchal religion,
has been influenced by the modern women's movement. Rather than perform
some kind of genital surgery on females, an idea that is repugnant and
rejected by virtually all Jews, a ceremony without surgery for both sexes
is the egalitarian solution.
Those considering circumcision for their child may want to consider the following points:
1. Your child's welfare is the primary consideration.
2. The fact that a father is not aware of any negative effects from circumcision does not necessarily mean there are none or that there will be none for his son.53 Long-term sexual and psychological harm from circumcision has been reported by hundreds of men in a national survey.54
3. Circumcision is irrevocable, while an uncircumcised male still has options. If in doubt, the conservative choice is not to circumcise.
4. Would you circumcise your son if most Jews did not?
5. Attend a circumcision and empathize with the infant. Stand up close so that you can see the procedure. If you feel averse to doing this, what does that tell you?
It is a strength of Judaism that some of the ideas and approaches used to question circumcision are associated with traditional Jewish values. Recognizing and sharing these values can give us the connection to others and to the past that we seek. For some Jews, this connection may well be more meaningful than the connection sought from circumcision, because it is genuinely felt and freely experienced, rather than forced by conformity.
Questioning circumcision is not threatening to Judaism; it is threatening to the defenses surrounding circumcision pain. Honest questioning about circumcision will strengthen Judaism and provide opportunities for deeper communication.
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