Detroit Jewish News – March 20, 1998
Some Jews believe circumcision causes lingering physical and emotional trauma.
By Jill Davidson Sklar
When Cheryl Resnick Ettinger married, she wanted to cram as much Jewish tradition into her wedding ceremony as possible. There were the seven brachot, a chuppah and a kosher ketubah. Not bad for a girl raised in a relatively non-traditional home.
“At the time of my marriage, I was experiencing a religious rebirth,” said Ettinger, a Southfield resident. “I went to great steps to make our wedding as traditional as possible. I saw it as a way to start our Jewish life.together.” And when she gave birth to her first son, she continued along the spiritual path, hiring a mohel and hosting a traditional brit milah ceremony in the home.
So Ettinger was surprised by her feelings with the impending birth of her second son two years later. A difficult labor, questionable medication levels and a seemingly unnecessary C-section had forced a brief hospitalization for her first child. She resolved to have a midwife-assisted home birth and no medication with the birth of her second child.
“My first child’s birth in and of itself was a change. It prompted a process of changing and questioning everything,” Ettinger said. Everything, including ritual circumcision. She began to see the pain – pain that she had gone to such great lengths to avoid.
“By circumcising, I felt I was negating everything I had gone through in order to bring him into this world,” she said, crying at the memory.
According to Birmingham activist Norm Cohen, Ettinger is among a small but growing number of American Jews who are eschewing the rite of circumcision in favor of non-surgical naming ceremonies for boys. President of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), Cohen believes it is a movement whose time has come.
“The time is now, because the evidence indicates that the baby feels pain, the baby remembers it on some level and because it is damaging to the sex lives of men,” he said. “If Jews want to be Jews, they have to do it in their hearts, not by cutting the flesh of an unconsenting minor child.”
Archaeologists and historians believe that circumcision began with the Egyptians about one millennium before Abraham was instructed to remove the foreskin of Isaac. In fact, early hieroglyphics on ancient ruins depict the procedure.
Jews began incorporating the rite when God commanded Abraham to circumcise Isaac as a mark of the covenant between Him and the Jewish people. The account, taken from Genesis, orders the procedure be done on the eighth day of life for each male born thereafter. “Thus my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact,” Genesis reads.
“The brit milah is a commandment from God as a sign of His covenant with us,” said Cantor Howard Glantz of Adat Shalom Synagogue, a mohel who has performed more than 1,000 circumcisions. “It takes us back to the time when God chose us as His people and continues with us today.”
The ritual, though ancient, is the most widely observed in modern Judaism, said Dr. Ronald Goldman, a Boston psychologist specializing in the education and research of the psychological effects of circumcision. Although most Jews do not keep kosher, observe family purity laws or keep the Sabbath, an overwhelming majority do circumcise their sons.
“If you ask liberal Jews why they circumcise their sons, they say that is what Jews do. They aren’t aware of the religious basis, the covenant,” Goldman said. “It is more conformity than religious beliefs. How can they do it for religious beliefs if they are not aware of the religious beliefs?”
While Jews have continued through the ages to honor this commandment, other groups have picked up the practice as well. Muslims, for example, also incorporate the rite, as do many fundamentalist Christians.
In general, 70 percent of American males are circumcised, most of whom are not Jewish, Muslim or fundamentalist Christian. The surgery became common practice after World War I when circumcision was touted as a way to cure a variety of medical and social ills ranging from an urge to masturbate to curbing sexual appetite, from reducing urinary tract infections to all but eliminating penile cancer.
As circumcision gained credence, more and more Americans consented to the practice. Soon, almost an entire generation of men were circumcised. At the same time, medical research began to poke holes in the theory that circumcision could prevent or cure several ailments. While studies showed that circumcised men had lower incidence rates of urinary tract infections (UTI), venereal disease and cancer of the penis, researchers found that poor hygiene and certain ethnic differences may be accountable.
Although it is still seen as the surgical cure for some foreskin ailments, circumcision, like any surgical procedure, also carries risks such as infection and massive bleeding. Occasionally, an overzealous circumciser has been known to sever the head of the penis, or glans, while removing the foreskin.
Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, chief of pediatric urology at Detroit Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital of Michigan and a professor of urology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, said that routine circumcision for the masses may not be worth the risks.
“Let’s assume that [the potential health benefits] are true. Is that a sufficient reason to do a circumcision?” he asked. “Circumcision costs millions of dollars in health costs each year. It has never been proven that the risks and costs of doing such a surgical procedure are worth the benefit.”
In fact, he said, most Americans who request circumcision for their sons do so for purely cosmetic reasons. Gonzalez frequently sees parents of uncircumcised toddlers in his office who want the procedure done when it is not medically indicated. “Now parents want their children to look like their fathers,” Gonzalez said. “It is a cosmetic thing right now.”
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology agree. A 1983 jointly issued recommendation based on earlier task force findings stated, “There is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn.”
The findings have become part of the basis of the anti-circumcision movement. Taking root in the 1970s around the same-time that natural childbirth was gaining adherents, the movement’s aim is to reduce the rates of circumcision in America to those found in Asian, Hispanic and European countries, where circumcision is prevalent only among religious groups.
The men’s movement in the late 1980s picked up the cause, claiming that the procedure is akin to female genital mutilation practices in Africa. The leaders of the movement charged that as a result of circumcision, they had suffered irreparable emotional damage that followed them through their lives. Surveys of men in the movement found that many reported a depression and mistrust of authority that could be linked directly to the circumcision. Others said they had suffered from diminished sexual pleasure and a feeling of not being whole as a result.
Some have tried to “regrow” their foreskin, a procedure whereby the existing penile skin is stretched and held in place to facilitate new skin growth. Adherents have formed a movement, NORM (National Organization for Restoring Men). The Michigan chapter is also headed by Cohen. “There are men like me who are restoring to reclaim their right, to reclaim what was taken from them,” Cohen said. “It is saying that I did not consent.”
Gonzalez explained, however, that the foreskin is a flap of skin with nerve endings that shields the head of the penis. When removed, the nerve endings cannot grow back, even if the skin is stretched. He also feels the theory of desensitization is remote. “How can they know the difference?” he asked. “It seems like they are trying to solve a problem of sexual dysfunction.”
While foreskin regrowth may have a restorative effect on some, anti-circumcision activists are trying to reduce the rate of circumcision through education. In their literature, they dispel medical reasons for circumcision and pepper the pages with gruesome anatomical depictions of the procedure.
But the literature takes on an entirely different tone when addressing the Jewish population. It states, for example, that a child born of a Jewish mother who is not circumcised is still a Jew. “The movement is seen as anti-Semitic, so we need to address that- it isn’t anti-Semitic,” Cohen said. “We are careful not to criticize Judaism, but to criticize the specific practice of cutting flesh on an unconsenting minor.”
Cohen, the son of a Conservative rabbi, began to question his own circumcision after becoming active in the movement in the early 1990s. The more information he read about circumcision, the angrier he became at his parents for having submitted him to the procedure. “They did it on belief, but they did it to someone else: me,” he said. “A child did not give consent.”
He made it his mission to reduce the number of circumcisions in the area, as well as in the Jewish population, by providing information through the local NOCIRC chapter, which he began in 1992. Cohen, the unpaid director of the organization, argues that the practice among Jews continues today in part because of aesthetics: Jewish men do not want their sons to look different.
He points out that many Jews are not ritually observant of kashrut or Shabbat but circumcise their sons. And many of those who do cite medical reasons rather than religious faith. “That should be disturbing to the rabbis who are promoting the practice,” Cohen said.
Others, he said, go ahead with the bris because they feel a need for Jewish continuity, as if the mark of the covenant will keep the child Jewish. But Cohen points out that the intermarriage rate in the past few years has been holding at about 50 percent, making circumcision a less reliable means of continuity.
“The majority of the non-Jewish population in the country circumcises, so how can the Jewish population say that circumcision retains continuity?” he asked. “Circumcision is not accomplishing the mission of maintaining Judaism.”
To remedy the situation, Cohen suggests that parents consider an alternative ceremony to the brit milah, one that is more like a female baby naming. Goldman, the Boston psychologist, simply wants to open up discussion about the topic.
“The main thing is, let’s talk about this,” Goldman said. “An integral part of Judaism is to have open discussion, to not inflict pain, to not mark or alter the human body, to act ethically, to place ethics above doctrine. Let’s see what we have and allow for open discussion.” Goldman said he has received “hundreds” of calls from parents concerned about circumcising their infant sons.
But those who perform the rite say that throwing out circumcision is unacceptable. “God, in His infinite wisdom, gives us this commandment and we have to take it at face value, same as with kashrut, same as with Shabbat,” said Cantor Glantz.
He said that, aside from being a commandment from God, circumcision is an integral part of Jewish life, a mitzvah that connects Jews from one generation to another and from one place to the next. Glantz also pointed out that circumcision is considered a safe procedure that causes momentary discomfort for the child.
He also theorizes that the Jews in the anti-circumcision movement have become self-hating, eschewing most traditional Jewish practices while convincing others to do the same. “I feel sorry for them,” he said.
While the debate continues, some still search for answers that sit well with them. Ettinger is one of them. In the days following the birth of her second boy, she and her husband discussed at great length the decision to circumcise. She didn’t want the big, catered party, the mohel telling jokes to ease the tension. Most of all, she didn’t want to cause her little boy any pain.
Ettinger sought out the mohel and asked if a ceremonial cut could be done instead of the entire amputation of the foreskin. She was told that it wasn’t possible. She sought out Norm Cohen, who in turn offered her and the baby a safe house where they could hide on the day of the bris. That was unacceptable to her.
Then Ettinger considered how different her son would look when he attended the Jewish nursery school and had to urinate in front of other, circumcised boys. She thought of the questions he would have to answer about his “Jewish penis.” She also considered that her son might be viewed by others as less of a Jew or not a Jew at all. “I thought of him being ridiculed at that age for something that personal,” she said. “As a child, I knew he wouldn’t understand this.”
So, on the eighth day after the birth of her second son, Ettinger opened her home to a handful of relatives. She made the mohel promise not to tell jokes or use any topical anesthetic which she considered dangerous. She even asked him not to use the restraining board; Then she closed herself in a room and rocked her son for an hour, crying and apologizing and trying to explain to him her decision to have him circumcised.
Finally, as the moment of the bris approached, she handed over her son to be circumcised. As her mother forced her from the room, Ettinger called out to her son, “I am sorry. This was not my idea.” Ettinger, who recalls the bris as “the most excruciating decision of my life,” wants to have more children. She secretly hopes that she has a girl, in part so she can avoid the whole circumcision issue.
“It is going to have to take some strong, strong person to say ‘no,’ and I wasn’t that person at the time,” she said. “I would like to be able to feel Jewish and not have to feel this way.”