Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh – May 24, 2007
By Susan Jacobs
Circumcision is among the oldest of Jewish practices, dating back to the days of Abraham. According to the Torah, he was 99 years old when God commanded him to circumcise himself.
For most of Jewish history, circumcision was a unique mark upon male Jews, distinguishing them from their non-Jewish neighbors. At various times throughout history, such as during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews risked severe punishments, even death, to maintain the sign of their holy covenant.
“We do it because the Torah commands us to do it,” said Rabbi Mordecai Rosenberg, a local mohel.
But the practice of brit milah has been challenged through the years – perhaps no stronger than it is today.
In nineteenth century Germany, many Reform Jews abandoned the practice, and some American Reform Jews in the 20th century opted for medical, rather than ritual circumcisions for their sons. Yet brit milah on the eighth day after birth remains fairly universal for contemporary Reform Jews.
“We’ve seen an increase in circumcision on the eighth day with the customs of milah,” said Rabbi Daniel Young of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
In the last couple of decades, though, Jews who oppose circumcision have become more vocal. There is a group called Jews Againt Circumcision and a Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, whose purpose is to discourage Jewish parents from circumcising their sons. Through books, articles and Web sites, these and other groups are expressing their distaste for the practice and encouraging their fellow Jews to opt out of the ancient rite.
“We raise awareness so people can make informed choices,” said Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, which is based in Boston.
He argues that medical studies have shown that circumcision causes “extreme pain” to babies and has lifelong repercussions. “The bottom line is it’s extremely harmful,” said Goldman in a phone interview. “We advise against it.”
Goldman said he has been contacted by mothers who were distressed because their babies had cried uncontrollably after being circumcised.
Nancy Wainer is one such mother. When her son was born 34 years ago, Wainer and her husband had him ritually circumcised. She has regretted it ever since.
“I can still hear his cries,” she said. “He cried for hours. He was inconsolable.”
Now, as a midwife in Massachusetts, Wainer advises mothers to leave their sons’ foreskins intact.
Rosenberg said that new parents often tell him that they are concerned about the pain caused by brit milah.
“I try to encourage them and calm their fears in a positive way,” he said. “A lot of people are unsure; they are worried about pain and complications.”
Most of the people he encounters are not ideologically opposed to circumcision, Rosenberg said.
“Usually they’re not principled against it, they’re just worried. I try to make the parents comfortable with it,” he said. “It’s done as gently and as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Those who appreciate the spiritual benefit of brit milah cope with their infants’ distress much as they would the cries associated with vaccinations.
A brit milah takes just seconds to perform, whereas medical circumcisions may take minutes, said Rosenberg. Additionally, ritual circumcisions are done on the eighth day after birth, not just one or two days later, as may be the case in the hospital.
“It’s really done with a lot of concern for the comfort and health of the baby,” said Rosenberg.
If a baby is jaundiced or experiencing any other health problems, the bris is delayed.
The Talmud also exempts hemophiliacs from the ritual out of concern for their health, though modern medicine has made it possible to safely circumcise hemophiliacs. But for Goldman and other circumcision opponents, the effects of circumcision last well beyond infancy.
Subconsciously, men recall the pain of circumcision throughout their lives, he said. “The body remembers what the mind does not.”
Some men also are upset that a part of their bodies was removed without their consent, he said.
“There are ethical questions about forcing an unconsenting person [to be circumcised],” he said.
Goldman provided The Chronicle with a copy of a report from the British Journal of Urology, which found that removing the foreskin removed some of a man’s genital sensitivity to touch.
But there are also arguments that circumcision has medical benefits. For example, studies have found that circumcised males have a lower incidence of HIV infection.
“We do it because it’s a mitzvah,” said Rosenberg. “But there definitely is a medical benefit to it.”
There is also evidence that circumcision reduces the risk of urinary tract infections. In spite of this, the decision to perform a brit milah is ultimately a religious one.
If he were approached by a family that opposed circumcision, Young said that he would encourage them to reconsider their position.
“I would certainly encourage them to circumcise their son because I want all Jewish children to be entered into the covenant,” he said.