June 2, 2011
The realities of the circumcision debate
There is nothing esthetically appealing about a Brit Milah, the circumcision procedure performed on an 8 day old Jewish baby boy. To witness a barely one week old child strapped down with Velcro to a “Circ Board” in sight of everyone gathered is visually unappealing, if not spiritually uninspiring. If that were not enough, some officiants still engage in Metzitzah—the oral suction of blood from the circumcision. If not done by mouth directly, a pipette is used.
To make matters worse, some ceremonies are complete with crude, unholy behavior and locker room jokes. I can’t repeat what one officiant said as he un-swaddled his grandson in preparation of the baby’s Brit Milah.
Is there any wonder why Jewish parents are slowly opting out of the ancient ritual of circumcision performed on their newborn sons independent of the ongoing medical debate as to whether or not the procedure’s even warranted? Is there any wonder why circumcision is currently under attack with the possibility of it being outlawed in the destination city of Santa Monica, should it be put to a vote this September?
But leaving aside all the issues that may or may not compel one to circumcise their son, the decision is for the family to ultimately decide, not the government—or even one’s religion for that matter.
As a congregational rabbi, I can only make the case to my congregants for having their son’s circumcised in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. I can actively recommend to them officiants who conduct ceremonies with the utmost professionalism, skill and compassion.
I can tell them the ceremonies to which these hand-selected officiants preside are warm, offering meaningful words and explanations. They welcome the child into the covenant of God and the Jewish people making clear that our hopes for this young life—once grown—consist of “Torah, marriage and acts of goodness.”
I can teach them the overarching purpose of a Brit Milah is not biological, but rather theological. It is a physical reminder intentionally made on the male organ of progeny. It states before God and community the male drive, be it sexual or otherwise, is a good and healthy force. But left unchecked and without limits can become destructive and all consuming.
I can inform them that the current debate among doctors and researchers regarding circumcision is mixed. I can tell them that while science is an indispensable discipline to the enrichment of life—it is far from exact and constantly changing.
It seems that over a 7 to 10 year period, conventional “state-of-the-art” medical wisdom is turned on its head and re-evaluated. I recently took a CPR course that contradicted and rewrote what was taught to me just 4 years earlier. Today circumcision is under scrutiny. Even though all over Africa where AIDS kills scores of people, billboards exhort men to get circumcised, since circumcision prevents AIDS in many cases. Years ago it was recommended without hesitation. I suspect 7 to 10 years hence doctors and researchers will again offer a different and new perspective on the subject.
In the meantime the wisdom of a 3,500-year-old Jewish tradition continues to advocate circumcision on religious grounds. Parents who choose to have their 8-day-old son circumcised are not mutilating his genitalia, anymore than piercing a little girl’s ears is mutilation. Furthermore, it is un-provable that a child who is circumcised, as a baby will grow up having less sexual satisfaction as an adult.
True, no religion is above the law. No one who is found guilty of a legal or moral trespass should be able to hide under the protection of his or her faith. The Biblical days when someone guilty of a crime could find safe haven within the confines—“the horns”—of the priestly altar are thankfully long past. According to age-old rabbinic law, the law of the land is the law.
But those who advocate outlawing circumcision to anyone 18 years or younger equating it with a clitoridectomy are deeply misguided. One is genital mutilation, denying a woman sexual pleasure, the other—male circumcision—is not. I can’t help but think underlying the anti-circumcision movement is a disdain for religious expression cloaked in a concern for a child’s well being.
The American Jewish Committee calls the movement to prohibit circumcision as “making a direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the U.S.” That may be true. What is truer still, we have far more substantive issues to fill our ballots with come this September and November, banning circumcision performed on children at the request of their parents and caretakers is not one of them.