May 3, 2010
Why is Hollywood hot for circumcision?
News of Sandra Bullock’s choice to have her adopted son circumcised has tickled the Jewish media: Isn’t it cool that non-Jews are getting their kids circumcised, too? And not just the snip-n-clip way, but the Jewish way, with a mohel.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ami Eden writes, “Some corners of the blogosphere were citing the report as proof that Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson have competition for Hollywood’s most beautiful Jewish starlet award. But plenty of celeb-obsessed Web sites were saying the opposite, insisting that what’s newsworthy here is that a non-Jewish movie star chose to go with a Jewish ritual circumcision.”
What makes it more interesting, though, is that a high-profile celeb like Bullock is taking up the ritual during a period of sharp decline. According to a 2008 L.A. Times article, ritual circumcision of American boys dropped from 85% in 1965 to 56% in 2005. Unless performed for religious reasons, the story said, many parents chose to opt out because of questionable medical benefits and the stigma of genital mutilation. Then came a startling new development when a study out of Africa found that circumcised males were “51% to 60% less likely to acquire HIV from heterosexual vaginal sex with an infected woman.”
It’s doubtful Bullock chose the Jewish rite for that reason, but then, why did she?
Whether or not one circumcises their offspring comes down to a personal choice that is often influenced by religion, ethnicity and/or culture. Bullock hasn’t publicly said why she chose circumcision for her son but she did say, it was “the greatest moment I have ever had in my life.”
From a Jewish perspective, it is seen as the sign of a sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who is one of the most brilliant and charismatic teachers around, has a slightly more nuanced—and unconventional—view. He once told a class I was taking that all of Jewish tradition could be interpreted as an effort to curb male violence. And what better way to remind men to calm themselves down than to mark their sex organ with a reminder of God? It’s quite a theory, isn’t it? The curious thing, of course, is that this binding covenant performed on men is meant to bind all Jews. Modern, progressive incarnations of the tradition struggle with this indirect impact on women in many ways, but we’ll leave that to seminal female thinkers like Aviva Zornberg who is more than capable of elucidating a feminist philosophy.
In the meantime, we can delight in the brilliance of Judaism to offer the world a universal, sacred birth rite that imbues a splashy Hollywood adoption with a little bit of meaning. Hear that Brad and Angie?