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Opinion: The necessity, validity of circumcision and its ritual

by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb

August 24, 2011 | 3:05 pm

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

With the latest turnaround by a San Francisco court removing the anti-circumcision measure from its city’s upcoming ballot, all of us who advocate circumcision on religious grounds can breathe a sigh of relief.  Gone weeks ago from the ballot in Santa Monica proposed for this September’s vote, and now most recently stricken from the San Francisco elections slated for November’s 2011 election, is any mention banning circumcision for males under the age of 18. 

But in the aftermath of the legal threat, we who take Jewish tradition seriously must constantly re-evaluate the ceremony and procedure of circumcision to ensure its prominence and adherence within Jewish life.

To begin, it’s important to acknowledge there is nothing esthetically beautiful about a brit milah, the circumcision procedure performed on an 8-day-old Jewish baby boy.  To witness a barely 1-week-old child strapped down to a “circ board,” his genitalia exposed within sight of everyone gathered — many of whom are taking pictures or video — is visually unappealing, if not spiritually uninspiring. (As such, the procedure should take place behind closed doors in a quiet setting limited to the officiant and very close friends and immediate family.) 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, or write down, what one officiant said as he unswaddled his grandson in preparation of the baby’s brit milah.  Let alone, some mohalim (ritual circumcisers) pass around their business cards to those gathered — offering discounts for families with multiple sons.

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 the procedure is even warranted?  Is there any wonder why circumcision was under attack by California’s two leading liberal cities?

But leaving aside all the issues that may or may not compel parents to ritually 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, all I can do is attempt to make the case to my congregants for having their sons 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, without silly jokes and embarrassed laughter.

I can tell them that the ceremonies over 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 that 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 that 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 is constantly changing.

It seems that over a seven- 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 offered at my synagogue that contradicted and rewrote what was taught to me just four years earlier.

Today, circumcision is under scrutiny.  Even though all over Africa, where AIDS kills scores of people, billboards exhort men to get circumcised because circumcision prevents AIDS in many cases. Years ago, it was recommended without hesitation. I suspect seven 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 any more than piercing a little girl’s ears is mutilation.  Furthermore, it is unprovable that a child who is circumcised as a baby will grow up having less sexual satisfaction as an adult.

But those who advocate outlawing circumcision, 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 that 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 “a direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the U.S.”  That may be true.  Truer still, we Jews must be ever vigilant in assuring the ceremony that accompanies the rite of circumcision is meaningful and holy; that it is done with great care and sensitivity — for the child and everyone who is in attendance. That challenge is ours, independent of the government, the anti-circumcision movement or any other outside influence.  When we don’t provide substantial answers and motivations to our fellow Jews, encouraging them to engage in a particular ritual, not the least of which is the age-old rite of circumcision, at a given point, we have only ourselves to blame.

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