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Circumcision: reverence and ambivalence

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Shawn Stark, a Montrealer who’s lived in Vancouver for over a decade, had given no thought to circumcision until his wife Amari was pregnant with their son Kai three years ago.

Suddenly, he said, he realized, “I can’t be in the room when they do the bris. I can’t see that.”

Stark’s wife, who is Jewish but grew up in an ashram, suggested they reconsider doing the ritual altogether.

Upon reflection, Stark decided he was against circumcising his son. “I thought it would put my son through trauma that I don’t need to put him through.”

However, Stark said that although he’s not religious, he’s proud of his Judaism and “didn’t want to give up the entire thing because I didn’t want to circumcise him.”

The couple consulted their midwife who, while not Jewish herself, had heard of Jewish families undertaking an alternative service known as a brit shalom, which preserves the ceremonial aspect of a brit milah but eliminates the actual circumcision.

Stark Googled the ceremony and found that the only rabbi in the country who would officiate at a brit shalom, Rabbi David Mivasair of the progressive Ahavat Olam Synagogue, lives in Vancouver.

Their decision was met with initial protestation from Stark’s parents, who, he said, “had a reaction to it like nothing I’d ever done before.”

The brit shalom consisted of a gathering overlooking the beach at which friends and family sang songs, the rabbi recited blessings and announced Kai’s Hebrew name, and the immediate family dipped their fingers in olive oil and blessed different parts of the baby’s body.

“Then we went for bagels, cream cheese and lox,” Stark said. “Except we didn’t really. My wife and my in-laws are vegetarian.”

Hesitancy about circumcision is hardly unique to the ashram-dwelling, vegetarian set. Circumcision has long been a source of controversy in the wider world, and, to a lesser extent, in the Jewish community as well.

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But even among Jews, opinions on the ritual vary, and emotions around it often run high. Jews across the denominational spectrum tend to treat circumcision with reverence, if ambivalence, with many secular Jews circumcising their sons despite not performing or following other mitzvot, while segments of Orthodox Jewry diverge on appropriate implements and techniques.

Among the general Canadian population, the rate of neonatal circumcision has dropped considerably since the mid-20th century. In 2015, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) estimated the average rate of neonatal circumcision in Canada to be 32 per cent, compared to nearly 50 per cent in 1970.

Canada’s Jewish community has no comprehensive data on circumcision rates, but despite Jewish anti-circumcision activists who continue to spread messages about the ritual’s so-called barbarism, most Canadian Jews appear to be circumcising their sons in large numbers, as they always have.

Aubie Diamond is a family doctor and one of Toronto’s most prominent mohels, having been in the business for 30 some years.

Speaking by phone as he drove from one afternoon bris to another, Diamond said he hasn’t noticed a drop-off in families requesting circumcision. Rather, he’s seen Jews of all levels of observance and affiliation wanting their sons ushered into Judaism by way of the ancient ritual.

“Some of them are so far away from [traditional Judaism]. They observe nothing. And yet, when it comes to brit milah, they want it done, and they want it done properly.”

Discrepancies arise around certain techniques, such as whether newer implements designed to reduce bleeding produce enough blood to satisfy the requirements of Orthodox Judaism, or whether anesthetic administered via injection is acceptable, he said.

“I don’t think [circumcision] is barbaric at all. People worry that it’s so traumatizing for the baby, and I don’t find that to be the case,” Diamond said, adding that while he’d never pressure anyone – Jewish or non-Jewish – to circumcise their son, “I don’t think, in general, Jews need convincing. Most want it done.”

Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, of Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, recalls a member of her community, a single mother, phoning her years ago in a panic because her nine-year-old son refused to get out of the bath. The woman had called to the boy through the bathroom door to remind him to wash under the head of his penis. According to Rabbi Goldfinger, the boy “threw a hissy fit,” screaming at his mother, “How long do I have to do this for… How could you do this to me?’”

The family is Jewish, but the mother had opted not to circumcise her son for ethical reasons.

Rabbi Goldfinger said she knew right away that washing wasn’t the real issue.

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“The boy was an athlete, and other boys made fun of him in the locker room for not being circumcised – both Jewish and non-Jewish kids. There was a really strong sense of not belonging.”

The mother brought her son to Rabbi Goldfinger for counselling, but despite the rabbi cautioning that recovery from a non-natal circumcision can be immensely painful, he was determined to go through with one.

The incident stands out for the rabbi, whose feelings about brit milah, the ritual circumcision performed on the eighth day of a male infant’s life to symbolize the covenant between God and man, are mixed, as they are for many Jews.

She acknowledges the distress – and for some, the moral outrage – that comes with subjecting a newborn to fear and pain, as well as the feminist argument that objects to only men being seen as fit to enter into a divine covenant.

At the same time, Rabbi Goldfinger understands the sense of belonging that circumcision can provide and says feelings of otherness that an uncircumcised boy or man might experience are legitimate.

“People say, ‘This is what Jews do and so I want to do it’… that’s not an irrelevant reason [in favour of circumcision],” she said.

She said the bathing episode “strongly impacted my decision not to convince parents either way” about the ritual, and she supports parents’ individual decisions on the matter.

She said that while the majority of young parents she speaks to “don’t love the idea of circumcision,” most – including those in interfaith marriages – do it, usually because of familial pressure. But she said that anecdotally, she’s heard about growing numbers of Jewish and interfaith couples, especially in the United States, who are choosing not to circumcise their sons.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox synagogue Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto said circumcision is vitally important to Jews, because “it’s the first commandment God gave to the first Jew… It’s the sign of our ‘chosenness’… It represents our ability to remain separate [from other nations] throughout our Diaspora history.”

Korobkin, who is himself a mohel, said it’s noteworthy there are no rabbinic disputes on the question of whether to perform circumcision. “Rabbis disagree on just about everything, but this is sort of like the mom and apple pie of Jewish practice. There doesn’t seem to be any rabbinic source that supports not circumcising… It’s so explicit biblically and in all the talmudic writings.”

READ: KEEPING THE NEXT GENERATION JEWISH

A position statement released by the CPS in 2015 said the association “does not recommend the routine circumcision of every newborn male.” The statement reiterated the CPS’ position from 1996, stressing that the benefits and harms of circumcision were “evenly balanced” – a stance largely echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 1999 and again 2005. But the AAP amended its position in 2012, when it said the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks.

After evidence emerged about the beneficial role of male circumcision in preventing urinary tract infections in infants, as well as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) later in life, the CPS reviewed the information.

It ultimately reaffirmed, however, that “the risk-benefit ratio of routine newborn male circumcision is closely balanced.”

Joan Robinson, an Edmonton pediatrician and chair of the CPS’ infectious diseases committee, said that not recommending circumcision isn’t the same as recommending against it.

“We think it’s impossible to be certain if the risks are worse than the benefits. Because it’s an irreversible procedure done without consent, we don’t think it’d be right to tell every Canadian parent to do this,” she told The CJN.

She noted that potential risks range from bleeding and infection after the fact to penile amputation in the rare case of a procedural error. “Over the last 20 years, one or two babies reportedly died related to a botched circumcision,” Robinson said.

Circumcision has been found to prevent some STIs, but it’s difficult to determine to what extent, she said, noting that many studies done in Canada on STI rates among circumcised men involved males who have undergone adult, not neonatal, circumcision.

The World Health Organization has reported that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV in men by roughly 60 per cent. However, in Canada, where instances of HIV are relatively low, Robinson said, “you’d have to circumcise way more males to prevent one case of HIV.”

Circumcision also appears to prevent penile cancer, but that condition is “very unusual,” Robinson said.

Yonah Krakowsky is a Canadian urologist who’s doing a fellowship in penile implants and male infertility at Harvard University. He’s Orthodox, but said he feels no tension between his Jewish and medical ethics.

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So long as the mohel is well trained, “it seems to be very safe to [circumcise] in the ritual way,” said Krakowsky, who plans to become a mohel.

He partly attributes the fact that the AAP is “slightly more pro-circumcision” than the CPS to the ambiguity in the medical data.

“It’s difficult to interpret, and people reach different conclusions when they read the same data.”

In his medical opinion, one drawback is that circumcision decreases penile sensitivity, making sex less pleasurable.

Yet while he believes that people should ultimately decide based on their family, religion or “what the father has,” he admitted, “If I wasn’t Jewish, I don’t think I’d circumcise my child.”

Ronald Goldman is a psychological researcher and founder and executive director of the Boston-based non-profit Circumcision Resource Center, as well as the author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective.

Goldman is Jewish, but believes circumcision is wrong, calling it “a horrible thing to do to a defenceless newborn” and arguing that it causes serious psychological trauma.

Anyone who’s been circumcised is traumatized, he said, and if a baby doesn’t cry, it’s actually a sign of withdrawal, not that he didn’t feel pain.

“There are many ways post-traumatic stress exhibits. The most common is reduction in emotional expression, a common complaint women have about men… There’s a connection between lack of emotional sensitivity, lack of empathy and expression, and having been traumatized. It’s not the only trauma [men face], but it’s an easily avoidable one,” Goldman said.

People sometimes call criticism of circumcision anti-Semitic, but that’s a “knee-jerk response,” he said. “We need to do better at communicating with those who have different viewpoints, even with something so widely and historically practised as this.”

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Rabbi Mivasair in Vancouver said he’s not opposed to the ritual, but he often counsels parents who are conflicted about it.

He said he’s seen some increased ambivalence about circumcision in recent years, including encountering Jews who are very committed to Jewish life, but don’t want to circumcise their sons because of the pain it causes or because they don’t want to “impose on what is natural.”   

“People put so much weight on circumcision as a mark of being Jewish, but I don’t think it deserves that. What’s more important is how does a man live his life? Is he living ethically, is he living up to [other] mitzvot? It says in the Torah that [circumcision] is a sign of the covenant, but it’s not the covenant,” he said.

While some Jews choose a symbolic over a physical brit milah, most continue to uphold the circumcision ritual – mixed feelings or not, and regardless of their level of observance or divergent medical opinions.

As Diamond put it, for both unaffiliated and more observant Jews, “That’s their link. It’s not just something that connects them to a global Jewish community. It’s something that literally binds us together through the centuries.”