Home News Canada Circumcision: reverence and ambivalence

Circumcision: reverence and ambivalence

38242
22
SHARE
FLASH90 PHOTO

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.

READ: IS A NEW KIND OF JUDAISM IN THE MAKING?

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.

READ: NEW RABBIS, NEW CHALLENGES

“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.

READ: MODERN ORTHODOXY AT THE CROSSROADS

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.”

READ: SEASON PREMIERE OF ‘YIDLIFE CRISIS’ TACKLES CONVERSION, CIRCUMCISION AND JEWS FOR JESUS

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.”

SHARE
  • There are various expressed reasons why parents circumcise a son. Try applying these reasons to cutting off other body parts. Then it becomes clear that these reasons are weak and senseless. However, based on a psychological perspective, the underlying primary reason that circumcision continues is the compulsion to repeat the trauma. This is a factor with other traumas as well. In the case of circumcision, the father often insists on his son being circumcised so that his repressed feelings about being circumcised remain dormant.

    Those who reject that circumcision is traumatic are defending against the feelings of accepting what is obvious to most people who do not circumcise. Watch a circumcision video and empathize with the infant. If it is too much for you to watch, then it is too much for the infant to experience. Trust your feelings and instincts. Imagine yourself being forcefully restrained and having a part of your genitals cut off. This satisfies the definition of trauma, and the infant’s physiological and behavioral changes, including withdrawal in shock, also indicate trauma.

    Jewish identity is determined by whether or not the parents are Jewish. Sons of Jewish parents are also Jewish, circumcised or not.

    Health claims are created by biased circumcision advocates in circumcising societies to defend the practice. Such claims are easily refuted. Thirteen organizations are critical of infant circumcision. No other natural, healthy, functioning body part is cut off for supposed health reasons.

    Experiencing circumcision disrupts the bond between the infant and mother. If he cannot trust mother to protect him from unnecessary pain and harm, he cannot trust anyone. Some mothers express great regret about circumcising a son and have to live with this distress the rest of their lives.

    Boys who are not circumcised can appreciate their foreskin regardless of social environment.

    One mother said, “When my eight-year-old son was five, he noticed a difference in the appearance of the other boys’ penises. I told him that’s because they had their foreskins cut off. He said, ‘That’s horrible.’ He’s very adamant about it.”

    Another eight-year old boy who is the only boy in his class who is not circumcised reported he is glad he is not circumcised. Concerning the other boys, he feels “kind of sad because they had it cut off.” If any boys comment about his penis, he tells them “why there is still skin over mine and not over theirs.” Then they do not bother him.

    This boy’s mother told him about circumcision when he was younger. It appears that if an intact (not circumcised) boy is given proper information, it is possible to prevent a negative impact even from extreme minority status in a group of circumcised boys.

    Based on various investigations, the summary of circumcision harm includes extreme pain and trauma (local anesthetic, if used, is not effective), behavioral and neurological changes in infants, loss of important body part, reduced sexual pleasure, unrecognized psychological problems, unknown negative effects that have not been studied, and risk of surgical complications.

    Most circumcised men do not know what they are missing. Medical studies show that the foreskin provides protection, enhances sexual pleasure, and facilitates intercourse. Research shows that it increases female sexual satisfaction (6 of 7 women prefer men who are not circumcised). No artificial lubricant is required.

    Based on a sensitivity study, circumcision removes the five most sensitive parts, about one-third of the highly sensitive tissue. The adult foreskin is about 12 square inches and is a double layer, a movable sleeve. Cutting off the foreskin removes several kinds of specialized nerves.

    Men circumcised as adults describe the decrease in sensitivity as like seeing in black and white compared to seeing in color. Without the protection of the foreskin, there is a progressive
    desensitization, particularly in older men, which can contribute to erectile dysfunction. An investigation reports that circumcised men are 4.5 times more likely to use an erectile dysfunction drug.

    There are growing reports from men who have disliked being circumcised since they were boys. A survey of circumcised men published in the medical literature describes wide-ranging physical, sexual, and psychological consequences. Some men have strong feelings of anger, shame,
    distrust, and grief about having been circumcised. Sexual anxieties, low self-esteem, reduced
    emotional expression, low empathy, avoidance of intimacy, and depression are also reported.

    Male satisfaction with circumcision depends on lack of knowledge and awareness about circumcision. Most circumcised men seem satisfied because they may not understand what circumcision is and the benefits of the foreskin, they may not be aware of certain feelings and their
    connection to circumcision, or they may be afraid of disclosing these feelings. The more men know, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied.

    • Alan Shulman

      As a Jew, born in 1943, and growing up in NYC, I never felt either included or excluded because of the appearance of my penis. Circumcision became an issue with me only in 1969 when I attended the circumcision ceremony of a nephew. While the operation was underway, my nephew screamed in pain, and even at the procedure’s conclusion, continued to scream for a long time, unable to be comforted. I could not watch and heard terror in those screams. I vowed then that, if I ever had a son he would not be put through this excruciating and damaging ordeal. My son was born in 1976. He was not circumcised. He has never expressed any feelings of exclusion due to having an uncircumcised penis. And while by Jewish law he is Jewish, he also sees himself as Jewish. But even if he didn’t perceive himself this way, I would not in retrospect change my decision: I have never regretted it. A tradition that demands the torturing of infants is a tradition to be abandoned. Nor do I believe parents should undertake this kind of operation on their boy babies because, in some distant future, it may slightly increase the chance of extremely rare penile cancer or of STIs and in any case, those claims of any health benefits
      are hotly disputed.

      • Rx

        Umm, by Jewish Law, your son isn’t Jewish. If you want to change the rules of the game, there are lots of followers of J. that would be happy to join their cult.

        • Stormwatch

          Circumcision was not even in the original version of the Torah.

  • Gary Epstein

    Why would you want to genitally mutilate a child and then not be in the least religious or observant of any other Jewish rite?

    • Karen

      Because cutting someone else’s genitals does not directly inconvenience the parents. Having to give up pork, however, might be viewed as personal inconvenience by some.

  • Susan_McL

    I’m an American activist for human rights and I am glad to hear that more Canadians, including Jews, are questioning circumcision. I think anyone who has ever seen a video of a boy being circumcised would refuse to have it done to their child. No boy would consent to having this done. A man can always have it done later, once he is old enough to choose, in the rare cases where he wishes he had been cut, but it’s not the kind of thing a person can have undone. There must be a more humane way for people to express their Jewish identity.

  • Robert Clover Johnson

    I am circumcised but not Jewish. I was born and circumcised in a hospital in the U.S. in 1945 during a time when circumcision was becoming the norm for American male infants who are not Jewish. The American medical community at that time and to this day was wedded to the now increasingly-disputed notion that circumcision has important health benefits. In America, there are far more circumcised Christian and secular men than circumcised Jews, so circumcision no longer serves as a distinctive indication of one’s religious identity or cultural ethnicity. The ceremonial and public nature of Jewish circumcisions may be the most important aspect for those who believe this sign is necessary for Jews, but considering the traumatic nature of infant circumcision and its lifelong negative sexual and emotional consequences, it seems to me that Jews as well as non-Jews ought to give serious consideration to abandoning this practice. As Ronald Goldman indicates, growing numbers of Jews are opting to have a ceremony that does not include the unnecessary trauma of circumcision.

    I agree with Goldman that circumcision is extremely traumatic. Though it is consciously forgotten, the trauma is permanently recorded in the amygdala in the inner brain as a somatic memory that often surfaces among men doing regressive therapy. This happened to me in 2005 while exploring anxieties that had bothered me throughout my life. While crying like an infant, I suddenly felt the unmistakable sensations of cutting around my penis. I was 60 years old and realized in a long chain of subsequent mental associations that this trauma had negatively affected my temperament and relationships throughout my life. For a fuller explanation, I recommend viewing my YouTube video “Therapy Uncovers Circumcision Trauma.”

  • Richard M

    “Most people in the
    Western world believe that female circumcision or female genital mutilation is a brutal barbaric and cruel crime that is condemned by the United Nations as a human rights violation.

    Wiki says “In 1996 the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act made it
    illegal to perform FGM on minors for non-medical reasons, and in 2013
    the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act prohibited transporting a
    minor out of the country for the purpose of FGM. In addition, 24 states
    have legislation banning FGM.[217]:2

    Yet what kind of double-think ‘mental self-circumcision’ are we practicing on ourselves when we think that the circumcision of females is not OK but the circumcision of males and male genital mutilation is acceptable because some people say it is their family or religious
    tradition or there are possible health benefit? (Do circumcized men really live twice as long as other men and would that be a good thing even if it were true? HIV infection rates seem to be sky high in Iran where nearly all men are circumcised).

    ‘So Female circumcision is taboo but male circumcision is 100% kosher.’ If that is not total hypocritical and sexist codswallop, what is? Perhaps male circumcision was a hangover from a period when more societies were matriarchal, and women gained a subtle superiority over
    males knowing that men had all been subjected to such treatment as children, in order to give women longer and greater sexual pleasure while men who had been ‘snipped’ were deprived of it (through desensitization) thus spurred on in greater efforts to obtain it.

    All circumcision, unless it is done for medical reasons, should be completely illegal, and any perpetrators doing it to a boy child should get the same punishment as they would (today) had their victim been a girl. If adults wish to be circumcised that is another matter, but it should be
    their own decision. If the operation is botched, and there are huge medical costs involved in repair, the damage was essentially consented to by the adult patient in opting for that kind of (cosmetic, vanity?) surgery. Any such injury thus could be deemed -‘self-inflicted.’ by an insurance company. The best policy would seem to be ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

    I don’t see why any minority group or individual should be allowed to get away with this kind of physical, mental and possibly psychologically damaging sexual abuse of innocent male children, when violating a girl in a similar way would lead to a well-deserved prison sentence. Who could be so heartless and cruel as to treat a young baby with anything but love? Surely cutting off a part of their perfectly formed body, isn’t love. It is just blindly following superstitious beliefs and ‘group think.’

    Richard

  • Bruce James

    Circumcision of children is a child abuse.

  • TLCTugger

    Infancy is the WORST time to attempt cosmetic surgery. Hundreds of thousands of men are doing non-surgical foreskin restoration to undo some of the predictable sexual damage of childhood circumcision. Informed adults can decide for themselves.

  • George O’Donnell

    I will never understand why parents presume their children will want part of their penis cut off. The vast majority of circumcised men in the world had it forced on them. Very few men choose circumcision for themselves because they know their foreskins are more valuable to them attached rather than amputated.

  • There are now at least 11 celebrants of Brit Shalom in Canada. http;//britshalom.info

  • Perhaps the boy who screamed at his mother for [calling] through the bathroom door to remind him to wash under the head [sic] of his penis wasn’t so upset about having a foreskin as about having a mother obsessed with his genitals, hovering outside the bathroom door while he was showering.

  • “I don’t think [circumcision] is barbaric at all.”

    Tell me, Dr. Diamond, what other normal, living, healthy, permanent part of a child’s body can be cut off and you would not consider it to be “barbaric.”

  • Justin Perez

    Circumcision is hardly an exclusive Jewish mark. There are far more total Muslim and Christian circumcised penises than there are total Jewish circumcised penises (only a tiny portion.)

    The only cultural achievement circumcision reaches is a greater Abrahamic circumcised tribe. Hardly a discerning mark nowadays.

    It appears that infant circumcision is a practice where context heavily relies on circumcised fathers performing enforcing it on their intact sons so that they dont perceive them as the cultural “out-group.” This might be a male psychological mechanism to alleviate physical differences (whose markings have abstract meaning.) Sons are a form of cultural and genetic legacy after all and this practice could explain the motives behind its enforcement.

  • Joey Moore

    Joan Robinson – “Over the last 20 years, one or two babies reportedly died related to a botched circumcision”. Are you referring to ONE hospital in small town Alberta? And what about all the botched procedures where the boy survived? EVERY circumcision is botched! We cannot gloss over the damage done to many men, their genitals natural function being destroyed forever. How is it that only females suffer psychological trauma from getting their genitals cut? Are men not human?

  • Stormwatch

    Nothing about this abominable blood ritual is deserving of reverence. It is just a reflection of the worst instinct of mankind: the tribal drive to follow the rules, to follow a leader, to follow orders.

  • StanG

    I really think it’s wonderful that so many non-Jews read the CJN and feel comfortable enough to tell Jews what to do. It’s such a touching and feeling story that you care about our foreskins enough to save them.
    Perhaps if you have been around at other times you could have helped save the rest of our bodies? Now that would have been a really heart warming thing to see.
    I can think of another group of people who were far more interested in the foreskin than the rest of the Jewish body, but they, Baruch HaShem, were stopped 71 years ago.

    • Jhon Murdock

      God was around at all those critical times but did nothing to save the rest of your bodies. Why not?

      • StanG

        Because we relied on the good work of the anti-circusision people?

    • Rood Andersson

      Huh … Stan, so you believe forcing an infant child to undergo a painfully unnecessary procedure is not telling HIM “what to do” (as you say)? In your thinking where is his individuality? Where and when do his rights begin … only after you forcibly mutilate his genitals?

      Now if he decided, as an adult, to do such a stupid thing to himself, I’d think less of him, but it’s his life. The point is … his life is his. It’s not yours and it’s not mine. I