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My (inadequate) justification for circumcision: A reply to Larry Derfner

This morning we went to the beach. Three couples with four kids, all of them boys, all under the age of two. The conversation drifted to circumcision: one couple spared it from their kid, the other two – including us – didn’t.

Following a German verdict against circumcision, Larry Derfner writes:

I am somewhat ashamed that I was willing to put my infant boys at risk, that I was willing to put them through such severe pain, for fear that if I didn’t, it would mean they weren’t Jewish and it would be my responsibility.

I admit that I haven’t given circumcision much thought. If I did, perhaps I would have reached the conclusion that my friends reached. But here are my two cents: I am not sure that this is an issue of “being Jewish,” as Larry writes, but more of a public norm. Almost every Jewish boy in Israel is circumcised. The first thought that comes to my mind when dealing with this question has to do with all the explaining my boy would have to do regarding my decision, if indeed I had chosen to avoid the Brith. Would he decide to avoid public changing rooms? Would he skip the pool? Would it make him feel too different?

Curiously, among the friends at the beach today, the ones that decided against circumcision was also the only married couple. In my social circles, marriage is no big deal, and people my age don’t even bother to fly to Cyprus to avoid religious weddings, as many Israelis do. A decade ago it might have been different, but the norm has changed. The same goes for circumcision. I am pretty sure that if thirty percent of Israeli Jews weren’t circumcising their sons, a larger group would follow suit – including in more conservative circles (though maybe not in religious ones).

It’s no secret that we value social norms more than we value our bodies, especially in a society as intimate and conformist as Israel’s. The fear of isolating our sons is greater than the fear of what – I can’t deny – is a pretty barbaric ritual.

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    1. Kibbutznik

      ” I am not sure that this is an issue of “being Jewish,” as Larry writes, but more of a public norm. ”
      the public norm is that we are Jewish Noam and mutilating our baby sons is the norm
      takes a brave soul to stand up against it .
      ” The fear of isolating our sons is greater than the fear of what – I can’t deny – is a pretty barbaric ritual ”
      I was not brave enough to stand up against the social pressure I hope my children are more courageous than I was.

      Reply to Comment
    2. It can be done, Galileo had a son too, you know.

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    3. Richard Witty

      Circumcism is not mutilating one’s child’s body. Its a small piece of skin. The pain is very moderate, comparable to a fall, and temporary.

      The movements against circumcism are similar to the movements against innoculation (also a “mutilating” of one’s body, but internally, more invasively.) While there are some that don’t innoculate their children, the most significant element of that action is that they put their neighbors at risk of spreading horrible disease, and unnecessarily. (Its an irony to me that the ultra-orthodox that I know object to innoculation.)

      It defines continuity of a people. To not get circumcised is to declare, “I am NOT one of the same people that my parents and their parents are.”

      I’ve been associated with two spiritual movements that have both regarded circumcism as critical, from different perspectives. One is Judaism. I made the choice to continue teaching from parent to child (and now have an orthodox elder son). The second was in a yogic path, that identified circumcism as one of the 16 important actions to take in one’s life, once and/or ongoing.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      In a way, the occupation is also a “social norm”. Doesn’t mean we have to give in to it.

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    5. Joel

      Millions of African men are getting circumcised not to follow the herd but to fight AIDS and to stay alive.

      Many uncircumcised men with penile hygiene problems wish they’d been circumcised.

      The way Noam and Larry bandy around the word ‘barbaric’, frankly, turns my stomach.

      I don’t believe I’d find much to like in Noam and Larry if I would ever meet them. They come across as dogmatic, self absorbed and boring.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Klil


      You yourself speak about a couple who did not circumcise their child, nevertheless joining you for a beach outing where the possibility of this “abnormality” being discovered is not very low, rather than isolating their kid.

      I am not usually a big fan of anecdotal evidence, but at the very least I would expect, when someone brings one up, that it would support — rather than contest — their own argument.

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    7. You really hurt me, Joel.

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    8. Elisabeth

      Joel, condoms prevent AIDS + unwanted pregnancy (and so does not sleeping around too much FYI) so that is no argument for circumcision. Furthermore, a normal foreskin causes no hygiene problems. All mammals have them so I suppose they have a function. The custom is religious (or gives a sense of belonging to a sort of ‘tribe’) there is no real medical advantage for it. I am not very much for or against, but without anesthesia is barbaric.

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    9. Richard Witty

      Vaginal birth is far more painful and traumatic for a child than circumcism.

      Should we then outlaw vaginal birth as barbaric, given that we now have an alternative (ceasarian).

      Are Ceasarian’s barbaric for a mother? Cutting deep.

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    10. Noam, did you really just use the “well, everyone else is jumping off the roof, so when presented with a defenseless infant whom I would love more than anything in the world, I’d just not think about it and jump” defense of circumcision?

      I am against the circumcision of infants. It seems to me that inflicting such trauma on an infant at 7 days after birth (before the myelin sheath fully isolates the nerves in the infant’s body) would tend to produce lasting nerve damage – especially with the odious “metzitza”, where the mohel sucks on the wounded organ.

      I’ve had cause to read rather a lot about PTSD, and one effect that is noted about it is that once a person has suffered it, they are likely to suffer it again – to deepen and entrench the symptoms of paralyzing or dysfunctional fear generated by progressively less objectively terrifying circumstances.
      It seems to me that the trauma that circumcision inflicts on the infant, the parents, and the society which attends these intentional traumatizations over lunch, as a celebration, is one that will be easier to scare, one that a leader will more simply be able to terrorize into unthinking obedience.
      In other words, it seems to me that the wholesale traumatizing of male infants joins into the general traumatization-for-control that is part of the Jewish society, including Purim and the whole “bechol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu” scarefest that form an important part of the liturgical calendar.

      The pressure on young parents to genitally mutilate their newborns is intense. The strongest argument is “well, everyone you know went through it and hasn’t died of it.” I think that pointing to the state of the psyche of the Jewish collective in Israel is a powerful argument against doing what everyone else has always done.

      In the U.S., of course, circumcision is a widespread practice – it became popular around 1900, when fad-medic Kellogg decided it would help prevent masturbation and sexual excitation.
      Needless to say, it does not – nor would such a goal be considered acceptable by any sane human being. But Kellogg was really, really good at starting fads. His other stupid idea (“breakfast cereals”) are pretty much the quintessential American breakfast food.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Richard Witty, do you have ANY opinions that do not belittle and disregard the moral agency of whole classes of people?

      Vaginal birth is something that ADULT WOMEN decide to do. It is not something children do – and certainly not infants. Cesarean sections are (generally) chosen by obstetricians (in consultation with an ADULT woman) for medical necessity.

      There is no medical necessity for the circumcision of an infant, and the infant has no input into this decision – being, you know, an infant.

      I find your equation of what a woman decides to do (have children, deliver them one way or another) to helpless infants more offensive than even your usual, morally corrupt and ethically untenable arguments.

      Reply to Comment
    12. @Dena: not exactly. it’s not just “everybody is jumping from the roof” argument. As you know, there are consequences to going against the norm. I might be able to take them, but should I force my kid.

      One thing that I didn’t write and I think should be remembered is that there is another parent in the process, so this post represents my own rationalization, but not the entire debate in our home.

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    13. @Dena, it’s maybe interesting to note that female circumcision was also used in Europe as a cure against a host of things, from cleptomania and nymphomania to general emotional disturbances. The last one was in England in 1940, on a 5 year old girl. Something you won’t easily find in our history books.

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    14. edwin

      Kibbutznik – sounds like you have become a bit more courageous. With some luck, perhaps your children will not have to make the decision you were forced into. Perhaps if you support your children when the time comes to make such a decision, it will be easier for them.

      regarding aids: The African studies are 1) done on adult males and are not necessarily applicable to children, 2) controversial 3) have no applicability on societies with AIDS rates as low as Israel 4) do not make sense – comparing US to Europe, the US has both the highest level of circumcision and the highest level of AIDS. Even within African countries they do make sense with the AIDS rate for circumcised and uncircumcised males being all over the map and not showing any sort of clear trend. 5) at least one study has shown that supplying clean water and soap will cut AIDS rates as much as circumcision 6) circumcision is no substitute for a condom, and if you use a condom then circumcision does make much difference.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Richard Witty

      I agree with you about women’s right to choose everything about their bodies.

      Perhaps you are missing my point, that circumcism is NOT barbaric, not brutal. And, that the German court decision was as intrusive on a family’s decision process as the prospective intrusion onto vaginal birth.

      The comment you made about one’s own decisions over one’s own body, and imposing on a child, is inherent in every decision relative to parenting.

      A parent inevitably imposes in many critical ways, some consciously, some unconcsiously.

      In this case, the personal decision to not circumcise, is a decision to not bring up one’s child as a Jew religiously though not necessarily self-defined culturally as a Jew. Its an active decision to sever the continuity of Jewish life from parent to child (the same language as to sever the foreskin is intentional).

      The state decision, however made, is a state imposed decision to sever the continuity of Jewish life, and in this case probably more pronounced of Muslim life.

      I strongly suspect that the decision, certainly the support for the decision, contains a strong component of anti-Muslim racism, of which the anti-Jewish element is just part of the same tide.

      Again, I am a vegetarian, and the mass murder industry of commercial meat processing is more than allowed in Germany, though far far far more cruel in fact.

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    16. Philos

      All I have gathered from my extra curricular reading on foreskin is that I’d like mine back. I had a whopping 10 to 30% of my sexual nerve endings sliced off!!! It’s like female genital mutilation if they only cut off the clitoral hood. By every rational calculation it is barbaric and ought to not only be abolished but become a taboo as well. We want people to look back in 100 years (with their intact genitals) and say, “what was wrong with those people? How could they do such a thing?”

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    17. Richard Witty, while disagreeing with you about circumcision in every possible way, I’d like to thank you for restoring my faith in humankind by standing up for a position that I can and do appreciate, about vegetarian eating.

      Thank you for answering my question, and for having a really good answer to it.

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    18. Philos, you could have a look at John Safran’s Race Relations, episode 3, which is about his attempt to reverse his circumcision. It looked painful to me though.

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    19. @Richard Witty: It’s “a small piece of skin” off a baby, but on a man it’s 100 sq cm of skin and mucosa, a thin layer of muscle, metres of arteries and veins, and >20,000 specialised nerve endings. An eyelid is also “a small piece of skin”.

      The pain has been compared to that of torture, and causes a measurable effect on the reaction to vaccination, months later.

      Vaccination provides STRONG, PROVED protection against DEADLY, CONTAGIOUS diseases of CHILDREN, now rare precisely because of vaccination. Circumcision debatably provides slight reductions in already-rare diseases of late onset, that can be better prevented by other means, or treated as they arise. Many of the medical claims for circumcision are completely bogus.

      “To not get circumcised is to declare, “I am NOT one of the same people that my parents and their parents are.”
      That claim only makes sense in a context of voluntary adult circumcision. A baby makes no such statement when his genitals are left alone. The Brit Shalom ceremony is intented to provide just that continuity without the surgery, and there has been no suggestion from anyone involved that it fails to do so.

      Your yoga claim is new to me. It seems quite contrary to most other Eastern traditions. Buddhist scripture lists 32 signs of the true Buddha. The tenth reads, “His privates are sheathed.”

      “Vaginal birth is far more painful and traumatic for a child than circumcism.”

      I seriously doubt that. As a natural process, we know the mother’s body is flooded with hormones that dramatically change her experience, and something similar seems probable for the baby. Nothing prepares him for having part of his genitals cut off.

      @Englebert Luitsz: DIY foreskin restoration is not painful – if it hurts, you’re pulling too hard. (Nor is it stretching – the tension actually causes new skin to grow.) It’s slow and tedious and can never restore all the nerves, but it gives a good aesthetic result and something very like the original rolling action, and it’s cheap.

      The last FGCs in the US were in the 1960s, and a survivor of it, Patricia Robinett has written a book about her experience, “The Rape of Innocence”. It was covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield until 1977.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Jennifer

      Ritual male circumcision has been and is practised by a number of non-Jewish cultures. Usually it is an adult initiation ritual where the subject shows his courage and stoicism from which it is obvious that the operation is very painful. There is also a very small, but real, risk of complications including death.

      For those worried about the difference in their son’s penis being noticed I would say don’t. When my 42 year old son was born circumcision was routine enough that it was opt out not opt in. Neither he nor his father was cicumcised, although most of their contempories were, and it never caused comment let alone a problem.

      As a side note – a number of Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages favoured circumcision as they believed it reduced the sexual pleasure of the women whose partners were circumcised. As a woman who has had circumcised and uncircumcised lovers I think that one is an urban myth.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Richard Witty

      On the vaginal birth experience. It is the most traumatic experience that any experience. Death may even be easier (both are natural).

      From the serene state of suspension in womb to be ejected from that safety, through a narrow opening in which the head is squeezed and deformed and all limbs are pressed, then exposed to air and required breathing for the first time.

      Its experienced as a trauma. (The mother’s experience is not what is being compared.)

      The purpose of the circumcism is for the marking for others of one’s Jewishness (an intimate tzitzis), the reminder to oneself, the memory of the Abrahamic sacrifice (the willingness to give one’s all, one’s dearest for God).

      So, if you have no spiritual consciousness, then the concept of a God that one asserts a connection to, and obligation to, is foreign.

      For those of us that spiritual education is only chosen and not a rational expected part of a parent’s responsibility, the only reference to that is then also only what one may choose as an adult.

      To drop the spiritual element of it, and leave only the conformity, habit, or the just the associational, is to miss most of the significance.

      The brit is a society. If being Jewish means more than just membership in a club, means an obligation, a deep obligation (and deep comfort when fulfilled), then the brit is the society of those with shared commitment to that deep obligation, and conveyed through parent to child intentionally on body (physical brit) and mind (education).

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    22. MrBBQ

      The cat’s out of the bag.

      Circumcision. has nothing to do with being Jewish.

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    23. Numa

      There is nothing wrong with circumcision. All these PC brigade nonsense about it is mamby pamby lily livered new age squeamishness usually promoted by crybaby parents, Listen up squidsm yes! it is painfull but bit much worse than the sprog taking a lung full blast of air the minute it is born as ut regrets ever been dragged by sexual magic into the world, The puzzle is why people never remember this later. That said that wailing remains in the soul torturing it until it makes its exist upon death of the vessel that brought it in. Circumcision is ancient wisdom, that is solid in reasoning besides aesthetically civilized, if you do not want to cut fine, keep your managing your turkey neck flap grim stink and germ store and you are free to preserve those of your imp. It is a free world as it is good for the janitorial industry

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    24. Infant circumcision is a sad practice in my opinion. Let them grow up and decide for themselves.

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