The Circumcision Debate

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Last month, I went to the bris of a colleague’s newborn son, and I was reminded how difficult these lifecycle rituals are for me. Gathering friends and family to welcome a child into the community is, of course, a lovely thing.

But the all-too-chipper mohel, cracking jokes, scalpel in hand, in front of a table of smoked fish was all-too surreal. When the deed was done, the baby screamed, jubilation ensued, and cream cheese was shmeared.

Let’s be honest, all the new research on AIDS prevention aside, this is one intense ritual.

I should be clear: I’m not against circumcision. But it does freak me out. We can, in theory, initiate a newborn baby boy into the Jewish community in any number of ways. And we do it by cutting his privates. We mark the body in the most serious way possible. This from a community known for its cerebral — disembodied — inclinations.

All of this is by way of saying that you should read Amy Odell’s Jewess interview with Dr. Ronald Goldman of the Circumcision Resource Center. Goldman is definitively anti-circumcision, and while I’m not directing you to him in support of his ideas, I don’t think honest discussion about the topic would be such a terrible thing.

There are noble religious/health reasons to circumcise a baby. But pretending it’s a simple prelude to bagels — and, eventually, bar mitzvahs — might not be in our best interest.

Posted on March 30, 2007

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7 thoughts on “The Circumcision Debate

  1. Ezekah

    I found Dr. Ronald Goldman to be highly biased against circumcision. When comparing the “odd man out”, he says:
    [quote] Even if everyone else in a boys’ class is circumcised and one is not, he’s still capable of felling good about himself. I talked to a boy, who was maybe 8 years old, and he told me about how he was sorry for the other boys in his class who had their foreskin cut off.


    At some point in a male’s life he’s likely to discover that he’s missing something that other boys have—a natural body part on the penis—and when he discovers that he’s missing part of his penis—well, that’s a sensitive thing for men.
    Next, the doctor says:
    [quote]If you tell a 5- or 8-year-old, ‘This is what happens to little boys,’ they would not want that done to them.
    As parents, it is our responsibility to make choices for our children, even to do things in their long-term best interests although it may cause them discomfort in the short-term. Most kids don’t elect to eat their vegetables or get shot with vaccinations either.

    Next Goldman takes large leaps of “logic” while admitting that he has no evidence. He admits he doesn’t know what’s harmful about circumcision, but then claims that stopping the tradition will stop un-named things that are socially and culturally harmful.

    Goldman also dismisses studies that don’t agree with his viewpoint, such as circumcision eliminating 3 million AIDS deaths over 20 years.

    [quote]Even if we accept the studies as valid, the claims about preventing HIV have been made for 20 years. So the claim is nothing new. The American Medical Association says that behavioral factors are far more important factors for acquisition of HIV than circumcision status.If this guy was really so concerned about temporary infant discomfort, it seems that he could spare a little concern about 3 million adult deaths.

  2. clara1

    People other than Jews have their baby boys circumcised for health reasons, one of which is cancer. So I don’t understand the argument against circumcism because of pain or whatever. When I had my kids, I signed a paper to have them circumcised if they are boys and I wasn’t Jewish then.


  3. mlk

    Anyone who thinks that circumcision is an “easy” ritual is either not thinking about what’s really going on, or blinded by religious fanaticism. Brit milah is supposed to be difficult; as Shai Held–in an article on this site (
    A_Difficult_Rite.htm) — makes clear, the pain we witness is part of the very reason we still perform a ritual that, done under different circumstances, would be banned as abusive and cruel.

    I, too, respect Dr. Goldman an the other so-called “intactavists” who argue against circumcision. I interviewed him and others for an article a few years ago, and I especially respect their attempts to develop alternate welcoming ceremonies for Jewish boys, which don’t involve lopping off a piece of skin. It is a sincere attempt to build new ritual, based on tradition, in place of a rite they deem irrelevant today.

    That said, however, there are parts of their argument that are hard to buy. Many anti-circumcision activists speak longingly for the foreskin they never knew and wish they had; they don’t feel complete. Having never felt that way, I can’t fully put myself in their shoes–I have never given a moment’s thought to my long-gone foreskin–but it’s hard to imagine someone saying that about, say, an appendix. Why the foreskin?

    In addition, it’s hard to buy any sort of argument that a circumcision is dangerous or physically harmful. Aside even from the new research about the positive effects of circumcision on preventing HIV infection, we haven’t exactly seen Jewish men (or babies) keeling over by the thousands from their circumcisions. Sure, mistakes get made, and they’re tragic. But extrapolating from that tiny percentage to condemn the whole ritual seems disengenuous.

    Many of my friends have grappled with this issue for their baby boys. And I will admit to a certain relief when our baby turned out to be a girl–it meant a nice simchat bat instead of a traumatic brit milah. But I do recognize that the pain is far worse for us parents than for the liquored-up, quickly healing infant who has been brought into the covenant like his father and like Jewish men for thousands of years.
    — Michael Kress

  4. joe

    what has helped in making the ritual particularly strange is the catered party atmosphere. if 20 close family and friends gathered in the dining room for a bris, to share their thoughts and hopes for the newborn and his world, and drank a l’chaim it would not be so bizzare.

  5. clara1


    I don’t find the process or the party bbizzare. It is a celebration of a Jew being brought into the tribe. I think this circumcision debate is much ado about nothing.


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