Circumcision: Whose Initiation?

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You may know the contemporary arguments for and against a brit milah, ritual circumcision of infant Jewish boys.

For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.

Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.

Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.

Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.

Posted on June 2, 2013
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