This blog post is a condensed version of a longer article. Read the full text here.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the question slated for San Francisco’s November ballot, that would ban circumcision of minors. As it’s formulated, the only exception would be medical emergency. MGMbill.org, the organization proposing the bill not only in San Francisco, but nationwide, refers to circumcision as “mutilation” and to circumcised boys as victims of abuse.
This chapter of the ongoing circumcision debate in the U.S. is getting a lot of media attention, particularly in the Jewish community, maybe because the ballot initiative is gaining enough popularity to make it plausible that it could pass, or maybe because of the lack of religious exemption and the association of the bill with a comic book that’s been called anti-Semitic. Foreskin Man features caricatures of religious Jews tearing a baby out of his mother’s arms and circumcising him as she struggles to free herself and her child from their grip. This image highlights the tension between the anti-circumcision movement’s claims of human rights abuses and Jewish community’s concerns for tolerance and religious freedom.
But the debate over circumcision is not new – not to Jews and not to Americans. Rabbinic texts decry the ancient Greek prohibition on circumcision, leading to defiant observance of the mitzvah of brit milah, the commandment of ritual circumcision (a.k.a. bris). In secular American culture, circumcision has come in and out of fashion over the years, with a trend recently towards leaving babies intact.
Trends in the American Jewish community fluctuate as well. There have, at times, been trends among more secular Jews to choose routine in-hospital circumcision. On the other hand, there are families who prefer amohel, a specialist in ritual circumcision, even if they feel more culturally than religiously connected to the ritual. These days, some families choose to have private brit milah ceremonies with a select few guests, saving the larger celebration for a less intimate moment. And, yes, there are Jewish families who choose not to circumcise their boys at all.
What’s different about this debate for our generation is that the public discourse has moved from disagreement – Circumcision is medically beneficial vs. No, not really. Why cut off a piece of the body when you don’t need to? – to polarization – Circumcision is an excruciatingly painful abusive form of mutilation that needs to be banned to protect innocent children from irreparable physical and psychological trauma! vs. Circumcision is one hundred percent safe, nearly painless, prevents cancer and STDs, enhances sexual pleasure for men and women, and besides, foreskins are gross! God was right! With accessible forums for disseminating and finding information, anyone can put their opinions out there. So, there’s highly charged information available on both sides of the circumcision divide, and sadly, not a lot to be found in the gray area in between.
I’ve certainly benefited from easy access to information as a parent, but the volume of highly emotional, high-stakes discourse on this issue makes a parent’s job more complex. How do you know who to trust? Where are the sources that break it down without bias, that acknowledge the concerns on both sides and help intelligent adults make their own decisions based on the best available information and their own assessments, values and priorities?
I’ve been wishing for a while that there was a guide for Jewish parents struggling with the issue of circumcision, a resource for parents who consider themselves obligated by the mitzvah, but feel conflicted, knowing they would otherwise choose not to circumcise, and for those who don’t make Jewish choices based on a sense of obligation, who are struggling with the weight of an age-old Jewish tradition to circumcise in an American cultural context that increasingly favors leaving baby boys intact. Since I haven’t found that kind of guide yet, I’ve decided to try to write it myself.
Here’s a first attempt at articulating my approach to living in the gray area. As with all polarized issues, I recommend reading anything on circumcision with a grain of salt. In searching for the gray area, I’ve tried to present this analysis pre-salted, but of course, add to taste. Click on any of the tips below for an in-depth discussion:
1. This is your choice to make.
2. Weigh the medical concerns.
3. Weigh the Jewish concerns.
4. Know the differences between the Jewish procedure and the medical one.
5. Circumcision is not the same as “female circumcision” or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
6. Consider the physical and psychological effects.
7. Understand the dynamics of the debate.
8. Find a mohel you can trust and ask about his / her procedure.
9. It’s okay to feel ambivalent.
10. Get on the same page as your partner.
So, back to the San Francisco ballot initiative, and the national anti-circumcision lobby. I don’t want to see laws banning circumcision, not because I think circumcision is the best choice for all baby boys, not because I expect all Jews to practice brit milah given the legal choice, but because I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question. And questions without easy answers are powerful catalysts of thoughtful individual decision-making and meaningful action.
It is easy to make the choice to circumcise in a traditionally observant Jewish community. There is an expectation to do it, and no real motivators to challenge the norm. It was easy to choose to circumcise in the eighties when it was at the peak of popularity in secular American society. Everyone was doing it,and it was Jewish tradition! For many people, it would also be easy to make a decision if it was illegal. For many American Jewish families who aren’t strictly observant, secular law would make it a simple choice. (For others the choice would be much harder.)
But easy choices aren’t necessarily meaningful choices. They often don’t involve a lot of thought about why we’re making that choice, what our other options are, or what values our choice projects. So I’m hoping attempts to ban circumcision fail, but I’m not sorry they’re making the news. I hope it spurs traditionally observant Jewish families to think about why Jews do brit milah, what makes it important enough to do even when secular society isn’t on the band-wagon, what it means to each of us. I hope Jewish families who choose their traditions a la carte find more meaning and stronger sense of identity by choosing brit milah in a culture where it makes them more distinctive. And I hope those who choose not to circumcise will be inspired to find creative ways to express their identity and commitment to Jewish life.
As the issue continues to get more press coverage, as I’m sure it will, we will certainly see the organized Jewish community responding to the human rights claims in the public sphere. I’ve been encouraged by some of the thoughtful responses I’ve read from individuals, and disappointed by some that I find narrow-minded. Let’s hope that on the whole, as a Jewish community, we can respond in a respectful and reasonable way to the real concerns many people have about circumcision, while upholding it as a parent’s choice, like so many other difficult and potentially life-altering choices we make, that comes with the awesome responsibility of having children.
Don’t forget to read the whole article on www.JewishBirthNetwork.com