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Men's Oppression

Being rational about circumcision
and Jewish observance

Moshe Rothenberg - Brooklyn, NY
M.E.N., no. 4, p. 22-23, 1989


Given the oppression in the world, and how I have internalized it it is not easy, but always worthwhile, to remember that I am a complete human being, committed to making my own decisions.

One of the decisions I have made as an adult is to reaffirm the importance of my being a Jew. I am proud of us. Like other peoples, we have internalized our oppression, but we have a powerful religion and culture that speaks of the strength of our ancestors' ability to overcome the difficulties put in their way. Our victories are seen in our music, dance, voices, literature and, above all else, the hearts and minds of the people who call themselves Jews.

One of the central parts of Judaism is the emphasis on passing this rich cultural heritage on to our children, grandchildren, and others whom we love. A central part of the Passover Seder is the youngest child asking questions about the story of liberation so s/he can make it her/his own.  In Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, boys and girls demonstrate their desire and ability to participate in the religious tradition, and this marks their transition from childhood to adulthood, A bris (circumcision ritual) is part of this tradition of passing on our heritage.

One effect of oppression is that people who have been imposed upon
are conditioned to impose upon others.

One effect of oppression is that people who have been imposed upon are conditioned to impose upon others. Jews have for centuries been conditioned to impose the rule of authorities onto other members of the working class. In the present day Middle East, Israel has been forced to be the agent of the capitalist United States government policy towards Arabs. This has captured the attention of the world, and rightly so.

Circumcision KnifeAnother manifestation of this phenomenon, circumcision, has not yet gotten much attention. In general, the needs, wishes, and cries of the young go unnoticed or unheeded. We are treated as silly and unimportant as young people. Young boys are especially conditioned to not feel or express our feelings. Circumcision is imposing upon infant boys without their consent. Circumcision has become an integral, crucial rite in the Jewish culture. Exploring this as a client, I have found absolutely no reason, medical or otherwise, to continue this custom except for its long-standing importance to the Jewish community, not a good reason in and of itself. I have been to a number of bris. At none of them did a single person note the pain that every eight-day-old boy was expressing, despite the fact that a lot of alcohol had  been given to the boy to numb him. In fact, the child  was not really given a lot of attention of any kind; the ritual was much more for the parents, the father in particular, and their usually numerous guests.

...(We) must not do anything hurtful to another human being,
including and especially our children.

The Jewish people are a good people; we have too long been stereotyped in many hurtful ways because of our cultural differences and internalized oppression. At the same time we must examine own attitudes, and in the name of ahavat Yisroel -  love of Jews, love of all people, love of God - we must not do anything hurtful to another human being, including and especially our children.

My son, Sammy, at this point is a healthy eight-month-old fetus. I am sure he eagerly awaits his birth and fully expects to be completely warmly welcomed and well thought of. I will do nothing to contradict that picture of the universe. Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come; it is time to stop circumcision, whatever have been the reasons and/or distresses that have perpetuated it.

Later -

(The following is part of a statement Moshe made during the bris for his son which included members of his family, friends, and co-workers in the Orthodox Jewish community, some of whom were in disagreement with his decision not to circumcise his son. -Ed.)

As part of our community, Yehudit and I would like to welcome all of you today. We are deeply appreciative of all of you coming. We welcome your becoming part of our son's own community. I am going to start this short ceremony with a quote from Selma Fraiberg's The Magic Years, as quoted in Yehudit's sister Cheryl's new book, In Celebration of Babies:

The magician is seated in his high chair and looks upon the world with favor. He is at the height of his powers. If he closes his eyes, he causes the world to disappear. If he opens his eyes, he causes the world to come back. If there is harmony within him, the world is harmonious. If rage shatters his inner harmony, the unity of the world is shattered. If desire arises within him, he utters the magic syllables that cause the desired object to appear. His wishes, his thoughts, his gestures, his noises command the universe.

We very much want Sammy to be in charge of his world, of his life, as this quote describes. We want him to always be involved and to make his own decisions. As Emerson once said, "Infancy conforms to nobody; all conform to it." Sammy, like the rest of us, is part of Jewish heritage and tradition. At the same time, this is a fresh moment, and his future, like ours, will be different than the past. Bris means covenant. On this day, I am making the following commitment to Sammy, to Yehudit, to my family:

I will never intentionally hurt either of you; I will not commit verbal violence toward you Yehudit; I will do my very best and eventually succeed to never argue with you again. And to you, Sammy, I promise I will not hurt you physically or in any other way, come what may. Today, as always, we want to give you the very best start in life possible.

Finally,  I want to speak about Klal Yisroel, the community of Jews. We are a wonderfully diverse people, and sometimes we forget that difference is a good thing. Each of us brings different thoughts, actions, and beliefs into what is collectively called Judaism. Today, the Jewish world is deeply involved in serious disputes with each other, and this ceremony, what is and what is not being done today, creates apparently another. I appeal to each of us to wrestle with our own beliefs inside ourselves, and with each other, respectfully. I appeal to each of us to learn to disagree, rather than think that what we are doing is always right. Only then, to me, will our true sense of community thrive. Thank you again for coming. Yehudit will now conduct a water ceremony, and we will officially name the baby.

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