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Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective

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Miriam Pollack
from Jewish Women Speak Out
p. 171-185, Canopy Press 1995


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Circumcision is at the heart of gender imbalance in Judaism. For a male Jew, it is a critical mark of identity, an assumed rite of passage, secular or sacred, into the peoplehood and/or faith of Judaism. For a Jewish woman, it may have the same meaning until she is pregnant, with the possibility of bearing a son. It is then that a woman's deepest instincts may arise trembling out of her culturally anesthetized stupor to whisper or plead, "Please, let it be a girl."

Second, my purpose is to challenge Jewish women to reassert our ancient authority
to name and celebrate what is holy and what is not holy.

Many mothers of Jewish sons, including myself, have confronted this dilemma with shame. We are not only ashamed to object to circumcision, we are ashamed to acknowledge, much less express our feelings. We dare not take them seriously. To do so, we know, is to oppose what our tradition has named holy for hundreds of generations. To do so is to meddle dangerously with Jewish identity and by implication, we are told, with Jewish survival itself. To do so is to risk a potentially damaging confrontation with one’s parents, one's in-laws and, possibly, one’s spouse. To do so is to trespass upon the exclusive territory of male bonding. And to do so is to assert female, mother-wisdom as a greater power and source of authority than the patriarchal understanding of holiness. The price is too high. We tell ourselves, "If we don't have our baby sons circumcised, they will be rejected by their people. We will be sacrificing their Jewish identity." We capitulate. I did. I did, for all of these reasons, and the screams of my babies remain imbedded in my bones and still haunt the edges of my mind.

My goal in writing this chapter is twofold. First, and of paramount importance, is to examine what we are doing physically, psychologically and spiritually, when we allow our baby bays to be circumcised. While also taking into consideration the historical contexts, we must look at these questions carefully, one at a time, if we are to be fully responsible for the choices we make on behalf of our sons. Second, my purpose is to challenge Jewish women to reassert our ancient authority to name and celebrate what is holy and what is not holy.

In order to gain some perspective on the practice of circumcision, it is useful to look at its global pattern. Eighty percent of the world's population including Europe, the former U.S.S.R., China and Japan have never engaged in the practice of circumcision. Generally, circumcision has been practiced only within the context of tribal or religious traditions This is true for Jews, Muslims, most black Africans, non-white Australians and others. The exception is the United States where routine circumcision has gained widespread acceptance.

Several factors have converged to affect the status of circumcision in this country. One was the advent of preventive medicine which included not only the advocacy of vitamins, hygiene and diet, but also surgical removal of potentially troubling body parts (i.e., tonsils, adenoids, breasts, etc.) as legitimate prophylaxis for maintaining optimum health. The foreskin qualified as a site of potential trouble due to the extreme conditions experienced by men at war, a familiar experience for American men during the first half of the twentieth century. Soggy trenches and humid jungles where little possibility for a shower or change of clothing existed were not hospitable environments for maintaining minimal foreskin hygiene. The military soon added its authority to the voices advocating foreskin removal as a health benefit.

The Jewish world was not immune to the Victorian mentality.

Both the medical and military perspectives on circumcision were greatly influenced by echoes of 19th century Victorianism which seeped into the medical literature through the writings of the highly credentialed Dr. P. C. Remondino, who in 1892 published a book entitled, History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present: Moral and Physical Reasons for its Performance. He stated that circumcision should be implemented to eradicate the widespread and dangerous occurrence of masturbation which could lead to all manner of ills, including insanity. Far from being dismissed for its pseudo-medical and perverse arguments, this point of view was unquestioned for nearly 70 years in the United States as well as in England. The book was reprinted without change in 1974 and was referred to by one physician writing in Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality (1974) as a book that was "pertinent and carefully thought out" (Valentine, 1974). Finally, in the 1940's, articles began to appear challenging this point of view. The rate of circumcision in Great Britain has since dropped to about one percent of newborn males, whereas in the United Status it is estimated to be fifty-nine percent (Wallerstein, 1985).

The Jewish world was not immune to the Victorian mentality. Even though any hygienic function of circumcision was specifically denied according to medieval and contemporary orthodox Jewish writings, in 1911 Dr. Joseph Preuss claimed in his definitive work, Biblical-Talmudic Medicine that ritual circumcision imparted health benefits. Dr. P.C. Remondino was listed as his sole reference substantiating this "fact" (p. 544). Some secular Jews as well as fundamentalist Christians still justify circumcision as divinely inspired ritual of health care, even though, traditionally, Judaism has viewed circumcision as a spiritual rite.

Nevertheless, the so-called hygienic arguments for circumcision still persuade millions of secular Jews and non-Jews to circumcise their baby boys despite the statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics that "there is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn" (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1975). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists followed with a similar statement in 1978 (American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1983). The desperate arguments for circumcision include prevention of penile and cervical cancer, urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases. Let's examine these, one at a time.

The prevention of penile cancer is certainly a desirable goal. However, when one discovers that the prevalence of penile cancer is one to three cases per million and that the studies cited did not control for hygiene, the conclusion that sexual surgery is mandated for all infant males becomes highly suspect (Wallerstein, 1995). More infants die every year in the United States as a result of circumcisions than die of penile cancer (Cole, 1993).

"No one today seriously promotes circumcision as a prophylactic against cancer of any form.
No significant correlation between cancer and circumcision has ever been proved."

Circumcision as a deterrent for cervical cancer has received much publicity. This resulted from a book published in the early 1960's by Dr. S.I. McMillen who concluded that cancer of the cervix was linked to uncircumcised partners and that the Old Testament provided God-given protection against such affliction. What was not included in the research was the sexual behavior of women who tended to acquire cervical cancer. Indeed, it was later acknowledged that multiple sexual partners and intercourse at a young age were the primary influential factors in acquiring cervical cancer. The circumcision status of the partners was not significant, a conclusion which Dr. McMillen acknowledged in the second edition of his book, None of These Diseases (McMillen, 1984). Any connection between cervical cancer and circumcision is dismissed in a statement by Grossman and Posner written in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1981 They state, "No one today seriously promotes circumcision as a prophylactic against cancer of any form. No significant correlation between cancer and circumcision has ever been proved." (p 245)

Urinary tract infections, also referred to as U.T.I.'s, are a somewhat more complex issue. Those who advocate circumcision as a prophylaxis against U.T.I.'s usually cite research conducted by Wiswell et. al. (1986), in a United States Army Hospital on 400,000 infants. They reported a tenfold increase in the incidence of U.T.I.'s among uncircumcised boys. That sounds significant until you look carefully at the numbers and the methodology. The increase was from 0.11 percent to 1.12 percent. Therefore, the risk for uncircumcised boys is one in one hundred. The study also included female infants, who had a higher U.T.I. rate than the corresponding males. Furthermore, Wiswell had advised parents to gently retract the babies' foreskins in order to clean the glans, an action that is unnecessary, potentially irritating and a way to introduce bacteria to the site (Wallerstein, 1986). The study also did not control for those babies that were being breastfed. The protective bacteria ingested by a baby from its mother's milk may well have a significant prophylactic effect on the potentially pathological bacteria found in some of the infants. In European countries, in the rare instances when U. T.I.'s do develop, they are usually amenable to medical treatment and do not require surgery.

[NOHARMM note: In 1997, a an eight-year prospective study of UTI was published that concluded, "Regardless of circumcision status, infants who present with their first UTI at 6 months or less are likely to have an underlying genitourinary abnormality. In the remaining patients with normal underlying anatomy and UTI, we found as many circumcised infants as those who retained their foreskin." Bottom line: UTIs are caused by a defect in the urinary tract NOT the presence of a foreskin. See Blue_ArrowD096.gif (140 bytes)The Incidence of Genitourinary Abnormalities in Circumcised and Uncircumcised Boys Presenting with an Initial Urinary Tract Infection by 6 Months of Age. Elizabeth R. Mueller, M.S.M.E., George Steinhardt M.D., Shahida Naseer M.D., Abstract 121, Pediatrics, September 1997, Vol. 100, page 580/supplement]

The contention that circumcision helps prevent venereal disease is completely contradicted by the facts. The Centers for Disease Control reported that the syphilis rate has increased seventy-five percent since 1985, and yet, those who have contracted the disease were born when the neonatal circumcision rate was at its highest. Likewise, the incidence of gonorrhea and genital herpes has risen sharply (Wallerstein, 1986). Neither can circumcision seriously be considered an effective prophylaxis against the transmission of HIV. American men who have been acutely vulnerable to the AIDS virus are amongst the most highly circumcised male populations in the world.

There is epidemic ignorance about the structure and function of the normal penis.

If the medical arguments for circumcision were sound, surely we would expect to see other medically advanced and technologically sophisticated societies in Europe and Japan implementing this practice, or, if not, suffering the dire consequences in statistically significant numbers which this highly flawed research would predict. Neither is true.

If a foreskin is well cared for and, therefore, does not present a medical liability, does it have any significant purpose? Our junior high classes in human sexuality and reproduction notwithstanding, there is epidemic ignorance about the structure and function of the normal penis. We are told, and I think most of us have believed, that the foreskin is simply an extra flap of skin of no vital significance. Yet, there are four very important functions which the foreskin serves. First, it stretches to cover the penis which increases by fifty percent in diameter and length upon erection. Without this extra skin, the skin of the circumcised penis is pulled taut when erect and sometimes is bowed, causing discomfort during erection or intercourse. Secondly, the foreskin protects the glans (the head of the penis). In infancy it shields the glans from contamination of urine and feces, and throughout life, it maintains the glans as the internal organ it was intended to be. Without the foreskin, the sensitive mucous membrane of the glans becomes dried up and is keratinized, a process unnatural thickening that occurs and lessens sensitivity (Ritter, 1992), Thirdly, because the foreskin represents one third or more of the most erogenous tissue of the penis, having a greater concentration of fully developed, complex nerve endings than the glans, the pleasurable function of this delicate tissue is lost (Dr. John R. Taylor as cited by Bigelow, 1992). Finally, the presence of the foreskin facilitates pleasurable intercourse by increasing sensitivity and enhancing the pleasure dynamic of the couple (Ritter, 1992). Altering form inevitably alters function.

When form and function are altered, the mind and spirit are also affected.

When form and function are altered, the mind and spirit are also affected. Consider, first, what happens before a circumcision can even be performed: the infant penis is usually rubbed with an antiseptic. Trustingly, his little body responds to his first overtly sexual experience. Next, the most sensitive part of his fully receptive body is cut, crushed and ripped or scraped away from the head of his penis.

Mothers, pale with terror, hovering in the background, have repeatedly been told that they are "over-reacting" as they witness their newborn's piercing screams, gasps and flailing head. The instinctive terror of the mother is trivialized and the trauma to her baby is ignored, The few infants who hardly cry at all are usually those who have been sedated by the drugs administered to the mother during labor which may, according to T. Berry Brazelton. M.D. (1970), take "at least a week" for the newborn to excrete (p. 3 0).

Until recently, much of the medical profession denied that infants were capable of experiencing pain. Even heart and brain surgeries were performed on infants without benefit of anesthesia or sedatives within the last ten years (Lawson, 1990). According to Dr. Ronald L. Poland, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on the Fetus and Newborn, unanesthetized surgery on young infants "is not a rare event" in the United States (Woods, 1987). However, science has finally confirmed what mothers have known for millennia: infants do indeed experience pain. Doctors Anand and Hickey of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital, Boston in an article entitled, Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus, have written the following after observing neonatal circumcisions:

Physiologic responses to painful stimuli have been well documented in neonates of various gestational ages and are reflected in hormonal, metabolic, and cardio-respiratory changes similar to but greater than those observed in adult subjects. Other responses in newborn infants are suggestive of integrated emotional and behavioral responses to pain and are retained in memory long enough to modify subsequent behavior patterns (Anand &Hickey, 1987).

Because the centers for pain and pleasure reside in such close proximity to each other in the human brain, it has been found that flooding the neonatal brain with massive trauma creates physiological changes in brain structure (Prescott, 1989). How this may impact the maturing personality's confusion of pleasure and pain, or simply create an inexplicable anxiety relating to pleasure cannot be quantified, but remains a very serious question.

Trust is the ground of all later development and it is focused entirely on the mother.

The psychological implications of circumcision may be profound. Erik Erikson has established that the first and most critical task of psychological development is trust (Erikson, 1950). He states that trust is the ground of all later development and it is focused entirely on the mother. Dr. Rima Laibow, a psychiatrist in New York, who has invented a mode of regressive therapy, points out that because the mother has been the entire universe to the infant since its life began in utero, it is imprinted to experience all pleasure and all pain as flowing from the mother. Mother controls all. Dr. Laibow states:

Clinical work in Dyadic Repair and developmental psychology make it clear that information encoded in utero and later, is retained in somatic, cognitive and affective storage. An infant does retain significant memory truces of traumatic events. When a child is subjected to intolerable, overwhelming pain, it conceptualizes mother as both participatory and responsible regardless of mother's intent. When in fact, mother is truly complicit, as in giving permission for unanesthetized surgery, (i.e., circumcision) the perception of the infant of her culpability and willingness to have him harmed is indelibly emplaced. The consequences for impaired bonding are significant (Laibow, 1991).

Dr. Laibow states that such a trauma creates an "enormous obstacle to the development of basic trust between mother and child" which must be acknowledged to the maturing child if healing is to occur. She goes on to insist that if circumcisions are to be performed, they should be done only with the use of anesthesia (Laibow, 199 1).

One of the most forceful statements opposing circumcision for its possible psychological repercussions was made by Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1976:

I am in favor of leaving the penis alone. Pediatric opinion is swinging away from routine circumcision as unnecessary and at least mildly dangerous. I also believe that there is a potential danger of emotional harm resulting from the operation. Parents should insist on convincing reasons for circumcision and there are no convincing reasons that I know of (as cited in Wallerstein, 1980).

The castration anxiety that is so often directed at Jewish women by Jewish men could be related to the trauma of circumcision and could be a root cause of the rampant ridicule of Jewish mothers. It may also be a contributing factor to the seemingly epidemic fears of intimacy and commitment which plague our male-female relationships. The implications are serious, serious enough to give us pause.

If circumcision cannot be justified on medical grounds, we need to probe further to understand its function in our tradition, It may be somewhat of a comfort for us to know that Jews didn't invent circumcision. It is a pre-Judaic rite originating in about the third millennium B.C.E., or perhaps even earlier, introduced into the Nile Valley by militant pastoral nomads, who were wandering cattle-raisers and aggressive warriors (De Meo, 1989).

Historically, this was a period of enormous disruption in which fundamental assumptions regarding gender and power were being challenged. The magnificent, highly developed and peaceful civilizations of the Neolithic agricultural era, which had flourished for three thousand years, were disintegrating under the impact of successive waves of Kurgan and nomadic invasions. This shift from the goddess worshipping matrilineal non-hierarchical cultures to the god worshipping, patriarchal, dominance and violence-based culture was actually the nexus of a cataclysmic paradigm shift whose ripples continue to resonate throughout the fabric of our contemporary secular and religious cultures. It is within this transitional historical context that circumcision emerged. [NOHARMM note: For more on this, read Blue_ArrowD096.gif (140 bytes)Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World by James DeMeo, Ph.D.]

Circumcision is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 17:9-14. Here God gives to Abraham the injunction that circumcision shall be a sign of the covenant throughout all the generations of males, even the slaves of the household, for Abraham is about to father a new nation. Traditionally, circumcision is what connects the Jewish males to their contemporary community of Jewish men as well as to their ancient lineage of Jewish forefathers and to the Jewish God whose voice is represented in the masculine gender.

The akedah is not only central as a religious text;
it is, I believe, a window to an historical shift of profound proportions.

The underlying tensions of gender and power between Sarah and Abraham are expressed in the conflicts with Hagar and Ishmael and culminate in the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It is in the drama of the akedah that Abraham and Sarah's competing authority over Isaac is resolved. More than a competition between personalities, a closer examination of the text reveals a critical clash of traditions. The akedah is not only central as a religious text; it is, I believe, a window to an historical shift of profound proportions.

In the story contained in Genesis 22 and 23 many sacrifices take place. No one emerges whole. All are transformed but only one person is destroyed, body and soul. It is not Isaac. It is Sarah. Sarah, who is unseen and unheard during the entire episode of the binding and intended murder of her child, is casually reintroduced in the beginning of the next chapter so that the reader may learn of her death. Even though the akedah is central to Jewish theology and liturgy, Sarah's sacrifice is hardly noted. What happened?

Abraham is called by God to take Isaac to be a sacrifice to this new male God. Sarah is not consulted. In Hebrew Sarah's exclusion is even more clear: Va-yomer kah-nah et bin-hah et yehid-hah asher - ahavtah et yitzhak (Genesis 22:2). While the English pronoun "your" or "you" could refer to singular or plural, masculine or feminine subjects, in Hebrew the singular, masculine second person suffix notes without possibility of ambiguity that God is addressing Abraham, and Abraham alone, as the sole parent of Isaac. "And he said, 'Take now your son, your only son, whom you love…'" It is odd that Isaac is referred to as Abraham's "only son", when, in fact, Abraham also fathered Ishmael. It is Sarah for whom Isaac is truly her only son, and it is Sarah who is excluded. Her motherhood is denied by God and ignored by Abraham, as he prepares to take her only child to sacrifice for this higher cause.

Sarah's authority as a mother and her position as the grand matriarch of her people is completely undermined by this God's demand and Abraham's compliance. She is utterly disempowered by this cataclysmic event. In this context her death makes sense. It is the defeat of the matriarch, the subordination of the mother that had to precede the new covenant. Abraham passed the test. He not only was willing to obey his God's command to attempt to sacrifice his most beloved son, but he also succeeded in subverting the mother's authority over her child. He is now worthy to become the primary progenitor of a nation. His manhood has been established in his faithfulness to his male God, his domination over his wife, his violence, albeit reluctant, towards his son and his seed will father the tribe.

What does this tell us about what devoted parents, particularly fathers,
are permitted, if not expected, to do to their children in the name of love?

Hundreds of years later, Christianity took this one step further: God loved His son so much that He not only demanded his sacrifice, He followed through with it. No sacrificial ram appeared for Jesus as had for Isaac. What does this tell us about what devoted parents, particularly fathers, are permitted, if not expected, to do to their children in the name of love? The precedent was set by the akedah.

I submit that this story, which lies at the nucleus of our religious and historical identity, is not only about faith. It is also, and most profoundly, about the shift of power and authority from women to men, about male domination which is always undergirded by the threat or implied threat of violence. The akedah is the definitive narrative of this paradigm shift.

Yet the matrilineal traditions of the biblical Jews were not so easily erased, even though patriarchy becomes established in Judaism through this story. Sarah's authority as mother of Isaac was ultimately defeated and her role as the primary progenitor of her tribe was undermined, and yet the Torah also reveals that those who were allowed to be buried in the cave of Machpelah were only Sarah's descent group. In her book Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis, Savina Teubal (1984) explains, "The ancestors of the Hebrews are only those whom the matriarchs accepted as members of their descent group. As Bakan accurately points out, 'Not all the offspring of Abraham are Israelites: the Israelites stem only from Sarah. Sarah is more definitely the ancestor of the Israelites than Abraham'" (p. 95).

The survival of the matrilineal tradition and its ongoing power in the lives of our people is apparent when we look at halachah, Jewish law. According to Orthodox Jewish law the answer to the question of Jewish identity is quite basic: if one is born of a Jewish mother, one is a Jew.

Circumcision arose to compete with matrilineal culture. It permitted the transfer of inheritance through patrilineal descent (Teubal, 1984). Just as the akedah bound Isaac and Abraham to the male God, so circumcision bonds the male child to the men of his community throughout time and space and to the male God.

The circumcision we practice today is based on the passage in Genesis 17 9-14, but it is, in fact, quite different from the circumcision practiced by our biblical ancestors. Prior to the time of Hellenic and later Roman influence, Jewish circumcision consisted of cutting off that part of the foreskin which extended beyond the glans leaving much of the foreskin intact. When some Jewish men desired to compete Greek style, nude, in the athletic competitions, they were roundly ridiculed for their mutilated penises. To the Greeks, exposing the glans was a sign of vulgarity, and cutting the body in order to please God was unthinkable. Hadrian outlawed circumcision as well as castration. Circumcision became a signal for persecution. Many Jews tried to hide their circumcisions in order to assimilate into Greek culture or later, to elude persecution by the Romans.

In order to prevent Jews from hiding their circumcisions by various methods of stretching and tying their remaining foreskins, in about 140 C.E. the rabbis demanded that in order for a circumcision to meet the standard of Jewish law, radical circumcision, or periah must be performed. Periah consists of the complete stripping and shearing of the foreskin (Kohler, 1 964).

Challenging circumcision can be an attack on Jewish identity
only if Jewish women don't count, for Jewish women have survived and
kept their identities intact for millennia without any need of altering their bodies.

It must have seemed more important to irreversibly mark and mutilate our Jewish sons, making them easy targets for oppressors, rather than to risk their survival, perhaps at the price of assimilation, with an intact body. How many thousands of Jewish boys and how many thousands of Jewish men have been lost throughout the ages because they were unable to "pass" when their lives depended on it? Was this the sacred intention of the covenant? Nevertheless, the more circumcision became associated with the terror of tribal survival, the more it became laminated to our Jewish identities. Now, to challenge circumcision is to imitate the oppressor; it is experienced as a direct assault on Jewish identity, assigning the critic instantaneous membership in the league of world class anti-Semites. And yet, challenging circumcision can be an attack on Jewish identity only if Jewish women don't count, for Jewish women have survived and kept their identities intact for millennia without any need of altering their bodies. Clearly, circumcision is serving functions far more subtle and more powerful than simply the survival and identity of the people of Israel.

The biblical injunction to circumcise speaks to a man about men. But circumcision is also a woman's issue, for on a subtle, but very potent level it is, like the akedah, about the primary disempowerment of the mother. At no other time is a woman so in touch with her most elemental and powerful mammalian instincts as after a birth, When, her culture tells her that in order for this male baby to be a man, to be part of the masculine community and bond with the male God, the men must cut her male baby on his most sensitive male organ, this mother is inevitably in conflict with her entire life-giving feminine biology. And if a woman is made to distrust her most basic instinct to protect her newborn child, what feelings can she ever trust?

This violent disruption of the maternal-infant bond is not an accidental consequence of this ancient male bonding rite. It fits the pattern of a multitude of rituals that are prevalent cross-culturally which serve to disrupt the very delicate early hours and days of maternal-infant bonding: tight restrictive swaddling, foot binding, early baptism in cold water, smoking of the newborn and mother, ear piercing within the first hour of birth, etc. Circumcision is one of the most violent of these rituals (Odent, 199 1).

When the mother is disempowered at the birth of her son, the relationship between husband and wife is artificially distorted, and that child's manhood is also transformed. Eighteen years later, the mother is often forced to relinquish him again, She has been signaled from birth by the circle of men with the knife: woman, you cannot protect this male child. This drama is repeated by military conscription, the combative and violent initiation into manhood. Once again, the mother must suppress her natural protest as her male child is ushered by the men into a larger circle of men, not with knives, but with weapons of immense destruction. In this sense circumcision foreshadows conscription.

And then, I understood: these mothers love their daughters just as we love our sons, and they,
like we, are convinced that what is being done to their children is for their own good.

Circumcision is also a female phenomenon, and even though it may seem unrelated, let's look for a moment at this practice Over 84 million African and Arab girls and women in the world today have been circumcised (Hosken, 1989). Certainly, physically, psychologically and sexually, female circumcision is far more devastating than male circumcision, and yet the socially, culturally and religiously motivated forces which demand that a knife be ritually incised to a child's genitals are not so different from our own. At the Second International Symposium on Circumcision held in San Francisco in 1991, a video presentation of these procedures was shown with full close-up color views and complete audio reproduction. It was easily one of the most viscerally wrenching experiences I have ever had. The entire audience attendees sobbed and shook as we witnessed the shrieking, terrorized young girls having their clitorises cut off and often their labia incised and removed…and always in the presence of their mothers. I wanted to scream, "Where is your love for your daughter? Where is your primal need to protect your beloved child?" And then, I understood: these mothers love their daughters just as we love our sons, and they, like we, are convinced that what is being done to their children is for their own good. The elemental instincts of protection of children pale before the greater forces of tribal belonging, connection to one's family, community and ancestors, their naming of holiness and the consensus of what makes one lovable.

So we use the word "circumcision," but this is a euphemism What we are really talking about for females as well as males is culturally and religiously sanctioned sexual mutilation and child abuse. I do not believe any parent consciously inflicts this trauma on her or his child. However, our capacity to deny and rationalize is limitless and perhaps, psychically necessary, lest we open ourselves to the immense grief that inevitably follows the awakening to the profound injury we have caused to our most beloved treasures: our beautiful, perfect babies.

This treatment of the newborn is not consistent with traditional Jewish values. Judaism places infinite value on life, particularly human life. The principal of pikuah nefesh is fundamental to Judaism; that is, for the sake of saving a life, even the Sabbath may be desecrated. Sh'mirat haguf, the protection of one's body, is a high biblical priority. Tattooing, cutting the flesh and amputation are all forbidden. Consciousness of animal suffering permeates both biblical and Talmudic thought as expressed by the concept of tsa-ar ba-alei hayim, or compassion for living things. In the fourth commandment, animals as well as humans are commanded to rest on the Sabbath and, according to the Talmud, Sabbath observance may be broken to ease the suffering of an animal. The laws of kashrut are specific and elaborate pertaining to permissible animal slaughter with the intention of reducing and regulating animal pain if we are to be a meat-eating people. The precept of ba-al tashhit also informs biblical and Rabbinic thought. We are not to destroy the fruit trees, even during a war. The notions of sh'mitah and yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, require that every seventh year, and again in the fiftieth year, the earth be allowed to rest from deliberate economic use. The message seems to be clear: we are stewards of this earth and it is our task to protect it and, more than that, l'havdeel bain kodesh v'chol, to make distinctions between the holy and the profane, so that we may consciously and continuously sanctify life.

Circumcision is antithetical to this very powerful life-affirming tradition.
Its true intention was not unknown to the rabbis...

Circumcision is antithetical to this very powerful life-affirming tradition. Its true intention was not unknown to the rabbis and is best revealed in the words of Rambam, the acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides, the great twelfth century Jewish philosopher, physician and Judaic scholar, so revered in Jewish tradition that it is said, "From Moses to Moses there was no one like Moses." Here is what Rambam wrote in his well known and widely influential work, The Guide of the Perplexed (1190):

Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible, It has been thought that circumcision perfects what is defective congenitally. This gave the possibility to everyone to raise an objection and to say: How can natural things be defective so that they need to be perfected from outside, all the more because we know how useful the foreskin is for that member? In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting morally. The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him (Genesis Rabbah LXXX). In my opinion this is the strongest of reasons for circumcision. (p. 609).

Circumcision is fundamental to patriarchy, but it is not holy.

There they are, the twin fears: the fear of woman and the fear of pleasure. Circumcision is the antidote which both assuages and perpetuates these ancient terrors. This is the achievement and true purpose of circumcision. It achieves this by violently breaching the maternal-infant bond shortly after birth, by mutilating and marking the baby's sexual organ, by disempowering the mother at the height of her instinctual need to protect her infant, by bonding the baby to the men and the male God, and by psychosexually wounding the manhood still asleep in the unsuspecting baby boy. Circumcision is fundamental to patriarchy, but it is not holy.

Ultimately, we all must know that it is not possible to violate or suppress
the sexuality of one gender without doing harm to the other.

Recently a well-known rabbi spoke about his need to remind converts that they are entering into a religion that is not perfect, but is perfectible. Even though this comment was not made in the context of circumcision, I feel it is eminently applicable to Jewish women in the process of reweaving the fabric of Jewish tradition. Specifically, we need ceremonies to harken to the voice of Sarah so that we may honor and celebrate the traditional moments of children's separation from mothers, such as weaning and bar mitzvah. We also need ceremonies which will support and celebrate a woman's transformation into motherhood: ceremonies that will validate and affirm her natural and elemental life-giving and life-protecting instincts as the essence of holiness, deserving of community support and blessing. We must envision a Judaism that can welcome all of our children, nonviolently, into the brit b'lee milah, a covenant without circumcision. We need to support and affirm men's struggle to revise the old notion of masculinity which is rooted in fear of women. We invite men to explore ways to ritualize and celebrate masculinity and the critical passages of male bonding in ways that are life-affirming, nonviolent and protective of the sacred wholeness of men. Only in these ways will we begin the restoration of the holy and establish tikkun, healing, between the sexes.

Ultimately, we all must know that it is not possible to violate or suppress the sexuality of one gender without doing harm to the other. Opposing circumcision is men's work; but it is also most profoundly, women's work. Our babies know and we know: it begins with us. 

Support and information for Jewish parents on
alternative (non-cutting) bris ceremonies:

Norm Cohen
P.O. Box 333
Birmingham, MI 48012
Tel 248-642-5703
Moshe Rothenberg, C.S.W.
Alternative Bris Support
   and Ceremonies
Brooklyn, NY
Ron Goldman, Ph.D.
Jewish Associates of CRC
P.O. Box 232
Boston, MA 02133
Tel 617-523-0088
Jewish Associates of CRC makes known to the Jewish community that a growing number of Jews either have not circumcised their son or would choose not to circumcise a future son. It is an opportunity for Jews who take this position to declare themselves and to be counted. A confidential list of Jews who contact the Circumcision Resource Center for this purpose is maintained. Learn how you can join Blue_ArrowD096.gif (140 bytes)Jewish Associates of CRC.

Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation
P.O. Box 56178, Tel Aviv 61561,  Israel    Tel 972-9-8949236    E-mail:

Af-Milah - Second Thoughts on Brit Milah The Israeli Newsletter Against Circumcision  (in Hebrew)
P.O. Box 207,  Rosh-Pinah 12000,  Israel   Tel 972-51-979568    E-mail:

Brit Shalom Providers Brit Shalom is a non-cutting naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys.


American academy of pediatrics committee on the fetus and newborn: Standards and recommendations for hospital care of newborn infants, Ed. 5. (1971). Evanston, IL American Academy of Pediatrics.

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (1983). Guidelines for Perinatal Care, (p. 87). Chicago, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Anand, K. J. S. & Hickey, P. R. (1987). Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. The New England Journal of Medicine 317(21), 1326.

Bigelow, J. (1992). The joy of uncircumcising, Aptos,CA:Hourglass.

Brazelton, T. B. (1970). Doctor and child, New York: Delacourte Press/Seymour Lawrence.

Cole, L. (1983, August 11), Sex matters: Is circumcision correct for newborn boys? San Francisco Examiner, B-7.

DeMeo, J. (1989, July/August). The geography of genital mutilations. The Truth Seeker, 9-13.

Denniston, G. C. (1989, July/August). First, do no ham! The Truth Seeker, 35-38.

Gimbutas, M. (1 99 1). The civilization of the goddess. San Francisco: Harper.

Grossman, E. & Posner, N. A. (1981). Surgical circumcision of neonates: A history of its development. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 58, 241-246.

The Holy Scriptures. (1955), Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Husker, F. P. (1989, July/August). Female genital mutilation: strategies for eradication. The Truth Seeker, 22-30.

Kohler, K. (1964). Circumcision. The Jewish encyclopedia. (p. 93). New York: KTAV.

Laibow, R. (1991, May). Circumcision and its relationship to attachment impairment. Paper presented at the Second International Symposium an Circumcision, San Francisco, CA.

Lawson, J. R. (1990, Oct/Nov/Dec). The politics of newborn pain.. Mothering Magazine, 57, 41-47.

Maimonides, M. (1190/1963). The guide of the perplexed (S. Pines, Trans.) (Vol. 2, Part 3, Chapter 49). Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Odent, M. (1991, April), Colostrum, prepuce & civilization. Paper presented at the Second International Symposium on Circumcision San Francisco, CA.

Prescott, J. W. (1989, July and August). Genital pain vs. genital pleasure Why the one and not the other? The Truth Seeker, 14-21.

Preuss J. (1911/1978). Biblical-Talmudic medicine. (F. Rosner, Trans.). Berlin: Sanhedrin Press. 544.

Remondino, P. C. (1892/1900). History of circumcision from the earliest times to the present: Moral and physical reasons for its performance (pp, 254-255). New York: F.A. Davis.

Ritter, T. (1992). Say no to circumcision! Aptos, CA: Hourglass.

Teubal, S. (1984). Sarah the priestess: The first matriarch of Genesis. Athens, OH. Swallow Press.

Valentine, R.J. (Pseudonym) (1974). Adult circumcision: A personal report. Medical Aspects Human Sexuality 8, 42.

Wallerstein, E. (1980). Circumcision: An American health fallacy. New York: Springer.

Wallerstein, E. (1985, February). Circumcision: The uniquely American enigma. Reprint from paper presented at the Symposium conducted at the meeting of Advances in Pediatric Urology, Urologic Clinics of North America, 12(l).

Wallerstein, E. (1986). Circumcision: Information, misinformation, disinformation. San Anselmo, CA: NOCIRC.

Wiswell, T.E, & Roscelli, J. D. (1986). Corroborative evidence for the decreased incidence of urinary tract infections in circumcised male infants. Pediatrics, 78 (1).

Woods, M. (1987, September 6). Infants undergo surgery without anesthetic aid, Sunday Herald, Monterey, CA. Section B, pp. 1, 4.

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