A cut above the rest

News  Jerusalem Post. Thursday, 21 November 2002.

Hilary Leila Kreiger

Opposition to circumcision rises in Israel

A small but growing number of Israelis are vociferously opposed to circumcision while the majority of the population, from secular through to Orthodox, believe the brit-mila ceremony is an essential element of Jewish culture and religion.

Udi weighed his choices carefully. On the one hand, he could inflict what he considered irreparable damage and suffering on his newborn son. On the other, he could inflict enduring shame and pain on his father. He could sever a small flap of skin from his baby's penis; or he could sever his relationship with his parent.

It was [either] hurting my father or hurting my child, the Tel Aviv-based hi-tech worker recalls. I decided my father could live with this. My child I'm not willing to harm.

So Udi did what a marginal but increasing number of Israelis are doing: He opted not to circumcise his son.

On the eighth day after his grandson's birth, Udi's father rang to ask if his grandson had been circumcised and if his son understood the consequences of his choice. Udi replied that he did. His parents didn't phone him for the next two years.

I expected them [my parents] to shun me and I was willing to pay that price.

The excommunication lasted until the birth of another child, this time a girl. Cajoled by family, Udi's parents took the opportunity just a few months ago to break their silence and visit their new granddaughter.

Now, Udi says, My father even shakes my hand. But there is a wall between us. He won't hug me as he used to.

Though Udi's father is secular like himself, Udi understood his grief: His son, the one he raised, crossed the line and did something unthinkable, and he was so ashamed. I really felt for him.

The experience, says Udi's wife Ronit, who asked that the family's last name not be used, was the worst among the 200 couples who form the support group she started two and a half years ago for parents who choose not to perform a brit mila. After the initial shock and anger, most parents generally accept their children's decision. But that doesn't mean it's easy to withstand the societal pressure to circumcise - as almost all Israeli parents of boys do perform the ceremony - which is largely what prompted Ronit to form  External link Kahal, or Parents' Group for Whole Children.

The pressure to conform propels droves of parents who would otherwise reject the ritual to go through with it, according to Rani Kasher of Rosh Pina. He produces a Hebrew-language publication,  External link Af-Mila (which can mean both No circumcision and Say nothing), for parents who are considering skipping the snipping.

He began the periodical because most of the initial information he found on the subject was in English and not readily available in Hebrew. Countries such as the US have well-established anti-circumcision movements in which Jews often play prominent roles.

Kasher says, I don't see any reason why I should cut my son's genitals. There is no reason and I don't think I have the right, even as a parent, to cut a normal part of his body just because other people do it.

Cultural pressure persuaded Hanoch Ben-Yami, a philosophy professor at  External link Tel Aviv University, to circumcise his son after his birth three years ago even though he had previously attacked the practice in the Hebrew press.

His wife, he explains, worried about how society would treat him. But it turns out a neighborhood kindergarten had three uncircumcised boys last year and two now.

Nothing of the sort would have been imaginable five or 10 years ago, so we can see things have really changed, he says.

Kasher thinks that's only just the beginning, even though right now his movement is a fringe one. He foresees a time when the practice will be relegated to history books. Eventually I think religious people, too, will stop doing it. But it will take years.

But perhaps not in Europe. If certain members of the Swedish parliament get their way, theirs will become the first country to outlaw the procedure. A bill introduced in the nation's Riksdag last month would forbid circumcision on any boy under the age of 15 except in cases of medical necessity.

Hopefully they will succeed and they will be the first nation in the world to recognize circumcision for what it is - a crime, enthuses Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin, who leads the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation.

He hopes other European countries will follow Sweden's lead, even though, he says, You don't have to outlaw circumcision because it's already illegal to cut any organ from a minor if they don't want or need it done.

Rabbi Philip Spectre, who leads the Conservative  External link Great Synagogue in Stockholm, thinks differently. Changing the law and making it impossible to circumcise our children at eight days old is an infringement of religious rights.

He has organized an effort to counter the proposal, since he says the Jewish community was blind-sided by a law passed last summer requiring anesthetics and a medical professional accompanying the brit-mila surgery.

A law like that does not bode well for the ability of Jews to practice ritual freely in Europe, says Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative  External link Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a practicing mohel, of the proposal. He points out that few people in Sweden perform circumcisions except those who do so for religious reasons - Jews and Muslims.

Spectre stresses that he doesn't see anti-Semitism as the main motivation for the proposed bill.

There's a very strong feeling in Sweden that the Swedish people and government should be at the forefront of [protecting] rights, especially children's rights, he says. The law passed after a local Muslim boy died from complications from medication administered in connection with a circumcision.

It might also be coming from a not-so-elegant reason - that in Sweden, the newcomers, the immigrants are viewed with suspicion, Spectre adds.

These things often do have anti-Semitic elements involved, says Michael Meyer, a visiting professor of Jewish history at the  External link Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is happening in Sweden at a time that there is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, which is often anti-Semitic.

But even the hint of anti-Semitic reasons for the bill's proposal angers Zoossmann-Diskin.

They cry anti-Semitism and this is the end of the discussion, he says. It allows them not to deal with the issue of mutilation and the right to have an intact body.

The issue, according to opponents of circumcision, includes the moral ramifications of cutting one's child and the psychological impacts stemming from the trauma. They claim that the level of discomfort experienced by the child increases his later response to pain and hurts the bond between the baby and his mother. They also maintain that circumcision diminishes sexual pleasure and that there is no medical reason to remove the foreskin.

But Dr. Orly Prat, who heads the urology services at Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital, recommends the procedure on medical grounds - though he advocates using a mohel rather than a doctor to perform the operation since mohels specialize in only one kind of surgery.

Prat points to lower rates of penile cancer, urinary infections, and communication of sexually transmitted diseases - notably HIV - in circumcised men.

He dismisses suggestions of reduced sexual sensation or lasting psychological damage from the pain. He says that in the course of a year, he usually sees only one case in which an infant requires serious medical attention because of mistakes made during circumcision.

Americans - who unlike Europeans routinely practice non-religious circumcision - perform the operation on approximately 60 percent of the male population, down from nearly 90 percent a generation or two ago.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine circumcision but in 1995  CIRP logo [Note: actually 1999]  noted there are some medical benefits and that it's legitimate for parents to take religious and cultural traditions into account when deciding on the procedure.

Meyer, also a professor at the Reform  External link Hebrew Union College, says the arguments boil down to one bottom line: Over many, many centuries, boys have undergone this ritual, this operation, and there has not in fact been serious damage to them.

Spectre disputes the contention that brit mila causes lasting psychological harm, quipping, Jewish women are just as neurotic as Jewish men.

And Sacks acknowledges that medical justification for circumcision is scant - but that it's not the point.

I do not at all suggest that it's healthier to be circumcised, he says. But the claims of brit mila being barbaric, the claims of being unaesthetic, the claims of pain are all secondary, even if they were true. The bottom line is that it's a mitzva.

Noting the medical arguments on both sides, Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber of Jerusalem says, either way, There's something very powerful about making a physical statement about the covenant that every man has with God.

In that covenant, according to Chapter 17 of Genesis, God promises to make Abraham's people many and mighty and demands that Abraham and his offspring do the following: You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.

Farber explains that the religious concept behind the act is that a covenant of the flesh is symbolic of a covenant of the heart ... By cutting, it really demonstrates that there are two sides to a covenant. The dual aspects signify that responsibility goes both ways, and that man must take an active role in the world around him.

It is a way in which man perfects the body. Man perfects what God has given, he says. Man can't sit aside and wait for God to do everything.

He adds that it's also an act of cultural significance. I'm making a statement of dedication toward my ancestors, Farber explains. It's a very profound statement that I bind myself to that ancestral tradition, and that's what being part of tradition is all about. I'm not just bonding myself to a ritual that my contemporaries and peers think is important.

Ronit, co-founder of Kahal, gives a different rationale for the ritual's staying power even among secular Jews who have abandoned other trappings of tradition: Everything else is gone. Shabbat is gone. Kashrut is gone. So they hold onto this thing, because it's easy to hold onto... You only have to do it once, and you do it to someone else. It's like paying a bill to someone. Once you've paid, you're free to go.

But Emma Youval, a Jerusalemite whose firstborn son was circumcised last year, says it was precisely the sense of connection Farber describes that struck her during the ceremony.

From a cultural point of view, I felt that I was reaching back through the generations to biblical history and connecting with the forefathers and -mothers.

Each mother all the way back through history had had to hand over her child to someone who was going to cut it, to mutilate it basically, and you had to have this faith, says Youval.

She admits that it was scary, but says she never considered not performing the ritual, which in the end means: That's it. He's a member of the community and he can never deny it and the community can never deny it. 

That identification explains its nearly universal appeal, according to Meyer. There's a tremendous symbolic significance to brit mila and I think people recognize that not only in Israel but in the Diaspora as well, he says. This is recognized as a mark of distinction of being a Jew.

Those opposed to circumcision, though, maintain the opposite.

It's not something unique to Jews. Muslims circumcise their sons. In the States more than half the population is circumcised, says Ben-Yami. It's not something that distinguishes a Jew from a non-Jew.

Cultures throughout the ancient Middle East - including those of Egypt and Syria - practiced the custom. Today Muslims also circumcise, though often at a later age than Jews.

But Farber says that does not detract from the ritual.

This is a great example of a tradition we actually share with the Arabs, he says. Maybe this is an opportunity for bonding instead of hatred... It can be the basis of shared dialogue.

And indeed, the Swedish Jewish community has begun to work with the local Muslim population to combat the anti-circumcision bill.

We are cooperating with the Muslims in order to form a united front, Spectre explains, noting the communities have begun to share information and coordinate their efforts.

Spectre has set up a Web site and devised an action plan which includes lobbying the government and soliciting help from world Jewry.

Willy Sallomon of Kfar Saba, who used to be the chairman of the Jewish community in Stockholm and spends part of each year in Sweden, praised Spectre's efforts, but says the bill has little chance of becoming law. He explains that the private bill was initiated by two parliament members and would need to pass through a series of committees before being recommended to the government. At that point, the government would be able to choose whether to submit it for binding approval.

Sallomon doubts that will happen, given that the circumcision law passed last year stipulates the practice be reviewed in four years, not one. In addition, bill sponsors Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin and Inger Rene come from the conservative Moderate Party, currently in opposition to the ruling Social Democrats.

Though many Israeli circumcision critics think such a legal prohibition is untenable in this country, four years ago Zoossmann-Diskin's group attempted to do exactly that. His association unsuccessfully petitioned the  External link High Court of Justice, claiming that circumcision is in contravention of the Basic Law:  External link Human Dignity and Freedom.

Zoossmann-Diskin has no sons and therefore hasn't had to make a decision regarding brit mila as a parent.

I'm talking as a victim, he explains.

His anti-circumcision feelings were sparked by witnessing a relative's circumcision in 1981.

I decided after this event that I'm not going to attend any more of these atrocious ceremonies.

But to Jason Kurtz, a student at the Otniel hesder yeshiva, watching a brit is a positive experience. He notes that after the baby cries, he is put in the arms of a loving parent - an act of symbolic meaning and actual reassurance.

When you get hurt, you have your community around you to support you and care for you.

He rejects the idea that the ritual victimizes those who undergo it.

I'm here. I've lived through a brit mila, so I don't feel traumatized by it. I'd feel really robbed if I hadn't had it.

It's one of the strongest identity marks of being a Jew. If you talk about being Jewish, that's one of the things that's synonymous with who we are as a people and our relationship with God, he explains. I want to be a Jew. I'm really proud to be Jewish and I don't want that taken away from me.

Udi says his opposition to circumcision doesn't stem from shame or disinterest in being Jewish.

I'm a proud part of Judaism... I'm proud enough to be part of the tribe without cutting a part of my child's penis.

He and Ronit consider themselves secular but still celebrate some Jewish holidays and teach their children the fundamentals of the religion. Ronit stresses that their stance is not anti-religious.

I'm not against Judaism. We love the [Jewish] things we do.

For Kurtz, though, the decision not to circumcise connotes a rejection of Jewish identity.

It's a statement that being Jewish is not important in your life or who you are, he says. I think it's outrageous. I think it's spitting in the face of the Jewish people. That's pretty harsh, but that's what it feels like.

Circumcision is an essential part of being Jewish, Kurtz adds, noting that Jews were killed by the Romans for violating laws prohibiting the practice.

Ben-Yami counters that Jewish identity can survive without circumcision, in fact, even better without it because more and more non-religious Jews have an aversion [to the religion] because of some of the things it contains, like circumcision. Judaism has enough content in it to survive without circumcision.

It's something that came into Judaism from other religions and other tribal [customs] and it will pass from Judaism [too], Udi says.

Kasher of Af-Mila agrees. Though he acknowledges that his opinions are minority ones, he points to growing interest in his publication and awareness of the subject in the media, as well as the quick increase from four founding families in Kahal to its current size.

It's going to vanish by itself, from the people, he says.

Kurtz, however, says the tradition is here to stay. He says that people throughout history have expected Judaism to die out but it hasn't.

There's a reason why it hasn't happened and these rituals are part of the reason. When you think about what happened to the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years, it's a miracle that we're here now, and there's no rational way that people from 2,000 years ago to 100 years ago would believe that the Jewish people would be a nation in this place.

The assumption that circumcision will gradually disappear is flawed, he says. It seems to be neglecting the obvious power of our own history.

Fulfilling the commandment

According to Norm Cohen, the Michigan director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers ( External link NOCIRC), the ritual of circumcision boils down to one thing: It's really about, When I go to the Jewish community center and I put on a swimming suit, will I look like the other men? What does that have to do with God? What does that have to do with the covenant?

His answer - nothing - prompted him to create an alternative to the brit mila, one in which the painful, harmful, and dangerous aspects of removing the foreskin have nothing to do with welcoming a child into the Jewish community.

His brit shalom ceremony takes its textual direction from the verse in Leviticus, And the Lord said, You shall not make cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you. 

After declaring that the covenant between God and the Jewish people will continue after the symbolic token, circumcision, is abandoned, the ceremony continues with familiar prayers and customs - such as blessing a glass of wine and prominently featuring a sandak (someone who holds the baby during the event) - performed with a twist that emphasizes the baby's perfect form, sans circumcision.

Brit shalom, also called an alternative brit, brit b'li mila (covenant without cutting) or brit haim (covenant of life), is practiced among Jews - primarily in America - who oppose circumcising their children, or who think that since the traditional practice only welcomes males into the covenant, it's sexist.

 External link Benjamin Biber, a Washington-based rabbi of the  External link Humanistic Judaism movement, routinely performs such alternative baby-namings. The circumcision ceremony privileges the male and [makes] the male child the one of special religious interest for the culture. We are equal, so we just do baby-naming ceremonies that view male and female children as equal, just as male and female adults are equal, he says.

The movement, which began in Detroit in 1969, claims 50,000 members worldwide, including in Israel. It aims to create a meaningful Jewish lifestyle free from supernatural authority and imposed tradition, according to its Web site.

Because our movement is humanistic, we don't believe in a covenant between humanity and a deity. We believe in a covenant between human beings, Biber explains.

In April, the  External link Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews issued a  External link statement on circumcision stating that circumcision is not required for Jewish identity.

The leadership's statement continues, We support parents making informed decisions whether or not to circumcise their sons. We affirm their right to choose, and we accept and respect their choice. Naming and welcoming ceremonies should be egalitarian. We recommend separating circumcision from welcoming ceremonies.

Biber says he personally opposes circumcision and won't preside over a naming ceremony done in connection with the procedure. I'm a naturalist so I believe that the human body is quite functional on its own, and cutting bits off is not a good idea.

In Israel, the movement doesn't have the same formal structures and community orientation. Its leaders focus on providing education in Jewish history, culture, and traditions in way that's accessible to secular people. They teach religious ritual only as a part of Jewish experience, not for personal practice, and like their American colleagues believe the decision to circumcise should be left with the parents.

Ya'acov Malkin, who founded and serves as the academic director of  External link MEITAR, the College of Judaism as Culture, says of circumcision: I don't regard it as a religious act at all... if it's medically not necessary, it's not necessary.

He circumcised his own son 50 years ago because of habit, because it was a custom, it is a custom of the Jews.

He says that he was raised a free Jew by his family of atheists before moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1934, when he was seven.

This upbringing, and his recognition that a large number of secular Israelis grow up without a way to interact positively with their culture, having been alienated by a strictly observant lifestyle, encouraged him to change the situation.

His college teaches classes on classical Jewish texts as well as modern ones, such as works by Amos Oz, Franz Kafka, and Martin Buber.

To the suggestion that Free Judaism is Judaism without God, he replies: It does include God of course, because God is one of the most important literary heroes in all the Jewish literature, in all literature.

A group of 35 American Jews that claims members from secular to Orthodox tries to find ways of reconciling Judaism to a circumcision-free life. The organization,  External link Jews Against Circumcision, was started, as founder Gillian Flato of California puts it, because information against the practice must come from within.

Brought up Conservative and now a Reform Jew, Flato says that what makes you Jewish is whether your mother is Jewish, not whether you are circumcised.

Besides, There's a lot of contradiction in Halacha, Flato says. Part of Halacha says you cannot harm another person. But ripping off the foreskin is harming another person.

Flato goes further in her challenge of traditional Jewish precept when she points out that in the discussion of the covenant in Genesis, God tells Abraham I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you, in return for Abraham's circumcising of his sons and slaves.

She says that Jews only comprise one half of one percent of the world's population, that kings of the Jews have been few in number, and that we don't have a land of our own because we've been fighting the Palestinians forever and there's all kinds of turmoil there.

She concludes, Some would argue that God's not fulfilled his part of the covenant, so why should we fulfill our part by continuing to mutilate our sons' penises?

A snip at a time

Andrew Sacks's work has taken him to the sandy white beaches of Greece, the fast-paced streets of Hong Kong, and the cracked dirt roads of Uganda. Is his the jet-setting life of a travel writer? A corporate magnate? A spy? No. It's that of a professional mohel from Israel.

He explains that populations throughout southern and Eastern Europe need someone to help perform circumcisions on newborns and carry out conversion ceremonies, while expats living in East Asia have no local ritual circumciser. And in Uganda, 200 members of the Abayudaya tribe wanted to undergo brit mila to halachicly sanctify the Jewish life they've led for nearly a century.

Sacks arrived in their small village last winter full of skepticism about the Jewish pretensions of the community.

Everybody thinks they're part of the lost tribes these days, he says.

According to the community, the tribe has been living as Jews ever since their leader Semei Kakungulu introduced them to the religion in 1919 after reading the Old Testament. When Sacks saw that they kept Jewish customs including immersing in a mikve and practicing circumcision, his doubts vanished.

Since the males had already had their foreskins removed - though not, as Halacha requires, by a Jew - he merely performed a symbolic brit mila. The men formed a long line leading from a small hut perched on a mud floor in which Sacks and the village's roaming chickens waited. One by one the local men went in and out, receiving a small nick along the scar of their circumcision accompanied by the necessary blessings.

Not all of the cultural surprises Sacks has experienced in his 20 years as a mohel have taken place outside the country.

At an Israeli brit, a woman at the ceremony asked Sacks if she could have the foreskin to swallow because she had heard the legend that doing so helps a barren woman conceive. He told her that a sip of the wine blessed during the circumcision would be as effective, so she drank the liquid instead.

Sacks says he generally buries the removed skins in his geranium garden, since the tradition is to inter them like any other part of the body. Some Diaspora mohels use a tin with Israeli soil inside so that the foreskin can be buried in Israel.

The 3,000 circumcisions that Sacks estimates he's performed have ranged from ceremonies on secular kibbutzim (in which he often has to mumble the prayers to himself because the parents don't want to observe the rite's religious aspects) to flashy affairs-cum-discos in suburbs to hospital operations for new immigrants.

In one case he performed a circumcision on a 76-year-old Russian who had just made aliya.

He had a smile on his face the whole time he underwent the circumcision.

The emotions of those experiencing the brit mila - parents and children - are not always so positive. There's even a debate among the Ashkenazim about whether to say the Sheheheyanu prayer that's recited at all happy occasions.

Is a brit a happy occasion or not because there's pain for the child? Sacks asks.

The answer differs within Israel, where the blessing is said, and without, where it's not.

SACKS RELATES that though women are more visibly affected by the event than men - often crying or leaving the room - he's only seen men faint. Usually it's an uncle or cousin, says Sacks. He has never seen a father pass out although one became sweaty, fell over, and cut his head on a piece of furniture, but never went unconscious.

While that happened, Sacks kept to the task at hand. I'm very focused on what I'm doing, he says. If there's a sonic boom, or, as often happens, a cellphone rings, it doesn't faze me.

Unlike the rabbi played by Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith, Sacks has never himself fainted at a brit mila, but he does admit that he was sweating and his knees were shaking the first time he performed the operation. He trained for a year and a half before he commandeered the knife on his own, first observing and then assisting before being left in charge.

Learning to be a ritual circumciser is quite difficult, he says, because most mohels don't want to teach anyone for fear of their disciples homing in on their business. He only received instruction because he lived in Pennsylvania at the time and his teacher knew he would make aliya soon.

In Israel, he says, mohels will typically only teach non-Israelis out of the same fear of competition.

The profession here is traditionally passed down from father to son, with few outsiders being allowed to learn the skill. Additional barriers are presented to anyone not Orthodox, says Sacks, himself a Conservative rabbi.

Those on the receiving end can also face hurdles, particularly new immigrants without the resources to afford the surgery - a much more costly affair if done on an adult because it necessitates a hospital visit and attending physician.

Sacks works with an organization called Keren Habrit dedicated to defraying the cost of circumcision for anyone who faces financial difficulty, save those who request the procedure for cosmetic reasons.

But in affluent communities such as the small group of expatriate Jews who live in Hong Kong, parents are often willing to pay exorbitant amounts for a brit mila - upwards of the $1,600 the plane ticket from Israel costs. Because the ceremony needs to be performed by a Jew and there's no one trained in the procedure there, families will fly Sacks in to carry out the circumcision.

There's clearly a greater emotional attachment to [brit mila] than any other mitzva, Sacks says. No one spends that kind of money on a succa. For that amount of money you could have a really nice succa.


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