The first cut
TO circumcise our sons or not? Before our first children were born, a Jewish friend and I argued the question. Our non-Jewish partners looked on, unsure what the fuss was about.
While 80 per cent of Australian boys were circumcised in the 1960s, only one in 10 is today. The medical profession that performed most circumcisions and promoted the procedure as more hygienic, now advises, in the absence of cultural and religious reasons, against the procedure. While this position has a tolerant ring, a Jewish couple I know encountered hostility from numerous medical practitioners who refused to circumcise, and actively sought to discourage them going elsewhere.
But subtle “bad parent” accusations from the medical establishment don’t worry me. What does are claims that infants subconsciously remember the violation of the trust they experienced when their mothers abandoned them to the pain of circumcision. I worry my boy may be teased by his mates for looking different. That he may resent the inalterable choice we have made about his body. A choice, say opponents of circumcision, that sacrifices (in the true Bibilical sense of the word) male sexual pleasure.
Our plumber, and a policeman we know have circumcised their boys so they’ll “look like their Dad”. But for Jews the issue is more complex. The two most observed Jewish customs of even the most non-religious Jews are circumcision and burial in a Jewish cemetery. Belief in the importance of circumcision as a mark of Jewish identity, and so of difference, explains why some Jews find the imperative to circumcise even more compelling in periods – like now – when it is out of favor among non-Jews. Jews circumcise not because it is fashionable, the thinking goes, but because it is the mark of convenant between God and the Jewish people. Jews circumcise because it reflects what we believe and who we are. Jews circumcise because they are Jews.
IN THE biographical film Europa Europa, Shlomo Perel feigns Aryan identity as he waits out the war in a school for Hitler youth. Afraid of being discovered, longing to fit in with the other young men, Shlomo ties a string around his penis in an attempt to re-grow his foreskin. Although his circumcision repeatedly endangers his life, the film makes it clear that it saves Shlomo’s soul. Unable to blend in and forget he is a Jew, Shlomo is forced to resist his temptation to identity with – and so be complicit in – the evil of the Nazis.
As an ethicist and a feminist, I hate the idea of circumcision. As a secular Jew, I find the argument about circumcision’s symbolic value compelling. I like the idea that circumcision offers boys a physical reminder of who they are, and where they belong.
Yet I am also sceptical. As a woman, I lack the “mark of the convenant”, yet have never felt tempted to forget or forsake my Jewish identity. During the Holocaust, male circumcision meant that the most gentile-looking women were most often sent beyond the ghetto to deliver messages and search for food and water. While remaining beyond the walls would no doubt have helped many of these women to survive, no stories exist of large numbers of them forsaking those awaiting their return. Perhaps, then, circumcision is but a physical reminder of the more important psychic cut that being raised Jewish makes on the soul.
For me, the real dilemma comes from the strange confluence of circumstances that have seen me marry and bear children far from my native New York. Ten years in Australia have led me to believe that the largely secular way I took on a Jewish identity has few parallels here. In the suburb outside Manhattan in which I grew up, amid a Jewish American community that numbered millions, there were a myriad ways to participate and identify as a Jew. My family considered themselves Reform Jews – the least observant level of a three-tiered system in which Conservative and Orthodox are the middle and highest rungs.
We rarely set foot in Temple. Yet while my parents were agnostics, they were unremittingly enthusiastic about being Jewish. For them that meant eating bagels, lox and cream cheese at our Sunday family brunches, and scrutinising and rejoicing in our every educational accomplishment. It also meant refusing my yearly entreaties to buy a Christmas tree and fairy lights, and feeling slightly offended on the rare instances we received cards wishing us a Merry Christmas, rather than the more neutral Holiday Greetings.
When pushed, my parents thought it would be “nice” if I chose to circumcise the baby, but they didn’t see circumcision as critical to his identity. Technically they are right. Being born of a Jewish mother, not circumcision, makes a boy Jewish. They also knew that in the US, Britain and Israel, a small but vocal group of Jews are now opposing circumcision. A Jewish scholar recently wrote a book, endorsed by five liberal Jewish rabbis, arguing against the practice. My parents believed, in other words, that an uncircumcised boy in New York would still be accepted by our Jewish peers as a Jew.
But in Melbourne things are somewhat different. The Jewish community is small and even its most liberal Reform branches would be considered Conservative in America. Those who in the past have raised circumcision as an issue for debate have not, in the main, been kindly received. Whether this stance is wise or foolish, it is the way things are. The way I grew up being Jewish means I will always be an outsider in this community. I can live with this – my Jewish identity is formed and is now self-sustaining. But I worry that by not circumcising my boys I am making them outsiders too. And this Jewish community is the only one they will ever really know.
My friend is also an outsider in the local Jewish community, but while he agreed with many of my concerns about circumcision, and worried about causing his baby son pain, he never really considered not circumcising. Because his wife isn’t Jewish, they were ineligible for a bris, the ceremonial circumcision eight days after the birth. Instead, they spent several weeks finding a doctor who would agree to circumcise. My friend had to hold the baby down, while his partner waited outside, listening to the baby’s screams from the other side of the door.
They say they have no regrets, and I believe them. They traded their baby’s fleeting pain for his entrance into the history and tradition of the Jewish people. I believe in this tradition and want to be part of its preservation. I hear the voices of the Orthodox, asking, “Who are you to pick and choose among our traditions?” But each time I tried to imagine the doctor or mohel – the ritual performer of the circumcision rite – moving towards my baby to make the cut, I baulked. Like my friend who knew he must circumcise, I came to know I could not. There were reasons for and against, but in the end it came down to the small voice in my head that kept saying “no”.