Menu JTA Search

Focus on Issues: Opponents of Circumcision Question Necessity of Jewish Rite

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Miriam Pollack says she will never stop hearing her two son’s screams as they were being circumcised.

“They were quite different from any other screams these children have ever had,” the Berkeley, Calif., educator said.

“I had them circumcised because I felt, as a Jewish mother, this was my obligation and even joy to do, to bring these children into the faith and peoplehood that I love.”

But after years of reflection, Pollack has come to a different conclusion.

“How many thousands of Jewish boys and Jewish men did we lose during the Holocaust because they couldn’t hide? All the oppressor had to do was pull down their pants,” says Pollack, adding that girls carry their Jewish identity without having their bodies altered.

Pollack has written about her new thinking on circumcision in “Jewish Women Speak Out: Expanding the Boundaries of Psychology,” a book edited by Kayla Weiner and Arinna Moon that was published in July.

She maintains that issues of gender and power are central to the ritual of circumcision.

“Circumcision functions to bond the baby boy to a male-defined community, a male-defined God, over and against the authority of the mother,” she writes in the book.

“Our culture has totally disarmed us as women,” Pollack says. “It is a cutting not only of the baby boy, but a violation of the maternal-child bond.”

Despite such objections, circumcision, which is first mentioned in the Bible with reference to Abraham’s being commanded to circumcise his sons, continues to be practiced by the majority of American Jews.

“Circumcision and being buried in a Jewish cemetery are two of the most fundamental commandments observed by even the most assimilated Jews who don’t observe anything else,” says Rela Geffen, a sociology professor at Gratz college in suburban Philadelphia.

“Any kind of ritual can be questioned,” she says. “But this is so fundamental. Jews have been willing to die to preserve this.”

And despite widespread acceptance of the practice, some opponents of the ritual have become increasingly vocal, setting up organizations advocating an end to the practice that has been a central tenet of Judaism.

The Bible tells Jews not to offer blood sacrifices or to harm the body in any way, but “circumcision is largely regarded as blood sacrifice,” says Norm Cohen of Birmingham, Mich.

Cohen, a member of the National Organization to Halt the Routine Mutilation of Men, also known as NOHARMM, has written an alternative ceremony for a bris, which he is offering on-line. One-third of NOHARMM’s membership is Jewish.

Cohen, the son of a rabbi, also is concerned about the impact of circumcision on the mother-son bond.

“Circumcision is a betrayal of trust that babies have in their parents, and in their mother, particularly,” he says. “Whatever happens to the baby, the baby attributes to the mother, regardless of the good intentions that are present.”

Other opponents of circumcision contend that there is no sound medical reason for maintaining the ritual.

“It’s not over when the cutting stops,” says Ron Goldman, a psychologist who runs the Circumcision Resources Center in Boston.

After reviewing medical and psychological literature, he says he found “a lot of information that raised very serious questions about this practice, specifically the literature on childhood trauma.”

In the medical world, the view on circumcision is also changing. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said there is no medical indication to support the surgery.

Even the authoritative Dr. Benjamin Spock is changing his tune.

As recently as 1992, “we felt there was no medical indication to perform routine circumcision on newborn boys,” says Dr. Michael Rothenberg of Seattle, co-author of the last two editions of Spock’s famous book on baby and child care.

Rothenberg, pediatrics and psychiatry professor emeritus at the University of Washington, adds, however, that he and Spock understand that “there would be families who, for religious reasons, feel it is necessary to perform the ritual.”

An estimated 60 percent of newborn males in the United States are circumcised today, a figure that has been dropping for about two decades, from a high of 90 percent. The United States is believed to be the only country in the world that routinely circumcises male babies for nonreligious reasons.

American Jews who are speaking out against circumcision say many of their co- religionists are repressing denying anxiety because even questioning the ritual is taboo.

Some who refuse to circumcise their sons say their decision has led to varying levels of ostracism in their communities.

“It put me in the position of heretic, which I don’t want to be. I don’t think of myself as a heretic,” says Natalie Bivas of Palo Alto, Calif., who refused to have her son circumcised.

A rabbi told her that if she did not have the baby circumcised, no Jewish girl would go out with him, other children would make fun of him at camp, and he would hate his body and hate his mother.

“My choice was to have my son hate me or to do something I think is morally wrong,” says Bivas. As much as he understands at the age of 8, she says of her son, “He thinks it’s a good idea to leave him alone.”

Moshe Rothenberg of Brooklyn says he withstood “enormous pressure” and temporary family alienation to have a bloodless bris for his son, Sammy, now 7.

“I only see this issue as one of abuse,” he says. “I have a certain loyalty and commitment to my own people, but I’m opposed to abuse in all forms. I will not do it to my child in the name of continuing tradition.”

Bivas, who once led the area’s Alternate Bris Support Group, claims that circumcision is risky and dangerous. There have been cases of circumcision resulting in medical problems, including blood infections and even death, she says.

At some hospitals, Jewish medical personnel are leading the charge in refusing to assist in circumcisions.

Betty Katz Sperlich, a registered nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Santa Fe, N.M., risked losing her job when she declared herself a conscientious objector so she would not have to set up the equipment, strap the baby down or throw away the amputated foreskin. The hospital says 40 percent of the maternity nurses are conscientious objectors. They now have legal protection against losing their jobs if they refuse to participate in circumcision.

Sperlich, a member of the national group NoCirc, co-founded another national advocacy organization, Nurses for the Rights of the Child.

“I felt guilty being a Jew and not having my son circumcised,” she says. But she has since reconciled her position on circumcision with her Judaism.

“Judaism is a living religion, and as a living religion, we can change our tradition,” she says. “I don’t see why we can’t keep the traditions that are beautiful and drop the ones that are brutal.”

NEXT STORY