My wife Judy and I never thought much about male circumcision until we discovered our son Ariel was on the way. When I was born in 1950, male circumcision had long been a routine hospital procedure in the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th Century. And because my very secular Jewish parents never contemplated a religious ceremony, our pediatrician, off in the neonatal ward, surgically removed my foreskin before Mom and Dad took me home.
Once at summer camp in the shower room when I was about 10, I looked down at a fellow camper and thought how strange he looked. Only until years later did I realize this young boy’s body was perfectly fine, that it was I who had been altered.
Then came the day in February 1990, five months before Judy was due, when I received a call from her at my job. “It’s a boy!” she said. The joy and relief of that moment was soon replaced by anxiety that persisted until Ariel’s eighth day of birth, the day all Jewish boys are expected to be circumcised. The ancient ceremony of brit milah is directed and sealed in the most Holy Covenant with God as He commanded and it is written in the Old Testament.
Challenging the Holy Covenant and the power of the Tribe
Male circumcision has been performed by American pediatricians in the belief the male foreskin is unhygienic. It was believed by the medical community that it could cause penile cancer. And it was and is still believed that urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases occur more frequently in uncircumcised males. Not convinced of the medical justification for male circumcision, Judy and I began to struggle with the religious reason for it. Tradition, along with more than 4,000 years of Jewish historical teachings dictating it, might be good enough for the vast majority of Jewish parents. It was not for us. Just because “this is just what we Jews do” doesn’t mean we would give in to this barbaric ritual.
We began weekly classes in childbirth with other soon-to-be new parents. We read many books on parenting and guidebooks on new babies, including the classic guidebook by Dr. Benjamin Spock published worldwide, The Common Sense Book on Baby and Child Care. Dr. Spock was the most renowned and respected pediatrician in most of the second half of the 20th Century. In his book’s early editions, he recommended circumcision. However, in its 1976 revision, Dr. Spock agreed with a 1971 American Academy of Pediatrics task force that concluded there was no medical reason for routine circumcision. Then in a 1989 article for Redbook magazine, Dr. Spock stated that “circumcision of males is traumatic, painful, and of questionable value.”
Judy and I began discuss our concerns with many relatives and people we knew in the Jewish community. We consulted with several rabbis, conservative and progressive. And there were not many Jewish relatives, friends and rabbis who agreed with us. More traditional Jews did not hide their reaction to our stance. They believed we were being ridiculous to question such an important Jewish practice.
Thinking about it now after so many decades, I understand their reaction. Tradition is very powerful. The character of Tevye in the stage play and movie, Fidler on the Roof, says it best: “You may ask, why do we stay there (in our Russian village) if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.”
More open-minded people we engaged with were also puzzled by our view, citing the medical reasons most doctors in the U.S. give and still hold to. My own sister’s reaction was typical, that the foreskin is unhygienic. She went further to say that she though it unattractive. Judy’s Aunt Joan was stunned. She thought we were naive. This mother of five boys saw all her sons circumcised. And a very liberal rabbi argued that without a circumcision our son would feel alienated from other Jewish boys, particularly if he attended Jewish summer camp.
Paving new ground proved lonely, and we soon kept our view to ourselves. We still continued to probe our feelings but we kept our mouths shut. Just because we were questioning God’s most Holy Covenant didn’t mean we disrespected Judaism, its history and traditions. On the contrary, our personal struggle was part of the strengthening process of our relationship with God and our religion. We both recognized the importance of Jewish values and culture and hoped Ariel would feel the same, circumcised or not.
In my research, I read that 61 percent or more U.S. babies are circumcised routinely. I was surprised to learn the U.S. is one of the few countries that routinely performs male circumcision in hospital. Today, parents are typically given the choice and mostly choose to have their baby boys circumcised. In fact, more U.S. baby boys are circumcised today — estimated to be more than 75 percent — than they were when Ariel was born in 1990.
We remained undecided until the very end. In the meantime, Judy and I got caught up in the preparations for Ari’s birth and our childbirth training. We also prepared for the brit milah, the ceremony observing the Covenant, bloodless or not. On the eighth day of Ari’s birth, according to our teaching, we planned to gather in our Hollywood apartment with my parents, Judy’s Dad, her two sisters and spouses, the rabbi, and the urologist we selected, certified to perform circumcision by the Jewish community in case we decided to do it.
Ariel was born at Kaiser Permamente Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. weighing 7 lbs. 6 ounces early in the morning of July 21, 1990, a Saturday, the Sabbath. He was perfect.
In the weeks preceding his birth, Judy was leaning in favor of circumcision. She is more traditional than me and said she wanted us to have the true Jewish ceremony according to the Holy Covenant. However, she was willing to let me make the final choice because I felt more strongly about it. That ended the matter. I wasn’t going to go against both my religion and my wife, the mother of our beautiful baby boy.
To this day I cannot find a rational explanation for this decision other than it came from a feeling. I hardly remember anything about the medical procedure and ceremony the afternoon of July 28, 1990. It was traumatic for both of us. I do remember my anger and grief: anger at my religion, and at God and His Covenant. And since there was no other tangible figure present but the urologist for the target of my wrath, I directed it at Dr. Sam Kunin, who now had our perfect baby boy strapped to a plastic circumcision board, ready to cut our son with his knife.
The cutting of the foreskin: skip if you have a sensitive stomach
Dr. Kunin is a respected Los Angeles urologist, a Jew, a big man, and well-practiced in both the medical procedure and in the Covenant. He was certified by the Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism coming highly recommended. But in that moment, he was “Big Bad Sam Kunin,” enforcer of a barbaric ritual. We watched as he prepared Ariel in the bathroom where he worked under the bright light and out of the way of the family gathered in the living room. With Ari crying and strapped to the board so he could not interfere with Dr. Kunin’s steady hand, the doctor cleaned Ari’s genital area and inserted a bell clamp under his foreskin.
Judy’s sister Rhonda and father joined us to watch just outside the bathroom. Rabbi Comess-Daniels, the religious community leader who was willing to lead the ceremony either way, waited with my parents, Judy’s oldest sister, and my two brothers-in-law, in the living room. Ari continued to protest with high-pitched screams that gripped me like a straightjacket. Unable to watch anymore, I exited the bathrooom with Judy. We clung to each other as sobs racked my body. “What will the long-lasting effects of this stupid ritual be on our baby?” I thought.
Dr. Kunin assured us that the worst was over now. The incision, which was to be made out in the living room as we recited the traditional brit milah prayers, wouldn’t hurt as much as the placement of the bell clamp, which apparently cuts off the blood to Ari’s foreskin. Groggy from sucking on a cloth dipped in wine, Ariel fell asleep rather quickly.
Brit Milah, the prayers and blessings
We all gathered back in the living room. The Rabbi guided us in prayers. As the father of the baby boy, I repeated the following after Rabbi Daniels: Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam, asherkideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu le-hach-ni-soh bivrito shel Avraham Avinu. (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the Covenant of Abraham our father.)
Our family members then responded: Ke-shem she-nich-nas la-brit kein yi-ka-neis le-to-rah oo-le-choo-pah oo-le-ma-a-sim to-vim. (Just as Ari has entered into the Covenant, so may he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds.)
Reflecting after all these years
Today as I reflect on the big deal we made, I still shake my head and wonder, were we really able for a brief moment to see through a powerful and timeless myth — a metaphor, really, as I believe the Bible is? Or, were Judy and I simply overreacting as most friends and relatives suggested? After all, it’s only natural for first-time parents be overprotective and worry.
I never asked to be in this Tribe. Like most of us Jews, we were born into it. For a short time, I resented having to follow a tradition merely because we are told this is what we do. I deeply and honestly struggled with this dilemma. For the first time, I sought to understand the reason for our tradition, which for most of us become ritual without thinking. As a consequence to this searching, I felt the nakedness that comes with standing apart from my People. It was utterly frightening and lonely.
But in the end it brought me closer to my religion and Judaism, its history and traditions. I don’t feel that we made the wrong decision. I now understand that it’s not the decision either way that matters. It is the purposeful anguish, the anguish Jewish parents may go through when faced with circumcising their male babies since the time of Sarah and Abraham. Somehow this is reason enough.