Sunday, June 6, 2002

Sacred practice or unnecessary procedure?

Sunday, June 09, 2002

Staff Writer

During her recent pregnancy, Rachel struggled for a way to balance the weight of 2,800 years of religious tradition with the overwhelming protective emotions she felt for her unborn boy.

Rachel and her husband are Jewish, and every male born to their families - as far back as the biblical Abraham, presumably -had been circumcised. But Rachel made up her mind that she wouldn't have that done to her son.

"I didn't want my baby cut," says Rachel, a North Jersey resident who asked that her real name not be used. "There's something deeply corrupted about it. It's a traumatic and barbaric thing."

Her husband's stance kept Rachel awake at night. He disagreed. He wanted his son, as she tells it, to "look like him."

"It's a very loaded issue," Rachel says. "People are not aware of the feelings they have about circumcision."

While the number of hospital circumcisions in the United States has risen slightly over the last two decades, a growing number of Jewish families are questioning their religion's most sacrosanct ritual - cutting the foreskin off an 8-day-old baby's penis.

"There's been a noticeable increase in interest the last three or four years," says Ronald Goldman of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston. "Lots of people don't want to make it public, but we get hundreds of contacts from Jewish families."

In most cases, the apostasy is initiated by the mother. The force of her emotions is often pitted against the combined influence of her husband, the baby's grandparents, the religious community, and the formidable power of centuries-old, Bible-sanctioned practice.

"Women are tormented," says Laurie Evans, a Jewish anti-circumcision activist who lives in Westchester County, N.Y. "They don't want to renounce their religion, but they want to protect their children."

The ritual, called a bris or b'rit milah, dates to the beginning of Judaism. It is performed by a specially trained rabbi, called a mohel, as part of a religious ceremony, often in the parents' home, and is followed by a feast. The bris is so central to Jewish life that, by Jewish law, it supersedes observance of the Sabbath or Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest days.

"There is no more sacred rite in Judaism," says Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Wayne. "To be Jewish and not to be circumcised is to be outside the fold."

Genesis 17:10-14 mandates that a Jewish boy be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.

"This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised," God commands Abraham, the Jewish patriarch. "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

Twenty-eight centuries later, the threat of shunning - as well as the fear of disappointing generations of ancestors, some of whom died defending their loyalty to Judaism -still weighs heavily on Jewish parents.

Leah, another Jewish mother against circumcision who requested anonymity, says that during her pregnancy she was a "crazy woman with hormones" who faced the opposition of her husband, who "didn't want to go against God," and her father-in-law, who told her that if the baby wasn't circumcised, "something negative would happen to the boy."

"You don't want to be so arrogant as to question God," Leah says. "I want my family to be Jewish, and I want my son to identify himself as Jewish. But it was my baby's sex organ. I couldn't let anyone hurt him."

Leah says the birth of a healthy boy and her insistence the baby not be cut stopped familial debate on the subject - the procedure wasn't done - and eight months later, "we don't talk about it." But her husband's stance had surprised her.

"He gave religious reasons for having our son circumcised," she says. "And it's funny, because he really doesn't go to synagogue. He's not that religious."

In fact, activists say circumcision is often the only Jewish ritual many secular Jewish fathers feel compelled to conduct.

"They don't observe the Sabbath, they eat pork, they even marry non-Jewish women, but they insist on a circumcision," Evans says. "I don't get it."

Wylen says that while an uncircumcised boy can still be a Jew, "it's shameful if you're Jewish not to circumcise."

"God made the world imperfect," Wylen says. "He gave us the responsibility to perfect it." Without a circumcised penis, "one doesn't represent the perfection of the human body that's required to enter the covenant with God."

Adam, a North Jersey father who spoke on condition of anonymity, says his uncircumcised 11-year-old son, a Hebrew school student preparing for his bar mitzvah, is unaware his body is different from other Jewish boys'.

"He showers all the time in the gym locker room and nobody says anything to him about it," Adam says. "It's never been an issue."

But Rabbi Michael Goldstein of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, says an uncircumcised boy studying for his bar mitzvah is "not a desirable thing."

"I don't know if I'd allow it," Goldstein says. "I don't think I'd let it get to that stage. I'd have significant, serious conversations with the family long before we reached the point where the child was preparing to become a bar mitzvah. I'd be trying to convince the parents to have the boy circumcised."

Many of the Jewish couples questioning ritual circumcision would agree with the rabbis that the decision to have a bris is not an intellectual one. For the observant Jew, "it's a practice based in belief," Goldstein says. For Rachel and Leah, their maternal impulse to protect their newborns was beyond argument.

"I feel sickened by the idea," Rachel says. "Female circumcision makes the front page of The New York Times, but [male] circumcision is accepted as common practice."

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics, citing evidence that the procedure has little or no medical benefit, halted its longtime advocacy of routine hospital circumcision. The pediatricians' group also suggested for the first time that infants receive anesthetic medication before they are circumcised -a practice that today is usually skipped in the hospital and during the bris.

In a bris, the child is held by his godfather while family and friends look on. The mohel may dip his finger in wine and feed the wine to the child - a traditional method of helping the baby deal with pain. Prayers are recited and the mohel usually explains the significance of the event. Then the cutting begins.

The mohel pulls forward the foreskin with a hemostat -a pair of surgical pliers - then slides a specially designed clamp called a "mogen" along the head of the penis and onto the foreskin. Using the mogen as a guide, the mohel then slices enough of the foreskin to expose the head of the penis and the junction where it meets the shaft. The boy bleeds, and the wound is dabbed with gauze and bandaged. In most cases it takes less than two days for the cut to heal.

"Two things are required in a ritual circumcision," says Rabbi Gerald Chirnomas, a Boonton mohel who estimates he's performed 13,000 ceremonies. "The first, of course, is the removal of the foreskin. And the second, which many people don't know, is the shedding of blood, which is mandated by the Bible."

Chirnomas cites Ezekiel 16:6: "Live by your blood."

Hospital circumcision differs in instrumentation as well as spiritual significance. A device called a Gomco clamp is usually used in hospital procedures, which critics say simply takes too long.

Hospital circumcision remains the most commonly performed surgery in the United States. Circumcision's contemporary secular roots can be traced to the Victorian era, when it was believed to be a cure for masturbation. And while most of the world eschews the practice, 65.3 percent of American hospital newborns were circumcised in 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 1979, the figure was 64.3 percent.

Though Rachel decided against a bris without the influence of statistics or the recommendations of medical organizations, she had no idea if her husband would agree with her.

"I left the decision up to him," Rachel says. "It was difficult for me, but he appreciated it."

Rachel's husband never told her what his decision was. It became clear to Rachel only after he phoned his mother to announce the boy's birth.

"I knew the question was coming, right after my husband told her it was a boy," Rachel says.

It was a question that's been asked by Jewish grandmothers for 2,800 years: When's the bris?

There wouldn't be a bris, Rachel's husband told his mother. And when his mother asked him why, Rachel's husband answered, "It's not for us."

"I'm delighted," Rachel says. "I always go back to the idea that in this generation, a loving father can make a decision he wasn't allowed to make for himself."

(File prepared 16 June 2002)