[Jenny Goodman, doctor, psychotherapist and Jewish feminist, appeared in Victor Schonfeld's ground-breaking documentary, "It's A Boy!", shown on British television in September 1995. Since then, she has been challenging circumcision both within the Jewish community and in the wider world. She has appeared twice on BBC national television, spoken on several radio programs, and has had articles published in national newspapers. She has also participated in panel discussions on circumcision, and led workshop-sessions on it at Jewish women's conferences. Far more hours than all of the above have been spent in deep discussion with pregnant friends and acquaintances who are going through "the Decision" (to circumcise or not). Jenny increasingly tried not to say, "I'll support you, whatever you decide." She is more likely to say, "I think you shouldn't hurt your baby, whatever the pressures from family, community and tradition. And I'll support you in taking the courage to make the only ethical decision there is -- to leave your son intact."]
OPEN LETTER FROM DR. JENNY GOODMAN[to friends who will be in attendance at the Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations, Lausanne, Switzerland, August, 1996, as published in the Syllabus of Abstracts of the Symposium].
I am writing to you from London, England, since it is very unlikely I will be able to be with you in person. It is now June, and I am joyfully expecting my first baby at the end of this month. I do not know the sex of the baby, and I believe I may be one of the first Jewish women of my generation who does not need to whisper the silent prayer, "Please God, let it be a girl." I am calm and comfortable in the knowledge that no one will ever take a knife to this baby's flesh in the name of religion, and that my child will be every bit as Jewish as I am, or as Jewish as s/he chooses to be, with no mutilating mark upon the body. I am confident that my people have such an abundance of life-enhancing, life-affirming and mind-opening traditions, that our identity and sense of cultural self-heed will happily survive our outgrowing of circumcision, a cruel relic which has always felt to me like an aberration at the heart of my religion.
What can I say, I wonder, to all of you gathered in Lausanne, who already agree with me that circumcision of healthy, nonconsenting infants is an abuse of human rights? I am used to arguing here with those who take circumcision for granted, who believe it is healthy, harmless, hygienic and divinely commanded. With those who believe it is a "little snip" that does not hurt, leaves no trace in the memory, causes no scars in the soul of mother or child. With those Jews and Muslims who really believe that their cultural identity, their sense of belonging, will crumble if they stop cutting pieces off their babies' bodies.
Perhaps I shall share with you a little of what I have learned through public and private debate with such people. I talk about the facts: the intense pain, the risks of hemorrhage, infection and severe mutilation. I explain that, contrary to popular opinion, there are no medical benefits, and considerable complications, and that the best form of hygiene is simply to wash. I present the ethical arguments against injuring a defenseless person. I talk about the disempowerment of mothers, the breaking of the mother-infant bond, the effects on sexual experience. And I describe gentle, celebratory ways we could instead welcome newborn babies into our culture and our world.
The response to all these points, from Jewish and Muslim people, is remarkably consistent. It consists of no logical argument at all, and very little actual response to what I have said. It consists, in a word, of fear. Religious fundamentalists say, "We are commanded by God, we have to do it, and that's the end of the story." They feel profoundly threatened. Secular and liberal people among these ethnic communities feel equally terrified, but cannot fall back on God. So they say, "But we've always done it, we've been doing it for thousands of years. You can't ask us to just stop now, it's an integral part of our identity." And so on.
I reply by emphasizing that all spiritual traditions evolve and change, indeed they only survive by changing. And that a thousand years does not justify hurting a child. At this point, people very often say to me: 'You're right, I can't argue with you. What you say is unanswerable, but I know I'd still have my son circumcised - I just couldn't not. It's not a rational thing. I just feel I have to."
I have found only one argument effective against this culturally conditioned terror, this admittedly compulsive behavior on the part of people who at some level do want to stop. It is simply to tell them that the change is already happening, that people like themselves have chosen a new, non-violent path. That others -- few in number but growing -- have faced the apparent conflict between loyalty to tribe and loyalty to child, and have decided to leave their children whole and uninjured. And that these people are still part of their respective communities. In the end, I think this is the way to plant the seeds of a revolution: to point to where it has already begun, and then people who might not have the courage to lead will find the courage to follow.
Let me tell you about some of the arguments I refrain from using in public at the moment, and the reasons why. I don't talk much about the psychological trauma, the unconscious scars that undoubtedly remain in the adult man. This is because the concept of unconscious memory still does not have wide currency in Britain outside of particular intellectual circles. Unlike on the East and West Coasts of the USA, the culture of psychotherapy has not yet permeated the culture at large, as one is open to ridicule, and to demands for scientific proof, which are as inappropriate in the realm of the psyche (soul) as mathematical equations are in the understanding of poetry. However, I find that the ethical argument is easily strong enough to stand alone; the infliction of pain and damage on a helpless child is absolutely wrong even if there were no memory, no residue, no consequences. So, to people who tell me that "the pain is momentary, it's over in a flash," I say, "I disagree with you, but even if you were right, is it acceptable to hurt your fellow human beings even for a second, on the basis that they'll probably forget about it?"
Another argument I don't use is to say that circumcision is a form of child sex abuse. Of course it is, and clearly perpetuated down the generations by the classic mechanisms of child abuse: denial, repression, numbness and compulsive repetition. In other words, "It did me no harm, it'll do him no harm." To confront this denial head-on is rarely useful; nobody likes you to comment on their unconscious processes. It is a rare man who has the courage to acknowledge his own loss, to say, in the face of tribal history, universal peer pressure and his parents, "Yes, I have been damaged. I won't pass this damage on down the line. The wounding stops with me."
So, let us not require everyone to have such courage. Let's simply encourage them to stop, on the basis that times have changed, that we now have new information about babies' sensitivity and experience that we didn't have a generation ago (except silently in every mother's heart, of course). Most of all, we need to reassure people that their child will not be alone, will not be the only one, will not be exiled. It is the parents' own fear of differentness that we are really dealing with here, expressed as a fear for their child.
When I began speaking out publicly on this issue, I was afraid I would be attacked, and called a traitor to my people. Well, yes, this has certainly happened. But I have also had an amazing amount of support, sometimes from unexpected quarters. Many Jewish grandmothers, in their seventies and older, have told me: "You know, I always thought it was a dreadful thing to do, but I never said a word, because I thought I was the only one. I thought it was my problem that it worried me. In may day," they continue, "we didn't question circumcision, we didn't question anything, but if you young people want to challenge it -- well, go ahead and good luck to you!" Since Victor Schonfeld's film was shown in September '95, some of these older Jewish women have taken the pressure off their adult sons and daughters; they are no longer insisting on circumcised grandchildren.
A woman sat in my living room a few weeks after the film and sobbed. She was recalling how her son, now aged thirteen, had nearly bled to death after his ritual circumcision at eight days. She was so traumatized that she never had a second child -- she couldn't face the dilemma, had she had another boy, of whether to do the deed or not. Yes, despite the fact that her son had almost died, it remained a dilemma for her. She could neither circumcise another son nor face having an uncircumcised son. So, she had no more children. She was very sad. Such is the power of the tribe.
She is Jewish, but I have met Muslim mothers and (non-Muslim) African mothers with equally harrowing stories. This is an issue that unites women across all ethnic divides. All of us are injured when we allow a man to take a knife to our child, to claim him as one of the men. We betray ourselves and our babies.
A long time ago, we are told, Abraham heard the voice of God, commanding him to circumcise his sons. OK, I'll buy that. Whatever voice he heard was true and profound for him, and he was conscience-bound to follow it. Well, I hear a different voice, and I am conscience-bound to follow it. Call it the voice of the Goddess, of Nature, of humanity, of the innocent child; whatever voice it is, it rises from the womb and from the heart, and it speaks words very similar to those God commanded Abraham as Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac: "Lay not thy hand upon the boy, neither do anything to him." I want to conclude by explaining how I see the circumcision issue in a wider context.
People are only able to circumcise little children because ultimately, at some hidden level, they still do not see them as fully human. They permit themselves to do to an infant what they would not dream of doing to another adult -- the forcible restraint, the exercise of sheer physical power to cause an injury. In law, they would be guilty of assault if they did this to an unconsenting grown-up person.
In our legal and ethical systems, in our hearts, we -- globally -- still do not recognize the full humanity of the human baby. But I am happy to say this situation is rapidly changing. Thanks largely to the pioneering work of Michel Odent, obstetrics -- that great bastion of the patriarchy -- is having to change in the direction of acknowledging that the newborn baby -- indeed, the unborn baby, too -- is at least as aware, as alive, as exquisitely sensitive as you and I. In other words, is a fully human being. This change in obstetrics has, of course, not gone nearly far enough, but I believe it has gone further in Britain than in the USA, and is helping to change adults' perceptions and treatment of babies in the culture at large.
The struggle around childbirth is intimately linked with our struggle to end circumcision. A young Jewish mother recently told me that if she had had a hospital birth with high-tech invasion and interference, she might well have consented to circumcision as just another medical violation in a seemingly inevitable chain of such violations. However, feeling strong and clear and empowered after a gentle, natural birth, underwater and in the sanctity of her own home, she felt fully able to refuse any potential attack upon herself, upon her baby or upon the bond between them.
So, the fight against circumcision is not a "single issue" cause, it is about awakening the adult world to see even the tiniest baby as a full person, deserving of all human rights, respect and dignity. It is about challenging all of us to keep lowering the age threshold at which we recognize full humanness, a shift which is part of historical progress towards a truly civilized society. Our battle is part of a larger battle to humanize and rehumanize the world. Let's keep working.
Love and Shalom,
Return to CIRP Home Page