Circumcision: The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin.

Tikkun, Volume 16, Issue 3, May/June 2001.

Michael S. Kimmel

Although it was a little late by traditional religious standards, the entire family and many friends gathered in our home three weeks after our son, Zachary, was born. We had gathered for his bris, the moment when a young Jewish boy is first brought into the family and the community, the moment of his formal entrance into the world of Judaism. At such symbolic moments, one feels keenly the sinews of connection to family and friends that sustain a life, animate it, give it context and meaning.

The mohel, of course, was running late. When he arrived, everyone gathered in the living room, where we had set up a table on which we had placed the various items we would use in the ceremony. A special chair had been reserved for the "sandek," the honored family male elder, often the baby's grandfather or great-grandfather, who would hold the baby during much of the proceedings. (In our case, a godmother and godfather shared this role.)

As family and friends drew closer together, glasses of wine and champagne in their hands, the ritual began with prayers over the wine and bread. Our first toast to this new creature who had entered all our lives. Then the mohel began the naming ceremony, and some relatives and friends offered their wishes for this young life.

Amy, my wife, and I each offered a thought to the other and to Zachary as we entered this new phase of our lives as parents together. For my part, I quoted Adrienne Rich, who had written that "if I could have one wish for my own sons, it is that they should have the courage of women." I wished nothing more for Zachary than that he would have Amy's courage, her integrity, and her passion.

Then it was the moment for which we had all carefully prepared, about which we had endlessly talked, debated, argued, discussed. We took a pitcher of water and a bowl to the door of the house. Amy and I carried Zachary over to the threshold. With one hand I held his little body and with the other held his tiny legs over the bowl. Amy poured some water over his feet and rubbed it in. Then she held him and I did the same. Throughout, the mohel chanted in prayer. And in that way, we welcomed Zachary into our home and into our lives.

By now you are, of course, waiting for the "real" bris to begin, for the mohel to stuff a wine-soaked handkerchief into our son's mouth to muffle his cries and slightly anesthetize him, and then circumcise him, cutting off his foreskin in fulfillment of God's commandment to Abraham that he mark his son, Isaac, as a sign of obedience.

Sorry to disappoint, but that's the end of our story. Or at least the end of the story of Zachary's bris. There was no circumcision on that day. We had decided not to circumcise our son. Although he enters a world filled with violence, he would enter it without violence done to him. Although he will no doubt suffer many cuts and scrapes during his life, he would not bleed by our hand.

This was not an easy decision, but we had plenty of time to prepare--nine months to be exact. From the moment we saw the sonogram and read the results of the amniocentesis, the debate had been joined. Would we or wouldn't we? How would we decide? The remainder of this essay charts that process.

First, we talked. Constantly. Just when we thought the issue settled, we'd open it again. Each time one of us would read something, think something, pull something new off the Internet, we would reopen the discussion anew. We talked with friends, family members, religious authorities, doctors, and nurses. We asked our heterosexual women friends whether they had a preference for cut or uncut men. We each sought counsel from the email discussion groups to which we belonged, and we consulted organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association. We ordered and read more than a dozen books and pamphlets.

We contacted advocacy groups like National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (nocirc), National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (noharmm), and Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC). But these organizations, while eager, were too one-sided, andtended to minimize the difficulty of our decision.

And we didn't even bother calling the organizations like Brothers United for Future Foreskins (BUFF), National Organization of Restoring Men (NORM), and RECover a Penis (RECAP) that encourage men who might "feel victimized by the unnecessary loss of their natural anatomical wholeness," as Joseph Zoske writes in Journal of Men's Studies (1998), to undergo penile reconstructive surgery to "correct" the circumcised penis. Such procedures (involving either attaching a new flap or pulling the remaining tissue down over the glans to create a pseudo-foreskin) seem as unnecessary as circumcision, and no doubt attend to psychological distress that has only the most tenuous connection to a small flap of penile tissue.

Pros and Cons

We heard a lot of arguments, for and against. To be sure, there is no shortage of arguments in favor of circumcision. Some are aesthetic, and offer a psychological theory based on that aesthetic. Without circumcision, we heard, our son will look different from his father, and thus develop shame about his body. Our son will look different from other Jewish boys, especially in our heavily Jewish neighborhood, thus be subject to ridicule and teasing, and develop a sense that he does not belong. As one man on an email list to which I posed the question wrote, "I don't want my kid to be an object of interest while taking public showers, such as in gym class or in athletic clubs" (David Garnier, personal communication).

Other arguments are medical. After all, male circumcision is the most common surgical procedure in the United States and medical insurance carriers routinely cover hospital circumcision (which raises the incentives of medical practitioners to advocate the procedure). Our son's risks of penile infection, STD, and especially penile cancer would be significantly lower if he were to be circumcised. The likelihood of uterine cancer in his female sexual partners would be higher if he were not.

In addition, there were conflicting reports on the effects of circumcision on sexual functioning. There is some evidence from sex surveys that circumcised men are more sexually active and more sexually adventurous, especially as regards oral and anal sex. Circumcised men masturbate more often. And because circumcised men have less sexual sensitivity--after all, the foreskin contains about 1,000 nerve endings, fully one-third of the organ's pleasure receptors--there is some evidence that circumcision delays ejaculation somewhat.

And, of course, the weight of family, history, and culture do not rest lightly on the shoulders of the new parent. As Jews we knew full well the several-thousand-year-old tradition of following one of the most fundamental of God's commandments to Abraham--that "every male among you shall be circumcised...and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you."

In the end, none of the arguments in favor of circumcision was fully persuasive. Taken together, however, they raised issues that spoke to the core of our identities as a man and a woman, as parents, as feminists, and as Jews. Each of the points of contention seems worth discussing in a bit more detail.

The Psychological Aesthetics of Difference

That our son would look different from his father was easily negotiated. We decided that we will simply tell him that Daddy had no choice about his own body and especially his penis, but that now, as parents, we loved him so much that we decided we didn't want to hurt him like that--turning something that could be a cause of embarrassment into a source of pride.

And he will look more and more like the other boys rather than different. Circumcision of newborns is decreasingly popular, performed routinely only in the United States (as a medical procedure in the hospital) and in Israel, where it remains a significant religious ceremony. (Adolescent circumcision remains the norm in most Islamic nations.) After these two countries, only Canada (25%) and Australia (10%) have rates of newborn circumcision in double digits; in European nations it is virtually nonexistent among non-Jews.Over four-fifths of all men in the world are uncircumcised.

Here in the United States, rates have fallen from well over 85 percent in 1960 to about 66 percent in 2000, so there was every reason to believe that more and more boys would look like Zachary and that he had little to fear by way of social ostracism. In our own neighborhood in heavily Jewish Brooklyn, about half the baby boys born in our local hospital are circumcised in the hospital (though there is no information about those who have it performed as a religious ceremony in their homes or elsewhere).

Medical Ambivalence

While it is true that the risk of penile cancer or infection is virtually non-existent among circumcised men, rates among uncircumcised men, though higher, are still minuscule. In 1991, the American Academy of Pediatrics finally lifted its long-time advocacy of routine hospital circumcision for health reasons, and now takes no position on the question, thus leaving the decision entirely up to the parents' aesthetic or religious beliefs. They concluded that there were no medical benefits to circumcision as long as the boy was instructed in proper cleanliness.

Even the redoubtable Benjamin Spock changed his mind over the years. Having always stood for the conventional wisdom that parents know best, Spock told Redbook in an interview in 1989 that his preference "if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone." In a pamphlet, "Circumcision: A Medical or Human Rights Issue?" one doctor went so far as to suggest that removing the foreskin for strictly hygienic purposes wasanalogous to removing the eyelid for a cleaner eyeball.

Future sexual functioning didn't weigh particularly heavily in our minds either. For one thing, sexual functioning is so profoundly variable; we expect that if we teach Zachary to develop respect for his and others' bodies as well as their personal integrity, sexual pleasure will not be an issue for him or his partners. Second, the evidence is inconsistent. While circumcised men in the United States seem to have more sex, more varied sex, and masturbate more often, this may be more of a function of race, class, education, and religion than with whether or not the man is circumcised. It's middle class white men--who tend to be the most secular and the most sexual--who still compose the majority of circumcised men. Among blacks and Hispanics, rates of oral sex and masturbation are significantly lower than among white men, and middle class men are more sexually active and adventurous than working class men. "People with graduate degrees are the most likely to masturbate," noted Ed Laumann, a sociologist and one of the principal researchers in the University of Chicago sex survey in the early 1990s.

Nor were we ultimately concerned about the eventual effect on potential women partners. An informal poll among heterosexual women friends yielded a mixed anecdotal response. Most said they preferred circumcised men, and one or two indicated significant aesthetic discomfort with intact men. But an article in the January 1999 British Journal of Urology reported that women who had slept with both circumcised and intact men preferred sex with men who were not circumcised. The article reported that the women achieved orgasm faster, and were more likely to achieve multiple orgasms.

The Burden of History

Actually, the historical record of medical opinion consistently pushed us further into the anti-circumcision camp. The more we learned about the medical history, the more we were convinced that concerns other than the health of the baby led doctors to make circumcision a routine practice. Before the 1870s, in the United States, routine medical circumcision was quite rare, hovering around 5 to 6 percent of all newborn baby boys. Subscribers to the new Victorian sexual morality sought to reduce what critics perceived to be rampant sexual promiscuity, and especially masturbation, which, they believed, resulted in all sorts of debilities and even death. Masturbation was said to cause all manner of emotional, psychological, and physiological problems, from bed-wetting to adolescent insolence, acne to mental retardation, insanity, psychological exhaustion, and neurasthenia.

Circumcision's well-established ability to curb sexual appetite and pleasure was prescribed as a potential cure for sexual profligacy. Lewis Sayre, a prominent New York physician, hailed as "the Columbus of the prepuce" by his colleagues, experimented with circumcision as a cure for paralysis and other muscular ailments. Sayre's colleagues also noted that Jews had a lower rate of STDs than non-Jews, and hypothesized that this had to do with circumcision. (Actually this had to do with the fact that Jews had very little sexual contact with non-Jews.)

Another physician, Dr. Peter Remondino, advocated universal male circumcision since the foreskin, which he labeled "an unyielding tube," left the intact male "a victim to all manner of ills, sufferings...and other conditions calculated to weaken him physically, mentally, and morally; to land him, perchance, in jail, or even in a lunatic asylum." And Robert Tooke's popular All About the Baby (1896) recommended circumcision to prevent "the vile habit of masturbation."

J. H. Kellogg, pioneering health reformer, cereal inventor, and general medical quack also sounded the alarm; his best-selling health advice book, Plain Facts for Old and Young (1888), included nearly 100 pages on the dangers of masturbation. Circumcision is almost always successful in curbing masturbation, he counseled, and he suggested that the operation be performed "by a surgeon without administering anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind...." (Though this may have begun the tradition of not using anesthesia to perform circumcision, Kellogg did not pretend that the baby feels no pain during the procedure. Anyone who has ever witnessed a routine medical circumcision performed without anesthesia knows only too well how much pain the infant does feel.)

Victorian morality was pervasive. And as waves of uncircumcised immigrants entered the United States, circumcision of newborns was a way to stake a claim for a truly "American" morality. Rates jumped to 25 percent by 1900. After World War II, when the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that rates of STD were higher among blacks and uncircumcised white men, circumcision rates continued to climb, and by 1980, nearly nine of every tenAmerican boys was circumcised.

But it now appears that the rapid spread of circumcision as a routine medical procedure had more to do with Victorian hysteria about sexuality than it did with hygiene. And given the American Academy of Pediatrics' recent backpedaling on the issue--from ritual endorsement to anxious agnosticism to its most recent resigned disapproval--there seems to be no medicalargument--historical or hygienic--to compel the procedure.

The Weights of Tradition

The combined weights of family and religious culture were not so easily negotiated. As predicted, the future grandmothers were somewhat more sanguine about the prospect of non-circumcision than were the future grandfathers. It's ironic that it's always been women—even within Judaism—who have opposed circumcision as a violence done to their babies, and circumcised males who have supported it. Perhaps it is analogous to fraternity or military initiation ceremonies, where the salutary outcome of feeling a sense of belonging to the larger homosocial group is deemed worth any price, including the removal of a third of one's potential sexual pleasure.

In our case, neither Amy nor I felt any strong compulsion towards circumcision, but I was more strongly opposed on moral grounds. Amy's opposition would come later, when she first held Zachary in her arms and she felt a visceral rage that anyone would do anything that would ever hurt this new creature. In very gender stereotyped terms, Amy's opposition grew from her emotional, visceral connection to the baby; mine grew first from a principled opposition grounded in a sense of justice and ethics.

But equally gendered, I suppose, I felt that my Judaism had always given me the ability to stand up against injustice, that the imperative of the post-Holocaust generation of "Never Again!" impelled me to speak out against injusticeswherever I saw them.

Ultimately, it came down to Judaism. Jewish law is unequivocal on the subject--it has been a time-honored tradition since the celebrated Covenant with Abraham, the founding moment of monotheism. In Genesis 17, God appears before an aged Abraham--he's ninety-nine!--and commands that Abraham circumcise himself, his son, and all male members of his household (slaves and servants included).

Today circumcision is seen as a mitzvah, linking the family to a 4000-year history of a people. In his masterful compendium of Jewish law and lore, Essential Judaism, George Robinson writes that it is a mitzvah "one performs for its own sake as a subordination of oneself to a larger entity." What's a tiny foreskin compared to 4,000 years of tradition? And so it appeared that Jewish tradition might yet extract its pound of flesh--well, more likely about a quarter of an ounce--from yet another innocent baby.

Yet Judaism today is hardly as monolithic as we once thought. Even in biblical times there seems to have been some dissent about the procedure. If one follows the ritual as prescribed by Jewish law, the baby is held during the circumcision on what is called the Chair of Elijah, named after the prophet "who railed against the Jews for forsaking the ritual of circumcision." What that says to me is that not long after circumcision was instituted, there were a lot of people who were already resisting it. Then, too, there is the law that the brit milah be performed on the eighth day after the birth of the son, a law so ironclad that it is perhaps the only Jewish ritual that may not be postponed for the Sabbath or even for Yom Kippur. Those who were interested in enforcing circumcision were determined that there be no excuses--no doubt because a lot of people were trying to wiggle their way out.

In her research, Amy found that even as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, in Eastern Europe and Russia there was a widespread move to stop the practice--ironically, just when it was becoming more widespread in the United States. Led by women--what a surprise!--who thought the practice barbaric and patriarchal, the movement eventually even convinced Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who refused to allow his own son to be circumcised.

It is, after all, quite perplexing: why would God ask Abraham do such a thing to himself and all the males of his household--especially his son? For years, I had a little cartoon in my study that depicted Abraham, standing alone on top of a mountain, looking up at the sky, forlorn and exasperated. The caption read, "Let me see if I have this right: You want us to cut the ends of our dicks off?!?!"

Sublimating Pleasure for Torah

The circumcision as ritual makes sense, however, in three ways--one sexual, one political, and one symbolic. Throughout history, commentators on circumcision have agreed that the goal was to transform men's (and women's) sexual experience, and thus make men more eager to study Torah. The only thing they disagreed on was how, exactly, circumcision would accomplish this feat of sublimation.

Most observers assumed it would make a man less sexually sensitive, reduce his sexual ardor, and constrain his sexual impulses. In his fascinating study, Eros and the Jews, David Biale finds two contradictory impulses leading towards the same conclusion. Ancient Jews, such as Philo, understood circumcision as "the symbol of the excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure." In Guide to the Perplexed, the great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides prefigured J. H. Kellogg by nearly a millennium when he wrote that the commandment to circumcise was "not prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally." A chief reason for the ritual was "the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible." After all, he continued, "the fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasureis indubitable."

While Maimonides argued that the physiological loss was "the real purpose" of the ritual, others believed that the psychological impact far outweighed the physical. Biale notes that an early medieval Midrash Tadshe suggests that the "covenant of circumcision was therefore placed on the genitals so that the fear of God would restrain them from sin." Later thinkers took the physical to new extremes. The early-nineteenth-century scholar, Nahman of Bratslav, great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, argued that circumcision symbolizes the complete excision of sexual pleasure so that the "true zaddik" (holy man) experiences pain, not pleasure, during intercourse.

On the one hand, writers were convinced that men would feel less--much less, and therefore their frustration would lead inevitably towards holier devotion to study. On the other hand, some writers were convinced that circumcised men would experience far more sexual excitement--so much more, in fact, that it would leave both him and his partner so frustrated that they wouldn't want to have sex again. In an astonishing passage, Isaac ben Yedaiah, a late thirteenth-century French follower of Maimonides described the difference in such overheated prose that it borders on the salacious (which alone makes it worth quoting at length):

[A beautiful woman] will court a man who is uncircumcised in the flesh and lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her a long time because of the foreskin, which is a barrier against ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him, holding on to his genitals and says to him, 'Come back, make love to me.' This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles--sinews of iron--and from his ejaculation--that of a horse--which he shoots like an arrow into her womb. They are united without separating and he makes love twice and three times in one night, yet the appetite is not filled. And so he acts with her night after night. The sexual activity emaciates him of his bodily fat and afflicts his flesh and he devotes his brain entirely to women, an evilthing.

But when a circumcised man desires the beauty of a woman...he will find himself performing his task quickly, emitting his seed as soon as he inserts the crown.... He has an orgasm first; he does not hold back his strength. As soon as he begins intercourse with her, he immediately comes to a climax. She has no pleasure from him when she lies down or when she arises and it would be better for her if he had not known her ... for he arouses her passion to no avail and she remains in a state of desire ... (cited in Biale).

So more excitement means less pleasure--for both him and his female partner. Ancient rabbis, like Philo, had argued that not only did circumcision restrain male sexual ardor, but diminished women's pleasure. "It is hard for a woman to separate herself from an uncircumcised man with whom she has had intercourse." Everyone now seemed to agree that circumcision reduces the pleasure of the woman, which is precisely why it seems to have been prescribed. And precisely why Amy and I were growing increasingly suspicious.

There were political issues involved as well. It's interesting to observe the expansion of the ritual in terms of the relationship between Jews and their neighbors. Originally, apparently, the ritual consisted of only the brit milah--which is the excision of a small part of the foreskin. This enabled some Jewish men to continue to "pass" as gentiles in the ancient edition of those locker room showers that my friends continually discussed. Disgruntled rabbis then added the brit periah which removed the entire foreskin, making it impossible to pass as gentile. (It's an ironic twist of history that it is the brit periah that was adopted by modern medicine when it still prescribed routine neonatal circumcision.)

But this expansion also raised, for us, the thorniest political and moral dilemma. A close friend, a child of Holocaust survivors, told me the story of his uncle, who was not so lucky. His was the now-classic story of the young man, sneaking his way onto a train leaving Germany, under the watchful eyes of the Nazis. When caught, he was forced to strip in the station, and when it was discovered that he was circumcised, he was shot on the spot.

Here was a political reason to circumcise, a slap in the face of anti-Semitism, a way to connect my son to a history of resistance against anti-Semitism, and to recognize the ways in which physical difference (whether congenitally or culturally derived) is grounds for discrimination. In fact, some historians claim that the brit periah, the more extensive circumcision, was first used by the Egyptians to mark their Hebrew slaves, so that they would be readily and permanently identifiable. Ironic then, that once free, these same Hebrews made the more dramatic statement a matter of their own inclusion.

Penile Patriarchy

But what was ultimately decisive for us was the larger symbolic meaning of circumcision, and particularly the gendered politics of the ritual. After all, it is not circumcision that makes a man Jewish; one can certainly be Jewish without it. Religious membership is passed on through the mother: if the mother is Jewish then the baby is Jewish and nothing that the baby does--or that is done to him or her--can change that basic fact. A rabbi is trained to counsel parents of mixed religious backgrounds (in which the man is Jewish and the woman is not) that circumcision does not make their son Jewish, but that only the mother's conversion will make it so.

No, circumcision means something else: the reproduction of patriarchy. Abraham cements his relationship to God by a symbolic genital mutilation of his son. It is on the body of his son that Abraham writes his own beliefs. In a religion marked by the ritual exclusion of women, such a marking not only enables Isaac to be included within the community of men--he can be part of a minyan, can pray in the temple, can study Torah--but he can also lay claim to all the privileges to which being a Jewish male now entitles him. Monotheistic religions invariably worship male Gods, and exhibit patriarchal political arrangements between the sexes. (Looked at this way, since both Judaism and Islam practice circumcision, it is really Christianity that is the deviant case, and it would be worth exploring how Christianity justified its evasion of the practice since it is certain that Jesus was circumcised.)

Circumcision, it became clear, is the single moment of the reproduction of patriarchy. It's when patriarchy happens, the single crystalline moment when the rule of the fathers is reproduced, the moment when male privilege and entitlement is passed from one generation to the next, when the power of the fathers is enacted upon the sons, a power which the sons will someday then enact on the bodies of their own sons. To circumcise our son, then, would be, unwittingly or not, to accept as legitimate 4000 years not of Jewish tradition, but of patriarchal domination of women.

Our choice was clear.

We welcomed Zachary into our family on that morning without a circumcision. We decided that we want him to live in a world without violence, so we welcomed him without violence. We decided that we want him to live in a world in which he is free to experience the fullness of the pleasures of his body, so we welcomed him with all his fleshy nerves intact. And we decided that we want him to live in a world in which male entitlement is a waning memory, and in which women and men are seen--in both ritual and in reality--as full equals and partners. So we welcomed him equally, his mother and I, in the time-honored way that desert cultures have always welcomed strangers to their tents: We washed his feet.

Michael Kimmel is the author of Manhood in America and, most recently, The Gendered Society (Oxford University Press). He teaches sociology at SUNY Stony Brook.

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