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A New and Controversial Look at the Age-Old Practice of Circumcision

Review of Questioning Circumcision; A Jewish Perspective, by Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. Foreword by Rabbi Raymond Singer, Ph.D. Boston: Vanguard Publications, 1998. 132 pp. $11.95. The book can be ordered at: www.circumcision.org.

I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep; every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. (Gen. 17:6-13)

According to traditionalists, the above passage from Genesis is the source of one of the most fundamental and widely practiced rituals in Judaism--male circumcision. In fact, the very word in Hebrew used to signify circumcision is brit, which means "covenant." But in Questioning Circumcision; A Jewish Perspective, author Ronald Goldman challenges the notion that the roots of circumcision are biblical. In fact, he challenges numerous other assumptions generally held about the subject as well.

Goldman notes that both religious scholars and cultural anthropologists concur that circumcision was a custom among Jews long before it was written down in the Torah and became associated with the covenant between God and Abraham. The author discusses several alternate explanations for the origins of the practice, one of which is the idea that circumcision may have functioned as a symbolic sacrifice to God, since in ancient times it was customary to sacrifice the first born son to "redeem" future children in the family. (Exod: 22:28).

Goldman points out that because the concept of biblically mandated male circumcision is so deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche, many mistakenly believe that males must be circumcised in order to be Jewish. (This belief may have been encouraged by the policy of some Jewish communities in the past to marginalize uncircumcised males by not allowing them to perform important Jewish rites.) But the fact remains that in order for a person to be Jewish, all he or she needs is to have a Jewish birth mother. As it is stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica: "It (circumcision) isn't a sacrament, and any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not."

The author not only questions both historical and cultural rationales for circumcision, he also refutes contemporary justifications for the practice, including the assertion that circumcision has health benefits. The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) evidently shares his convictions as it has countered several health claims usually ascribed to circumcision, including respective decreases in the incidence in penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. But the author's strongest argument against circumcision is based on what he believes is a misconception of its immediate and long-term consequences on the child who is circumcised.

According to Goldman, most Jews (and especially those who perform circumcisions) believe the infant feels little or no pain during the procedure, or that if pain is experienced, it is "mild and easily tolerated." But Goldman quotes several medical sources claiming that circumcision is both painful and traumatizing. Goldman avers that many babies who have been circumcised have exhibited discernible negative behavioral changes after the event--and his claims are supported by the AAP. The author also contends that men who have been circumcised experience significantly less sexual pleasure than do those who remain intact. (For this information, Goldman interviewed men who were circumcised as adults and therefore had a basis for comparison.)

There is no doubt that this book is controversial and may even provoke anger in some readers, especially those who are more closely tethered to tradition. This may in part be due to the fact that circumcision took on added significance in Jewish history because of the martyrdom offered for its sake during the persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanes, and later, by the Romans. Thus a rejection of the practice may seem like "disloyalty to the clan" or a betrayal of one's ancestors.

But the fact remains that there have been recent stirrings among Jews against the ancient practice, both in the U.S. and in Israel. And in the U.S., the only country that circumcises most of its males for non-religious reasons, many doctors and pediatricians have also called for a halt to the practice as they deem it potentially dangerous, both physically and psychologically, to the infant.

The author's style is clear and straightforward, and he provides comprehensive coverage for his topic. (He even offers "alternatives rituals" in his addendum.) Questioning Circumcision; a Jewish Perspective requires an open mind on the part of the reader, but it should be of interest to anyone who has ever had any thoughts--historical, cultural, or practical--about the practice. An additional article by Goldman that appeared in the Jewish Spectator can be seen at www.circumcision.org.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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