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Circumcision: My Position

October, 2002

I am a sixty-eight-year-old retired physician, a Jew who is an active member of a Conservative synagogue, and a grandfather.

When I was in Medical School in the 1950s, almost all newborn males were circumcised. Despite the fact that prophylactic surgery was not generally performed, we were taught that circumcision was the correct and healthy thing to do. It was thought to control masturbation, decrease cancer risk, and help curtail sexually transmitted diseases. We learned nothing of foreskin anatomy and function. Infant nervous systems were thought to be undeveloped and their pain was so trivialized that it was almost ignored. As a young physician, I participated in many circumcisions. Over the years I've witnessed brit milah (covenant of circumcision) in the homes of friends and family. I was mildly uncomfortable with the practice, but like most physicians, and like most Jews, I said and did nothing to question circumcision.

Three years ago, as I was about to become a grandfather for the first time, my interest in the subject became more focused. I learned that more and more physicians now realize that any potential benefits of circumcision are far outweighed by its risks and drawbacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that "Routine circumcision is not necessary." Whether done by a physician in the hospital, or a mohel in a ritual brit milah, the procedure has significant complication rates of infection, hemorrhage and even death. Mortality may actually be higher than thought since some of these deaths have not been attributed to circumcision, but listed only under their secondary causes, such as hemorrhage or infection. I've learned of the very important role the foreskin has in the protection of the head of the penis in the infant, and in sexual functioning in adulthood. It has also been shown that the newborn feels pain even more acutely than adults do, and that many of the infants who stop crying during circumcision are actually in a state of traumatic shock. To my amazement I learned that the USA and South Korea are now the only countries in the world routinely circumcising for non-religious reasons.

With these overwhelming reasons not to circumcise, I began to look at the practice of ritual circumcision in the Jewish community and I learned that circumcision is not an identity issue. You do not need to be circumcised to be Jewish any more than you need to observe many other Jewish laws. The bottom line is this: if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, period. And in the Reform tradition, if your father is Jewish and you are given a Jewish education and raised Jewishly, your Jewish identity is accepted.

Among Jews in Europe (only 40% of newborn Jewish boys in Sweden are being circumcised), South America, and even in Israel, circumcision is not universal. Growing numbers of American Jews are now leaving their sons intact as they view circumcision as a part of Jewish law that they can no longer accept. Alternative brit b'li milah (literally "covenant without circumcision") or brit shalom ceremonies (ritual naming ceremony without cutting) are being performed by some rabbis. Increasing numbers of intact boys are going to religious school, having Bar Mitzvahs, and taking their place as young adults in the Jewish community.*

As a Jewish grandfather, I want to assure young couples about to bring a child into the world that there are members of the Jewish "older" generation, including Jewish physicians and even some rabbis, who feel as I do. If your heart and instincts tell you to leave your son intact, listen!

*Here is the list of Brit Shalom Officiants

Brit Shalom is a non-cutting naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys. They may be officiated by rabbis and other experienced lay leaders. If desired, providers can aid parents in devising their own ceremony. This ceremony is meant to replace Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) and has also been termed Alternative Brit (or Bris), Brit b'li Milah and Brit Hayim.

Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant
332 O'Connor St.
Menlo Park CA 94025
(650) 326-5330
yeshaia@aol.com

Norm Cohen, NOCIRC of Michigan
PO Box 333
Birmingham MI 48012
(248) 642-5703
NormCohen@compuserve.com

Moshe Rothenberg
715 Ocean Parkway Apt 2K
Brooklyn NY 11230
(718) 859-0650
sammosh@juno.com

Rabbi Nathan Segal
POB 880
Larkspur CA 94977
(415) 419-3511
nathan@rabbinathan.com

Ronald Goldman, Circumcision Resource Center
PO Box 232
Boston MA 02133
(617) 523 0088
crc@circumcision.org

Rabbi Binyamin Biber, MSW, though he prefers to be addressed as Ben.
9039 Sligo Creek Pkwy #1216
Silver Spring MD 20901,
301.563.6341
rav.bibi@verizon.net

Hebrew for "covenant of circumcision," a ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old. It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." 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."
Mark Reiss

Mark Reiss is a retired physician, an active member of a Conservative synagogue, a grandfather and a performing classical pianist. For the past few years he has become interested in children's rights and the movement to end infant circumcision within the United States, with specific attention directed towards stopping circumcision within Judaism. Recently Mark has become Vice President of Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC).

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