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Does Circumcision Reduce the Risk of Contracting HIV?

On a recent episode of the reality show, "Tori and Dean: Inn Love," the couple was discussing their differing views with her doctor regarding whether they would circumcise their soon-to-be-born son. Tori wanted to circumcise and Dean did not. Tori, as in Tori Spelling, is Jewish, and Dean McDermott, her actor husband, is not. What I found fascinating about their conversation is that whether you are rich and famous, or just the average couple like most of us are, the issues expressed are the same. Tori expressed her desire for her son to "look like" everyone else. She also said that she is Jewish and that is what Jews do. That perspective is very common for Jews, regardless of their religious involvement or lack thereof. Dean, on the other hand, expressed his fear that his son might be harmed by having a circumcision done, a frequent concern.

The most interesting yet partially distressing part of the conversation for me was the doctor's response to the couple. He simply said there is no medical evidence to support circumcision. However, he also said that the rumors Dean had heard about the possibilities of death related to circumcision are just theoretical if the circumcision is properly performed. The doctor was correct on the latter statement, but very wrong on the first. In the past year alone, in addition to decades-long research studies, definitive evidence about the medical benefits of infant and adult circumcision has been staggering.

Let me now give you an overview of these medical findings. I will also share with you that medical findings were and remain very much a part of how Jewish tradition has developed. After reading this information, if you and your spouse have a conversation similar to the one Tori and Dean had, you, unlike them, will have the correct information to make an educated decision.

Over the last two decades, dozens of research results have confirmed the link between male circumcision and prevention of HIV. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic struck in the early 1980s, the twin African villages of Luvale and Lozi in Zambia had drastically different HIV rates-Lozi's was three times higher than Luvale's. According to Dr. Edgar Schoen, a prominent pediatrician and the chairman of the 1989 American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic struck in the early 1980s, the villages differed in only one respect: sacred circumcision was practiced in Luvale while the Lozi were left uncircumcised. It was calculated that if the epidemic continued at the same rate, 60% of the Lozi children would die of AIDS. The Lozi parents saw this danger, and in defiance of tradition and the village elders, began to take their young sons to other villages to be circumcised. These two villages are just one example of the growing awareness of how circumcision can help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS--an awareness that is causing an enormous push for circumcision throughout Africa and other parts of the world where AIDS is rampant. In 2001 the potential for circumcision in fighting HIV was recognized in an article in the Botswana Guardian: "If in the year 1985, all Botswana men and boys had been circumcised, HIV/AIDS might never have reached pandemic proportions in this country… The time has come in this country for public discussion about making circumcision widely available in clinics on a voluntary basis and strongly recommended for all boys under the age of 15."( Klatis and Mogwe, Botswana Guardian, Jan. 2001).

Jewish tradition teaches that saving even a single life is as if you have saved an entire world and thus destroying a single life is as if you have destroyed an entire world.

You also needn't worry that a mohel will rush to circumcise your son. Jewish law is very clear about the importance of taking into account medical concerns when determining the date of the circumcision.

According to the Talmud:

Extreme care should be taken not to circumcise an infant that is ailing; for the fulfillment of all precepts must be postponed in deference to human life. Moreover, the circumcision, normally performed on the eighth day of life, can be performed on a later date (than one prescribed by law), while the life of a human being once sacrificed can never be restored. (Shabbat 134a; Maim. Milah I, 16, 18; Yoreh Deah CCLXII, 1; CCLXIII, 1)
…If a woman lost a child because of the circumcision, and the same thing happened to one of her sisters, then the children of her remaining sisters must not be circumcised until they are grown up and have a stronger constitution. (Yebamot 64b; Maim. Milah I, 18; Yoreh Deah CCLXIII, 2, 3)
It is essential that the circumciser thoroughly examine the physical condition of the infant, and he must warn the mother to notify him of any weakness she may observe in the infant. (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh CLXIII, 3)

In addition to the potential medical benefits--and the proscribed medical precautions--the ritual of circumcision has the power to link your son with a vibrant, growing Jewish tradition and community. And please know that this powerful connection to Jewish life can be embraced immediately, or if you haven't yet decided how much (or little) of an embrace your family wants, can be postponed until the moment is right for your family. In any case, once your son has had a circumcision, whether ritually or not, your family will have many choices as to the kind of embrace you want, be it Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Humanistic, New Age or secular.

I would encourage you to empower yourselves by learning all you can about the issue. Then whatever your conclusion is, feel secure that it was based on knowledge, not ignorance or fear!

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet."
Rabbi Donni C. Aaron

Rabbi Donni C. Aaron received her ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2001. She is the current Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism in Los Angeles, Calif. Donni is married to Rabbi Scott T. Aaron and has two sons, Meitav and Nitzan, and a daughter, Naor.

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