Letter to a new Jewish mother
- Category: Jewish issues
- Published on 01 October 2016
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I hear that you just gave birth to your first child – a healthy baby boy. Mazel tov! I also hear that everything is going well, just as it should be. You have no cause for worry.
This should be a happy time for you. And so it is, I am sure.
Well, a happy time on the whole.
No, not altogether happy. Not one hundred percent. There is a fly in the ointment. Something does worry you, however you may try not to think about it. Now and then disturbing images intrude, unbidden and unwelcome.
If it were a girl you would have nothing to dread. You were hoping it would be a girl, weren’t you?
If it were a girl there would be no bris. You would not be expected to hand her over to a mohel on the eighth day of her life.1 And then afterward you will not face the distressing task of tending the physical and emotional wound.
But it’s a boy. Arrangements for the bris will be made very soon, if they have not been made already.
I implore you not to believe anyone who assures you that circumcision is just the removal of a ‘flap of skin’ from the penis, no more destructive than clipping nails or cutting hair. The expression ‘fore-skin’ is a lie: the prepuce, which is the proper term for the part of the penis cut away in circumcision, is much more than a piece of superfluous skin. It performs many valuable functions. It is packed full of nervous tissue and extremely sensitive.
With or without anesthesia – itself painful and not very effective – circumcision is the most terrifying and agonizing ordeal that your son will ever go through (unless perhaps he is badly wounded in a road crash or in armed combat).
You will hear his terror and agony in his gasps and screams. And if you defy custom and insist upon viewing the cutting up close you will see his terror and agony in his desperate and futile struggle to escape.
Circumcision has grave long-term effects. It probably underlies the psychological complexes to which Jewish men are prone. To give a personal example, I have always had an apparently irrational fear of anyone touching my genitals, even during a medical examination. That fear, I suspect, has its origin in the buried memory of circumcision.
Parents have their baby boys circumcised for all sorts of reasons. Some are persuaded that it provides protection against penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases (untrue). Others are concerned at the supposed difficulty of keeping the prepuce clean. Yet others think a circumcised penis looks nicer. Some even do it to follow the example set by the British royal family.
These are not, however, the reasons – at least not the main reasons – why Jews circumcise their sons. Jews circumcise their sons in order to pass an age-old mark of Jewish identity on to the next generation – as a sign of the Covenant that according to the Book of Genesis God established with Abraham and his descendants.
But the biblical foundation for circumcision is less straightforward than it seems. The story of God’s Covenant with Abraham, like many other Bible stories, is told twice – once in Chapter 15 of Genesis and then again in Chapter 17. And, as with other Bible stories that are told twice, the two versions of the story are not identical. There are certain differences between them. The main difference concerns circumcision, which is mentioned only in Chapter 17.
Modern scholars who apply the documentary method of biblical analysis view the Bible as a compilation of passages written and edited by different authors at different times. The telling of many stories twice in discrepant versions was one of the facts that led to this view. Two basic types of source are distinguished: the ‘early’ sources labeled J and E2 (‘early’ meaning before the building of the First Temple under King Solomon during the tenth century BCE) and later ‘priestly’ sources – passages added by priests either at the temple in Jerusalem or in exile in Babylon (D, P, R).
Now the account of the Covenant in Chapter 15, which makes no mention of circumcision, comes from one of the early sources (J). The account in Chapter 17, where circumcision plays a prominent role, comes from a later priestly source (P). Therefore circumcision (whenever it arose) originally had a meaning unconnected with the Covenant. It was given its current meaning as a sign of the Covenant by temple priests who wanted to supplement or perhaps supersede the original meaning.
What was this original meaning of circumcision? Freud believed that circumcision originated as a substitute for child sacrifice. In this case circumcision and animal sacrifice would have served a similar purpose. Animal sacrifice was certainly a substitute for child sacrifice. This is the clear message of the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son Isaac, narrowly averted when an angel stays his hand and a ram conveniently appears.
You may ask what need there was for an additional substitute for child sacrifice. After all, had the example of Abraham and Isaac not effectively replaced child sacrifice by animal sacrifice at the very dawn of Judaism? In fact, there is good reason to suppose that child sacrifice continued to be practiced throughout the pre-Temple period.
First, the documentary method shows that in the original version of the story there is no angelic intervention and Abraham goes ahead and sacrifices Isaac.
Second, in the Book of Judges (11:31-40) we find a much later story of child sacrifice. The military commander Jephthah fulfills a vow to sacrifice the first member of his household who comes out to greet him upon his return from defeating the Ammonites. This turns out to be his beloved daughter. No angel intervenes. We are not even told her name.
While the theory of the origin of circumcision as a substitute for child sacrifice remains unproven, there are indications that it may be correct. Like circumcision, animal sacrifice was performed on the eighth day of life (‘Let [your cattle and sheep] stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day’ – Exodus 22:30). The Midrash associates the blood of circumcision with the blood of animal sacrifice as equally pleasing to God.
Consider, finally, a prayer that used to be said immediately following circumcision (though no longer in wide use): ‘King of the Universe, may it be Your will to regard and accept this [the prepuce] as though I had offered him [the child] before Your glorious throne.’3
What are the implications of all this for us today?
The need to provide substitutes for child sacrifice is long past. Jews are most unlikely to return to the practice of sacrificing their children, whether they continue to circumcise their sons or not.
Nor is there any necessary link between circumcision and the Jewish Covenant with God. There is no reason why newborn children of both sexes should not be welcomed into the Covenant without marking the occasion in their flesh.
Judaism has changed many times in the past. It will change in the future. How it changes is up to Jews themselves. Who else? Why should Jews not decide that the time has come to leave behind the rite of Brit Milah (Covenant of Circumcision)? Why should Jews not decide to replace it with the ceremony of Brit Chayim (Covenant of Life) or Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace)?4
Some more points for you to ponder.
It is best whenever possible to take decisions that if need be can be reversed. A decision to circumcise can be reversed only with difficulty, only to a limited extent, and only if the prepuce has been partly – not completely – removed. A decision not to circumcise can easily be reversed. If when your son grows up he wants to be circumcised he can arrange it for himself. That will be his decision and his responsibility – not yours.
Perhaps you yourself would prefer not to have your son circumcised but everyone around you seems to expect it and you lack the inner strength to go against those expectations. You are afraid of the reaction of your husband, your mother, your mother-in-law, other relatives, perhaps your rabbi. You dread their outrage. You do not feel up to confrontations with them.
That is understandable. But please bear in mind the likelihood that allowing circumcision to take place will lead to a much more painful confrontation in a few years’ time – a confrontation with the son who is about to be circumcised.
This is because the climate of opinion is slowly but steadily turning against circumcision. One result is that more and more circumcised boys and men are starting to resent the fact that their penises were cut without their consent. They ask their parents why this horrible thing was done to them when they were helpless babies. If your son is one of them how will you answer him? How will you feel? Believe me, the distress you will feel then will be much more intense and last much longer than any upset caused now by disapproving relatives.
Why, you may ask, do I address this letter specifically to a new mother? Why not a new father? It is his child too, after all.
Well, I hope that fathers as well as mothers will listen to what I have to say. But I place greater hope in the response of mothers – mainly on account of the emotional bond that usually forms between a mother and her newborn baby.
Whatever a new mother may previously have thought about circumcision, she feels a powerful instinctual urge to nurture her baby and protect him or her from harm. So there is always a ‘danger’ that she will make a scene at the bris or withdraw her consent. That is why her relatives try to keep her as far away as possible from the place where the circumcision is performed until the rite is completed.
I hope that you will settle the matter in good time and come to an understanding with your husband. However, even if you fail to persuade your husband, even if the bris has already been arranged, it is not yet too late to protect your son from harm. In order to avoid pressure and open conflict you may decide to ‘disappear’ with your baby a day or two before the scheduled bris. Perhaps you have sympathetic friends with whom you could stay for a few days. If not, you could just take the baby to another place a few miles away and book into a hotel.
Even if you do not do this and the day of the bris has arrived, even if the guests and the mohel are already in your home, it is still not too late. All you need do is quietly take the mohel aside and explain to him that you no longer consent to the circumcision. To smooth things over you can apologize for the inconvenience and offer to pay him for his time.
You can save your son from agony and trauma. Probably only you can save him. Even if none of the people around you support your decision, you can still act on it. After all, you are not really alone. You have your baby son with you – still contented and trusting, still unwounded and intact, still safe and secure from all harm – and all thanks to you, his mother.
As for me, I would like to be there and stand by your side, but unfortunately I cannot. I shall be with you in spirit.
1. A circumcision performed by a doctor under the guise of a medical procedure is likely to occur even earlier – within a few hours of birth. But in this letter my focus is on circumcision as a Jewish religious rite.
2. Depending on the name used for God – Yahweh (Jahweh in German) and Elohim.
3. Leonard R. Glick’s Marked in the Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 58 (my italics). See also pp. 18, 22-3.
Further reading and viewing
For medical assessments of circumcision and its consequences see: Paul M. Fleiss, MD, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision (Grand Central Publishing, 2002); Ronald Goldman, Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma (Vanguard Publications, 1997). For a collection of personal accounts by victims see: Lindsay R. Watson, Unspeakable Mutilations: Circumcised Men Speak Out (2014). See also the YouTube videos ‘Elephant in the Hospital.’ Websites include: SavingSons.org, drmomma.org, nocirc.org, intactamerica.org.
A great deal of important information about circumcision is available at websites of professionals opposed to the practice, such as Doctors Opposing Circumcision, Nurses for the Rights of the Child (recommended especially for the videos), and Attorneys for the Rights of the Child.
For fuller explanations of the documentary method see: Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1987). The charts at the back (pp. 246-60) are especially useful. Also watch this brilliant documentary on ancient Israel, which reconstructs the emergence of Judaism by combining biblical with archeological evidence: