I had always thought that if I had a son I would not circumcise him. I felt the need to challenge this Jewish tradition. But when I found out we were going to have a baby boy, the sudden emotional desire to have him circumcised was immediate and very strong.
My partner and I are both Jewish, non-religious, but we culturally identify to differing degrees. I feel a very strong Jewish cultural identity. From the age of 16, Judaism became a very important part of my life. I think at that age I was looking for something to give me stability and a sense of meaning. My family life had been a little rocky. With my parents getting divorced when I was around five, I struggled to find a place of comfort in life. So when I was fifteen I made some new Jewish friends, and became involved in a Jewish youth movement, it seemed to give me some of the stability I was looking for. At 16 I went to Israel for a month with a group of 40 kids my age. It was a life changing moment for me, when I realised I belonged to a people with a long and varied history. On my return, I turned away from my recent past, one that involved a fair amount of drugs and juvenile criminal behaviour. And made my new direction, learning and understanding more about my Judaism. I ended up living in Israel for 6 years and immersing myself in secular Jewish culture. And still today it plays a pretty defining part of who I am.
So now I faced what felt like a huge decision, the idea of not circumcising my son. Jude, my partner, was very clear it was something she did not want to do. For her the idea of cutting off any part of her son’s anatomy for an ancient ritual she felt meant nothing to her, was not at all what she wanted to do. She has less attachment to her Jewish roots than I, but similarly recognises the importance that the youth movement ‘Netzer’ played in forming her identity and creating a sense of community.
So why did it all change for me, the moment I found out I was having a baby boy? Why was my desire to circumcise so immediate? It took me quite a while to start to understand why I felt so strongly about it. It was a very personal and emotional response. I felt by not circumcising my son, I was effectively cutting off (pardon the pun) his connection with a 5000 year old cultural history. And for thousands of years Jews have performed this ritual as the first and important means of identifying with a tribe/community. So as a self-identifying Jew, the idea of not doing this for my son created a lot of anxiety and confusion for me.
The idea that he might one day feel the need to become circumcised to feel truly a part of the community also filled me with dread. Bringing him up as a Jew without having circumcised might cause him feelings of angst and conflict. My mother converted to Judaism through the Reform synagogues. This meant that Orthodox Judaism does not accept that I am a Jew. When I lived in Israel I was unable to get married, as only Orthodox rabbis are allowed to perform marriages, and there are no civil ceremonies. All my life I struggled to feel 100% Jewish because I was not defined as ‘Jewish’. You may say, why let them bother you? Well today it does not, but when I was still growing as a person I was not as confident on who I was, so having people tell me I was not Jewish was a bitter pill to swallow at the time, one that I could not shrug off so easily. So the idea that I might cause a level of confusion for my son in his own Jewish identity is something that bothered me intensely. Would I be setting him up for a conflict in his identity? Will he feel some people’s shock and horror at the idea of a Jewish man being uncircumcised? Or will it not bother him at all? Well I suppose most of these questions are unanswerable in the short term. But they were a big part of my dilemma.
On the other side, I totally understood Jude’s reasoning for not circumcising - that it was a ritual that needed questioning. Jude also worried about the pain it would cause him, and the potential trauma held in the body that could manifest itself in the future. I certainly did not feel this. For sure I did not want to cause my child harm or pain, but I felt that the procedure was probably over quite quickly. And I could not see any real evidence (such that I need) for there to be held trauma from such an act.
But I did totally understand that she felt it was something she wished to avoid if at all possible. We both seemed to understand each other’s position very clearly. We even got to a stage where we both could not see how we could ask the other to do what we wanted, i.e. Jude felt my pain at the idea of not circumcising, and I felt hers for the idea of circumcising. It almost felt like we had no idea how to come to a decision. Jude did a lot of research, and I did a fair amount myself. We spoke to a Rabbi, watched a number of documentaries, contacted and spoke to someone in Israel that is a part of the ‘Intactivist’ community (those fighting for keeping the penis intact), went to a discussion on circumcision and read a whole bunch of material. We wanted to move our positions to come closer to each other. I also felt on a deep level that I did want to have the courage not to circumcise and potentially forge a new way of looking at being Jewish and having a foreskin.
I did some research into the medical pros and cons of being circumcised as opposed to being uncircumcised. And without going into all the arguments here, as it would be very lengthy endeavour, I came to the conclusion that there seemed to be no health benefit strong enough to justify circumcision. The one strong argument I found is about the transition of STD’s and HIV being far lower in circumcised males. I feel this might be a good argument for circumcision in a country that has an AIDS epidemic, but in the West today we do not face such a situation. And sensible safe sex education will and has done a similar job, and in terms of the transmission of HIV has worked very well as a preventative measure.
It is argued that by cutting off the foreskin, the head of the penis becomes far less porous and less open to callouses (and this is the reason HIV is less likely to be transferred). This logically leads to the idea of the head being less sensitive, and I came across a few testimonials of men in their mid twenties who chose to become circumcised as they felt it was a healthier option, After doing so they found that their sex lives drastically changed, and that it was far less sensitive. A great analogy that I read was that it was like listening to a Mozart concerto without the violin section. It is still beautiful, and if you never hear it with the violins you will never know the difference. I thought about this, and the idea of denying my son the potential full enjoyment of sex was something again I did not feel comfortable doing, or deciding for him.
Jewish Halacha (Jewish Law) nowhere states that a Jewish man who is not circumcised is not considered Jewish, meaning the sin falls on the parents not the child. And there is only one thing a Jewish man cannot do religiously if he is uncircumcised and that is to partake in the Pascal Lamb (which can only happen once the Temple is rebuilt). So I am not worried halachicly.
Anyway we made a decision. And as you have probably guessed by now we decided not to circumcise. It kind of happened gradually. After Lev was born, he had some complications with breathing and the very usual Jaundice, and had to spend 6 days in Hospital. The fear we felt in those days kind of made us feel there was no way we wanted to cause any more distress for the little man. So I said, let’s not circumcise and leave it for a while and see how we feel. And today 6 weeks on from his birth I feel very happy with the decision we have made. And I hope this continues.
I still have these fears about giving Lev a mixed message about his identity. But I hope that I can help him understand why we decided not to follow this ritual, and I sincerely hope that he will become a confident young man who is happy in his body. I am sure as parents we will make mistakes and give him some mixed messages, but I will try my hardest not to - none of us are perfect. I hope to pass on a pride in his cultural identity and a pride in his differences. I am sure we will have a somewhat different Jewish life to the norm. For me actively looking for the messages in Judaism on a secular level will be a life-long endeavour. I am sure we will pass on to him other practices that might help him to be a compassionate caring human being in life. And that these will not be a source of conflict for him, but rather more a place of diversity from which he can draw. If Lev ever decides he wants to become circumcised I will happily support him in his decision. And I will feel content in knowing it was his decision.
I really do hope that in the future other Jewish families make the decision not to circumcise. I would love for there to be a growing community of Jews that are not circumcised, partly so that Lev does not feel like he is the only one, and as I think it would make for a more pluralistic community. I make no judgements on any father or mother that decide to circumcise. It is a decision for each family to make themselves. It does not feel to me like mutilation. And I do not wish here to go into the arguments for and against calling circumcision a form of mutilation. But I really hope that every Jewish family (and non Jewish family for whom circumcision is an option), spends sometime thinking and looking in to the arguments for and against - as no decision is better than an informed one. And lastly I am happy to be contacted by anyone struggling with this decision. I can only talk from my experience and feelings, but am happy to share these in more detail.