In accordance with Jewish custom, when a newborn boy is 8 days old, he is circumcised. Traditionally, a mohel, a Jewish person trained in the practice of "brit milah,” or circumcision, performs this religious and cultural rite of passage. The procedure is typically done in the home, followed by a celebration over Jewish-style cuisine, drinks, and conversation. When asked why, many Jewish parents say they circumcise their sons simply because it is “tradition.” Specifically, the ritual of circumcision is a rite of passage, a symbol of “total obedience to God’s will.” At the ritual's onset, it was also believed that circumcision provided a way of distinguishing a Jewish boy or man from others, particularly those who might seek to inflict harm on, or "pose as Jews." Today, circumcision is widely practiced outside Judaism - for religious, cultural and health reasons.
Tradition or Barbarism, or Both?
Religious traditions can be wonderful in drawing communities and families closer; they create an innate bond and sense of identity. But when do we reach an inflection point where a cultural or religious ritual that’s historically been socially acceptable, is considered barbaric and generally looked upon by society with disdain? For an example, look no further than the brit milah itself. In accordance with Jewish law, a mohel “must draw blood from the circumcision wound.” Up until the 1800's, the “m’tzitzah” or removal of the blood, was effected by the mohel who would suck the blood off the newborns penis. Centuries ago most Jews were unmoved by the thought, let alone the act, of a grown man putting his lips on an 8-day old’s penis to “clean” the wound. Of course, today all but the most regressive people cringe when they learn about this part of a bris that was formally commonplace.
In the ultra-religious Haredi sect, a mohel still removes the blood using his mouth. Regrettably, this abhorrent “custom” which most people would (now) argue is analogous to sexual assault, has resulted in multiple cases of an incurable sexually transmitted disease (genital HSV-1 or herpes) being communicated from mohel to baby. A newborn’s immune system is not fully developed. The herpes virus is usually an unpleasant annoyance for an adult; it can kill an infant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has documented cases of death resulting from herpes acquired via transmission from mohel to newborn.
Fortunately, today almost all mohels remove the blood with a suction device. But 100 years from now, might our descendants reflect back upon the present-day customs of the brit milah and cringe in a similar way to us when we learned about the related practices of the past?
I am Jewish. I have attended a few brit miloht (plural for brit milah) in years past. While I remain malleable and welcome a respectful debate, my current position is that I will not attend any more of these "celebrations." I cannot in good faith – excuse the pun – take part in any social, cultural or religious gathering consuming Jewish fare, drinking wine and conversing, to celebrate a newborn boy’s religious rite of passage that involves his penis being handled by a grown stranger. In my view, doing so would be perverted and tantamount to child abuse.
I am a proponent of circumcision. The procedure has tangible health benefits. But it should be performed in a hospital, or sanitary doctor’s office by a licensed physician accompanied by appropriate support staff.
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.” Indeed, over 90 percent of the U.S. male population has been circumcised. Data is indicative that circumcised males benefit from:
• Easier hygiene. Circumcision makes it simpler to wash the penis. However, boys with uncircumcised penises can be taught to wash regularly beneath the foreskin.
• Decreased risk of urinary tract infections. The risk of urinary tract infections in males is low, but these infections are more common in uncircumcised males. Severe infections early in life can lead to kidney problems later.
• Decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections. Circumcised men might have a lower risk of certain sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
• Prevention of penile problems. Occasionally, the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis can be difficult or impossible to retract (phimosis). This can lead to inflammation of the foreskin or head of the penis.
• Decreased risk of penile cancer. Although cancer of the penis is rare, it's less common in circumcised men. In addition, cervical cancer is less common in the female sexual partners of circumcised men.
The APP does make it clear that the risks of not being circumcised, however, are not only rare, but avoidable with proper care of the penis.
Baseball Players, Rock Stars & Mohels
What do you want to do when you grow up? Children in almost all households are questioned by their parents. Young boys (and girls) often have dreams about their professional aspirations. Often, they discuss becoming doctors, lawyers, ball players, entertainers, airline pilots, etc. These are all “normal” professionals. But a mohel? What child responds to “what do you want to do when you grow up?” over his breakfast cereal, looks up and says something equivalent to “gee whiz mom and dad, I’m truly interested in going from home to home and removing the foreskin off newborn baby boys”? The obvious answer: no child.
Grown men (and a tiny minority of women) do not grow up aspiring to be mohels. They become mohels. Which begs the question: might a very select few mohels consciously or subconsciously yearn for something else, far more sinister? Let us be very clear, we are not making any specific accusations. And we are confident that the majority of mohels are not pedophiles; they are good people. That said, sexual predators and or individuals who have inappropriate inclinations towards kids but do not act on them, often choose professions that enable them to be in close contact with children. Again to be clear (this is a hypersensitive subject) just because somebody picks a profession that involves contact with children in no way proves or implies that they have nefarious objectives - typically they do not - however, of the tiny percentage of people in society who are pedophiles, a disproportionate number of them probably do search for work which enables them to sublimate their perverse inclinations by doing a job that is (currently) culturally acceptable; look no further than the Catholic Church for another exemplary example of this.
Astonishingly, mohels are neither licensed nor regulated in the United States. However, “both the Reform and Conservative (Jewish) movements have developed training programs and require participants to be licensed physicians or certified nurse-midwives. Their programs focus solely on the religious text, Jewish law, and ritual concerning circumcision.” We support this initiative. If somebody is going to be handling the genitals of a newborn baby, that person should be a medical doctor, not a religious scholar.
Nonetheless, doctor or not, the idea of a mohel, doctor, or doctor who happens to be a mohel entering somebody’s home and performing surgery on an 8-day old’s penis while friends and family gather round to witness this joyous occasion or “tradition,” is bizzare, regressive and barbaric.
I’m a Freak?
Critiquing a religious ritual that is deeply ingrained in one's culture is a red line that many people refuse to cross, let alone opine on and discuss openly. My position has certainly been a point of contention for me and some of my Jewish acquaintances. I have been called a “freak,” “hater,” “ignorant,” and a “jerk,” among other endearing terms. I respect everybody’s view. And I remain open to engage in respectful discussion and debate about brit milah.
Please take a step back and ask yourself, who is a freak? The Jewish parent that refuses to allow an unlicensed stranger to touch and perform surgery on their 8 day old’s penis “in the name of god” among a room full of adults in somebody’s (potentially unsanitary) apartment, or a parent that subjects their child to the aforementioned and then celebrates the occasion – because its tradition after all - by eating bagels with lox and laughing with their relatives.
After reading this post, the easy thing for many of our readers to do would be to say “screw you TQC” and uncircumcised, err, unsubscribe. The challenging path is to self-reflect and perhaps course-correct. A preliminary step would be choosing a mohel who is medically trained, certified and regulated, who is licensed to administer anesthetic to the child, and who can perform the procedure safely and away from a crowd of onlookers.
I am not a self-loathing Jew nor am I against religion. And while not particularly religious, I appreciate many of the family orientated customs that underpin Judaism and Jewish culture. Do not cherry pick this article and use it as ammunition for antisemitism against my fellow tribesman; or use it to deflect attention away from your own faith's shortcomings.
Every religion - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc, - once practiced traditions in the name of God that now make us cringe, some still do. Examples of this include but are certainly not limited to: female genital mutilation (FGM) - a procedure with zero health benefits - in particular Muslim societies, and baby tossing by certain devout Hindus (and Muslims).
And every religion must deal with a few reprehensible outliers whose actions paint a grossly distorted and unfair picture of their respective faith, and tarnish many of the good things that almost all religions offer.