To circumcise or not to circumcise? The decision is influenced by cultural forces and religious tradition, especially for secular Jews and Muslims.
t’s about to start.” I text a friend from a house in California, a back room, where my brother is holding his eight-day-old son away from the influx of guests. The air is thick with tension and a desire for the thing to be done that is so palpable you can almost run your finger down the length of it. The baby sleeps on, though, peaceful and oblivious, dressed in a onesie decorated with a tallis.
“Wine in the mouth.” My friend texts back and I stare at the words for a few seconds, perplexed, before the mohel — the man in charge, the man who will wield the scalpel — calls us in.
I’ve never been to a bris before. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not true. The last bris I went to, the only bris, was my brother’s and that was 1982. I was five years old, and it must have felt like a birthday party to me. There was food, after all, heaps of food, and there were gifts. A bris is a celebration of sorts, just one with a medical procedure at the heart of it, a medical procedure that needs tending to before you can tuck into the pickles and coleslaw.
My brother and I were raised in the same house, syringed with the same dose of Judaism, but I gave it up a long time ago. I have three sons myself, none of whom are circumcised. This was not a choice my husband and I made on principle per se, at least not initially. In Britain, where our children were born, circumcisions are not performed routinely in the hospital on day one or two of life, an elective extra to be ticked off — or not — on the list of baby’s first pediatric services.
When we had asked our general practitioner about our options in this respect, before the baby was born, before we knew the baby even had a penis with which to tamper, he explained the way it worked. If we wanted a cut aesthetic for our son, and if we wanted to achieve it on the National Health Service (NHS) for non-religious reasons, we would have to wait. A year. Yes, a whole year. “It’s treated as a rather serious intervention here,” the doctor told us matter-of-factly. “We do it in the operating theatre, under a general anesthetic.”
Given this timetable, not circumcising our son ranked among the easier parenting decisions we faced that first year. The idea of ferrying a twelve-month-old to the hospital to undergo an unnecessary surgery and then dealing with the aftercare in the context of his burgeoning toddlerhood was, to put it bluntly, beyond unappealing. In the absence of any truly countervailing factors, religious or otherwise, we chose to leave our first son’s foreskin intact, as we did for the two sons who followed him.
In the UK, this is par for the course: about 90 percent of the male population is uncircumcised, including my British-born husband. According to the NHS, “Most health professionals in England would argue that there are no medical reasons why a baby boy should be circumcised.” It’s an attitude shared by other countries on this side of the Atlantic, several of which have issued deterrents against the practice in recent years, such as the Royal Dutch Medical Association’s policy of discouragement and the proposal by the Norwegian ombudsman for children’s rights that Jews and Muslims replace circumcision with another kind of symbolic ritual.
But my brother is American and he lives in the U.S., where roughly 75 percent of men are circumcised. My brother is also a practicing Jew, as is his wife, which means the circumcision of their son was not just a medical act or a decision swayed by the strong currents of nationality and inertia. It was a deeply religious ritual, steeped in age-old tradition: the most important commandment undertaken by a Jewish male, so the mohel reminded us with due gravity on that uncharacteristically stormy Saturday morning, after the injunction to go forth and procreate.
“Ceremony and ritual march us carefully right through the center of our deepest fears about change,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert. We witness each other’s ritualistic ceremonies to offer support to the people we love who are in transition. Perhaps I interpreted the “witness” facet of this sentiment too stringently, because it was for this reason that I found myself watching my nephew’s circumcision. The cut was the spectacle, after all, the main-stage event for which I had travelled thousands of miles. It seemed wrong somehow not to see it through, literally as well as metaphorically.
While my sister-in-law stood at the window, her back turned on her wailing son, and my brother swiveled to and fro, unsure exactly where to let his focus fall, I kept my eyes trained on the star of the show, all eight pounds of him. The grandfather who had been granted the honor of holding the baby’s legs sat next to the table, as the mohel began his work. The other grandfather daubed the tiny mouth with wine, a rudimentary sedative which colored both the gauze in his hand and the baby’s petal-smooth cheeks crimson.
This last part stunned me, maybe even more so than the actual procedure, its archaism both disturbing and profoundly moving. As with the perpetuation of other aspects of Judaism that have been rendered obsolete by modernity, the wine in the baby’s mouth represented to me two things at once. The heft of history, the long and winding thread that binds a people together, a community, over thousands of years. But also the often times vexing nature of anachronism. As a classicist, I am vulnerable to the power of these traditions, these bridges between past and present. And yet, the mother in me couldn’t believe what I was looking at: the incongruity of Manischewitz dripping from an infant’s lips, where I had only ever seen the cloud-white of milk.
Since that day, I’ve spoken to many of my American friends about circumcision. Of the raft of conversations I’ve had over the years about new parenthood, this is a topic that has been left virtually untouched. Suddenly I had a million questions. About their emotional reactions to the surgery (no big deal or somewhat traumatic?). About the practicalities of caring for the wound site (it doesn’t look fun for the squeamish). Most of all, however, I was curious as to how they made the decision in the first place, assuming it even registered as a decision.
What I learned is that, as with most parenting choices, there is a desired outcome and then there is the justificatory path one takes to get to it. The preponderant reason for circumcision — be it religious affiliation, potential medical advantage, the benefit of blending in with one’s peers or one’s father — varies from family to family and is determined largely by personal experience. As ever, culture and its attendant values weigh heavily.
My husband’s was the first uncircumcised penis I ever saw. I was twenty years old. Such was my naïveté, such was the parochialism of my Jewish American upbringing, that it took me longer than might be expected to realize this was the case. It never occurred to me, as I spent that semester abroad exploring the streets of London, that I was amidst a country full of penises that were a different shape from the one with which I was familiar. Now, of course, with three young, uncut sons in constant states of undress, my sense of the familiar in this regard has shifted entirely.
When my first son arrived into the world, he was, in my eyes, perfect. I counted his toes, I traced the contours of his face, I drank in every ounce of him. Despite our preliminary investigation into circumcision, I saw his penis, the way it emerged from the womb, as simply another perfect part of the whole. The truth is, at that moment, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about him. Not a single little thing.