|Couples in crisis: whether to circumcise a child can become a contentious|
issue, regardless of religion. If it is important to you, discuss your
circumcision stance before getting into a serious relationship.
The birth of my twin sons two years ago changed me forever. I discovered a passion and an intense female power that I had no idea existed. I also discovered I would risk everything—my marriage, my chosen faith, EVERYTHING—to keep my innocent babies intact.
I grew up Catholic in the 1970s, when most American boys were circumcised. That is what I thought was normal. Had I been a boy, my parents would have circumcised me. In my 30s, I chose to convert to Judaism. This was before I met my husband. It’s difficult to describe this powerful, heartfelt calling in words, but my Jewish friends always say I have a “Jewish soul.” I found myself immersed in a liberal, spiritual community that felt like home. I also found myself working in the Jewish community as an educator.
I learned a lot about male infant circumcision while training to be a doula (birth coach) and knew I was against it. My husband did not feel the same. Among the two of us, I am the more religious and spiritual one. He isn’t religious, but is more tied to the cultural aspects of Judaism. However even non-religious Jews, like my husband, can hold intense feelings about the necessity of male infant circumcision. There are many Jews who do not believe in the Covenant, who may not even believe in G-d, and who (for example) eat pork and shellfish like it’s going out of style, do not keep Shabbat, and only step into synagogue on Yom Kippur, who would never, ever consider leaving their Jewish sons intact.
Circumcision became a heated topic between my husband and I when I was pregnant with our first child. Although I of course understood the significance of the brit milah in Jewish faith and culture, I also understood Judaism to be a religion were questioning everything was encouraged. Everything, apparently, except circumcision. I was shocked that I couldn’t even discuss my thoughts and feelings about circumcision without my husband responding with rage. The discussions we had on this topic were so contentious and hostile we simply stopped talking about it. Let me just say, my sigh of relief when the amnio came back "female" could be heard across the city. The issue then went underground for us until two years later when the ultrasound tech said, “twin boys.” And they were, clear as day. Facing one another with their penises literally pointed straight towards one another. I was overjoyed. And I felt sick. Circumcision.
Since my husband felt so strongly about the matter, I felt like I didn't have a way out, that those boys were going to be cut no matter what I wanted or what was in their best interest. I tried to figure out what I could handle. I told my husband, “We can have them circumcised in the hospital. I don’t want a bris and a party. To me, circumcision is not a cause for celebration.” He readily agreed. It wasn’t the religious or spiritual aspect of the circumcision (the bris) that he was interested in. He just wanted the boys circumcised.
My water broke at 36 weeks. The boys were born big and healthy but they were technically preemies so their circumcisions were scheduled two weeks later. Immediately, I fell so deeply and completely in love with my sons and honored every inch of them as perfect and sacred. I was sick over the thought of having to have to circumcise them, but felt I couldn't back out. My Jewish friend Sarah came over to help me with the boys when my husband was out of town. She asked me if we were going to have a bris and I told her about the hospital circumcisions we had set up. She looked at me and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? Some Jewish couples are choosing not to circumcise.” My eyes welled with tears. She held my hand. I sobbed. “I can't do it,” I cried. “Their bodies aren't mine. It's not my right. They're perfect the way they are!”
Sarah gave me a book by psychologist Ronald Goldman, PhD, Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. She also gave me names and numbers of Jewish parents she knew who had kept their sons intact, and some who questioned circumcision but decided to do it anyway. Until this point, I didn't realize keeping my boys intact was a Jewish option, so talking to these parents was important. I was surprised to learn that even some religious fathers were now keeping their sons intact. I was moved by the protective instincts of Jewish mothers who rejected circumcision.
Somehow I found my way to Mark Reiss, M.D., a retired Jewish physician who advocates leaving Jewish babies intact. Mark became a friend and a great support. He took me to coffee and we went on walks. I discovered the Yahoo Group Jews Against Circumcision and the Cafe Mom's group, Raising Intact Boys. I read everything I could get my hands on. I watched Jewish filmmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon’s film Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision and cried my eyes out. And I wondered: “How can I belong to a faith that is fundamentally so compassionate yet still insists on altering the healthy genitals of innocent infant boys?”
I was frightened to revisit the circumcision issue with my husband. I was scared of his anger and mine. I felt guilty about wanting to break my promise to him. Even more, I was not convinced our marriage would weather the storm that was going to wash over us. So I started the conversation by telling him what I'd learned about hospital circumcisions and that we couldn't be with the boys during the procedure. That I couldn't allow them to go through that alone. He agreed to that part and the boys’ circumcision date was put on hold, for the time being. I was buying myself some time. I told my husband I was deeply struggling with our decision, about the parents I’d been speaking with, and about the books and articles I’d been reading. I asked him to look at the materials. He was angry but, to his credit, he read everything I gave him and spoke to all of those parents.
We spoke little during the next few weeks. I was afraid to know what was going on in his head. Meanwhile, my argument for not circumcising was growing in my mind, taking over my waking hours. Every time I changed the boys’ diapers, I would look down at their penises and whisper, “Mommy is not going to let anyone hurt you.” My obsession became so great I was even fearful that if I left the boys alone with my husband he would take them to get circumcised. I spoke to a lawyer who said in our state one parent can legally have a medical procedure done to a child without the other’s consent. That terrified me, because as passionate and as committed as I was about keeping the boys intact, I sensed my husband was just as passionate about having them cut.
Finally, my husband came to me and said, “I think circumcision is barbaric and painful. I don't believe in the Covenant. If we weren't Jewish I would never do it. But I want the boys circumcised and I’m not changing my mind, even though it's irrational.” I was filled with waves of near-homicidal rage. I was shocked. I had been naive to think my incredibly rational husband might eventually see things my way when he read the evidence. I thought he would come to the same conclusion I had, that keeping our boys intact was in their best interest. I should also mention that there was no family or peer pressure on his side, as there sometimes is in these situations. His family was clear they would love and support us, and the boys, no matter what we decided. His best friend—a Jew—had left his son intact. I did not understand the deep pull he, like many secular and cultural Jews, has towards infant circumcision.
So there we were, at an impasse. We met with a male Jewish therapist who said, “Since you're at an impasse, why not keep the boys intact until they are old enough to decide for themselves? If you do it now, there will be no choice later and you can’t undo what you have done.” We went to the Reform Rabbi who did my conversion who said, “I'm not a proponent of keeping Jewish boys intact, however, I’d rather the boys not be circumcised and have your family remain intact than for your family to dissolve over this issue.” He reassured us that circumcision was not necessary for our boys to be considered Jewish. We left those sessions still raging at one another. My husband claimed he knew what the boys wanted and when I asked him how he knew, he screamed, “Because I’m a f-ing man, that's why!”
Today our sons are two years old. We never circumcised them, but also never agreed about whether this decision was in their best interest. I wanted to have a brit shalom for the boys (a non-cutting naming and welcoming ceremony) but my husband refused, I think because of his own anger at me. The emotional torment we experienced over this whole issue was so horrible and we haven't really spoken about it since. Our rage and grief over our son’s foreskins has gone underground—for now. I expect it will surface again one day, and I wonder what issues we, and our sons, might face in the future.
Our sons might question why their penises look different from their father’s. They might ask why other Jewish boys don't have their foreskins. If they fall in love with religiously Jewish women, our sons will have to deal with that. Then again, they might find that having an intact and perfectly G-d given penis is a gift. They may be grateful that I fought so hard for them to be able to make their own choice about what to do with their bodies. If, as adults, they decide to get circumcised, I will support them in whatever way I can.
Forbidding my sons’ circumcisions was not, has not, been an easy road. It would have been far simpler to take the well-traveled path of giving in to my husband and to the prevailing culture that has for thousands of years demanded Jewish mothers hand over their newborns to the circumcision knife, despite what we feel in our hearts: that circumcision is hurtful and wrong. What else could I do? A whole and intact body is a birthright, not a parent’s choice.