Thursday, February 9, 2012

Refusing to Circumcise: A Mom's Difficult Demand

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. 


By SAMARA COLLE  

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.

18 comments:

  1. Dear Samara, I believe your husband's stance on this issue has less to do with with religion and more to do with his struggling with his whole subconscious, internal distress over facing up to all the negative fallout over his own genital mutilation. This is a problem all circumcised males have--even ones who are hard core atheists. Dan Seely

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  2. I am so proud of you - you are truly a mama! I was raised conservative and did not circumcise my son. It caused all sorts of family grief but it is one of the proudest decisions of my life. You are a credit to our Jewish culture and faith. Thank you!!

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    1. Hi, curious if your family has accepted your decision? We did not circ our son and my parents are outraged and not speaking to me.

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  3. Wow, I had no idea that non-religious Jews who don't even believe in the covenant could be so adamant about circumcising their sons. It's just so irrational!

    I'm glad you found a rabbi who was willing to acknowledge that it's acceptable to wait until your boys are old enough to make the choice for themselves. And that making a decision one way or another now would be damaging to the family as a whole. Too many times I hear women say "I didn't want to do it but I was afraid my husband's resentment would ruin our marriage". What about the woman's resentment in being forced to do something to her child that was damaging and dangerous? That should be given weight, too!

    I believe your husband's insistence on circumcising has a lot to do with the fact that many men seem to base their self-worth on their penises. As he said, he knows it's barbaric, but he wants it done. This is probably because to not have it done is to admit that HIS penis is lacking something. Many men feel this way, my own husband feels this way, but some (like my husband) are able to separate those feelings from their feelings for their children, and put their children's best interest at heart. I hope your husband is able to do this, and be okay with waiting for your sons to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

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  4. For an adult convert to Judaism to refuse to allow her sons to go through brit milah requires a psychological strength and moral courage beyond my imagining. I am reminded of Sophocles's Antigone, the greatest fictional depiction of a young woman's courage in our civilisation.

    Her husband does not believe in the Covenant, and does not insist on a bris. But he cannot let go of the bald penis. If the parents do not believe in God, in the Chosen People, and in the Covenant, then brit milah is a psychosexual fetish and a form of idolatry, thus per se evil.

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  5. This is an amazing story,what a wonderful woman you are. More mommas need to find their strength like you have.

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  6. "A whole and intact body is a birthright, not a parent’s choice."
    Great conclusion! Thank you!

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  7. You are such a strong mama! Your children are beyond lucky to have someone that stands up for them like you have.

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  8. What a powerful story...I'm so glad when I hear about moms standing up for their babies' rights. This is what I would have done if my husband had insisted on circ'ing. Great list of resources, thank you for this!

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  9. I too, know the strength it takes to stand up to a husband's insistence on this issue. I thought our marriage may end over it. I didn't leave our son's side the first three months of his life for fear of my husband taking him to be circumcised. It is torture to live through the experience, but still less so than what our precious little ones would have experienced otherwise.

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  10. God's speed. You fouht for justice and compassion. You defended the defenseless, at great gost to yourself. I cannon immagine how anyone could find fault with this.

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  11. You did the right thing. As an intact male I was moved by reading your story of standing up for what you know is right and your protective instincts as a mother.

    Shalom

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  12. As a man who was circumcised against his will as a bay, THANK YOU SO MUCH. I wish my basic human rights had been respected enough to have left it up to me when I was old enough to make that decision for myself, and at the very least been able to be circumcised under anesthesia. You've made the first major decision that allows you to respect your sons as human beings. Thank you.

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  13. Another vote of support from me. The practice of circumcising baby boys should be illegal just as the genital mutilation of baby girls is.
    Michael Steane

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  14. Great story, and great comments, too!

    I'm not Jewish but an agnostic humanist, but I feel drawn to this debate because my parents had me circumcised without even a discussion between them of whether it made sense. In the late 50s (I'm 55) the mainstream medical establishment and pediatricians pretty much dictated to parents how they should raise and care for their children.

    My mother's OB/GYN warned her not to breast-feed me, with the argument that nutritionists and pediatricians (read: the formula industry) had scientifically proven that formula was far superior!

    Luckily, times change, and attitudes change. Your experiences that you relate here, and your obvious courage and love for your children, are testament to the rationality of the anti-circ movement (and the irrationality of pro-circ advocates). I'm sorry that your husband has refused your heartfelt pleas, and I can only hope that as time goes by he will confront the self-admitted irrationality of his position for what I think it is (and some of your respondents agree): a reaction to his own unacknowledged grieving over his own irrational circumcision. This is psychologically complicated and it's difficult to access in therapy, but perhaps with some counseling, either individual or couples, he can reach down into those deep feelings and sort through them in hopes of finding a path to rationality, and ultimately to a place where he can embrace your sons as the individuals they are, with rights of their own despite their helplessness as infants. I hope he comes to realize what a gem of a mother he has for all his children!

    David in the Ozarks

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    1. Thanks, David. My mother did not nurse me because her doctors told her not to. She was only taking a 6 month maternity leave, so he told her it wasn't worth it. Seriously, I am still mourning the loss of that 6 months of deep attachment through nursing I never got with my mother. And her mother was a wet nurse!

      I am interested in how the tide turned in this country from bottle/formula feeding recommdations to breastfeeding recommendations from medical professionals. At one time, bottle feeding was considered more "hygenic" (you know, those boobs are so damn germ-laden...). We all know that those in the pro-circ camp used the hygiene argument all the time. Anyway, I am going to do some research on the educational campaigns around breastfeeding to see what we can glean from that to help with our movement. Stay tuned for another article at some point!

      Samara

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  15. Thanks for your courage and inspiration to me.
    As an expectant mother of a son, I can relate so much to your situation. I was raised catholic and I come from a country where circumcision is very rare. My husband is a secular Jew and he does not believe in G-d, just like your husband he is more close to the cultural aspects of being Jewish, but he is adamant about having our son circumcised. We go to a reform Synagogue, where they have been very welcoming to our interfaith marriage. Recently, we met with our Rabbi and, he mentioned that it would be better in our particular case to have our son circumcised. Not because he would be closer to G-d, but because other more conservative Jews in the community and our close friends would be more accepting than if he wasn't circumcised. Frankly, we have been driving ourselves crazy with the situation. We have read every single article and book we've found about the topic. Finally, the other day after a heated argument, he told me between tears that it is barbaric, wrong, and he doesn't believe how his penis looks would determine his relationship with G-d, but if it was his decision and his decision alone he would still have him circumcised. I was shocked, perplexed and totally disconnected.
    I am not against circumcision all-together, I am only against infant circumcision. Because I feel that it is not my right to violate my son's autonomy and integrity as a human being. I love my unborn son so much, I am even willing to do everything necessary for him, even conversion so that nobody can question his faith, and nobody can say to him that he is not Jewish because his mother is not Jewish. I would rather do that for him than having his integrity being compromised, because I love him so much and I am willing to protect him against anything. On the other hand our rabbi has said to us that he is willing to do a bris Shalom in case we decide not to circumcise him.
    It is still a very hot issue in our relationship but I think even more so in an interfaith marriage where some of our friends are constantly reminding us that I am not Jewish. Even still, I feel very strongly about nor circumcising him and instead leave that decision to himself, the way it should be.

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  16. Regardless of faith and pressure from family members and Rabbis,YOU know that circumcising your babies is wrong.
    They are perfect human beings who deserve respect,love and a peaceful welcome into this amazing world.
    I hope you do the right thing.

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