Friday, November 15, 2013

When Everything In Me Said to Circumcise: A Jewish Father Wrestles with Tradition


By MARK MORRIS


Author, Mark Morris, with his partner Jude and their son Lev.

I always thought that if I had a son I would not circumcise him. I felt the need to challenge this Jewish tradition. It felt like quite a brutal decision to take on behalf of my newborn son, for a covenant that I did not believe in. (I am secular but very culturally identified.) But when I found out that we were going to have a baby boy, the sudden emotional desire to have him circumcised was immediate and very strong.

From age 16, Judaism has been 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. When I was fifteen I made some new Jewish friends, and became involved in a Jewish youth movement, RSY-Netzer. A year later, in 1987, I went to Israel with a group of kids my age. It was life-changing for me when I realised I belonged to a people with a long and varied history. I ended up living in Israel for six years and immersing myself in secular Jewish culture. And still today it is a defining part of who I am.

So now I faced what felt like a huge decision, the idea of not circumcising my son. Jude, who is also Jewish, was clear it was something she did not want. For her, cutting off any part of her son’s anatomy for an ancient ritual meant nothing. So why did it all change for me, the moment I found out I was having a baby boy?

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. For thousands of years Jews have performed this ritual as the first and important means of identifying with our tribe/community. So as a self-identifying Jew, the idea of not doing this for my son created a lot of anxiety and confusion in me.

Making the Decision

I understood Jude’s reasons for not wanting to circumcise—that it was a ritual that needed questioning. Jude worried about the pain it would cause, and the potential trauma held in the body that could manifest itself in the future. We both seemed to understand each other’s positions 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.

We did a lot of research. 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, went to a discussion on circumcision and read a lot of material. We wanted our positions to come closer. I also felt on a deep level that I wanted the courage not to circumcise and to potentially forge a new way of looking at being Jewish and having a foreskin.

I researched the medical pros and cons. There seemed to be no health benefit enough to justify circumcision. The one strong argument I found is about the transmission of STDs among heterosexuals, including HIV, being lower in circumcised males. This might be a good argument for circumcision in a country that has an AIDS epidemic in its heterosexual population, but in the West today we do not face such a situation. And sensible safe sex education and practice has worked well as a preventative measure against sexually transmitted disease.

Concerns About Sexual Function

It is argued that by cutting off the foreskin, the head of the penis becomes calloused and is less porous, and this is the reason HIV is less likely to be transferred. This logically leads to the idea of the head of the penis being less sensitive, and I came across testimonials of men in their twenties who chose to get circumcised. After doing so they found that their sex lives had drastically changed, with far less sensitivity. A great analogy that I read is that it is 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 full enjoyment of sex was something I did not feel comfortable doing, of deciding for him.

Anyway we made a decision. It kind of happened gradually. After Lev was born, he had complications with breathing and the very usual jaundice, and had to spend six days in Hospital. The fear we felt in those days 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, nine months on from his birth, I feel very happy with our decision.

Looking Toward the Future

I do have 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 hope that he will become a confident young man who is happy in his body. For me, actively looking for the messages in Judaism on a secular level will be a life-long endeavour. 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.

I am sure we will pass on to Lev other practices that might help him to be a compassionate caring human being. 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. And I will feel content in knowing it was his decision.

I really do hope that in the future other Jewish families will decide not to circumcise. I would love for there to be a 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 parent that decides to circumcise. I feel it is a decision for each family to make. It does not feel to me like mutilation. But I really hope that every Jewish family (and non-Jewish family for whom circumcision is an option) spends time looking into the arguments for and against—as no decision is better than an informed one.

Mark Morris, who is English, lives in Sydney Australia with his partner Jude. He is happy to speak to anyone struggling with the circumcision decision regarding his own experience and feelings. He can be contacted at mark@boweavilrecordingscom.

8 comments:

  1. Please note the following facts, which I deem crucial.
    Despite being of Jewish ancestry, Mrs Morris was opposed to circumcising their son.
    Mark Morris does not believe in the Covenant. Many Jews believe, at least privately, that much of Jewish tradition is myth.
    Mark Morris grew up in England, surrounded by intact gentile men.
    The Morrises live in Australia, where a large majority of their son's gentile contemporaries are intact.
    These facts make intact an easier choice for the Morrises than for most North American Jewish families..

    Finally, it cannot be overemphasised that their son can overturn his parents' decision at any time later in life, and so fully retains the option of becoming frum.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I cannot abide your concluding remarks.

    It does not feel to me like mutilation.

    Yeah, but we're not talking about you; rather, we're talking about other people—completely healthy children, no less—who are under the threat of having hunks of flesh forcibly cut from their sexual organs.

    Those other people may feel they have been mutilated, and that's all that really matters! Your opinion is pointless.

    I make no judgements on any parent that decides to circumcise. I feel it is a decision for each family to make.

    Their sons—the ones whose sexual organs are being forcibly cut up—may not feel so accepting. After all, the sexual organ does not belong to the parents, or the family; it belongs to the individual to which it's attached.

    Why in the world are you more interested in protecting the parents' primitive delusions rather than the child's human rights? It's truly mindboggling.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. mindboggling as it maybe...I felt real turmoil about the idea of not circumcising my son, and if people who wish for circumcision to be something of the past, then they need to have some compassion for parents over this area...simply suggesting they are wrong won't cut it, won't help bring people closer. The vast majority of Jewish families who culturally identify don't question this ritual for too long and hard, I want more Jewish families to question this ritual, but I am not going to get their backs up against the wall, as it will only further make a decision not to circumcise harder. When I felt pushed by intactivists to not circumcise then I felt more misunderstood and not heard, and so felt anger towards their position. So if you wish to convince others not to circumcise I heartily suggest you try and be sensitive to this, as I think it will further help you get your point across. Attacking them over "mutilating" the one they most love will only serve to alienate them from this discussion. This is what I was trying to say in my conclusion, as I felt alienated by many of the intactivist websites. And in the end I did not circumcise but I understand that it is not such a simple decision.

      Delete
  3. I felt by not circumcising my son, I was effectively cutting off (pardon the pun) his connection with a 5000-year-old cultural history.

    This is such a bizarre rationale. For one, there's much more to Judaism than cutting up little boys' sexual organs—at least I hope so…

    I'll quote Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon:

    "Furthermore, [while touring with my film], I've encountered some people who have connections to the more traditional—or Orthodox—Jewish communities in the United States, and one of the things that I tell them—and this gets some rabbis that I've met very upset, but it's absolutely true—is that the religious consequences to leaving a Jewish boy intact in today's day and age are zero; there are no actual religious consequences to being a Jewish male [who has a complete penis].

    "This blows people's minds, because there's a perception out there that if you're [a] Jewish [male] and you're left intact, [then] there's some sort of severe [religious] consequence; you won't be able to do this or you won't be able to do that—[but] there's nothing that you can't do!

    "There may be some nasty rabbis out there who will try to impose some kind of sanction on you for political reasons, but that would first of all be blaming the wrong person, because it's [the fault of] the parent who didn't circumcise [the individual], not the [fault of the] individual [who was never] circumcised. [Secondly], there's also no real religious basis for [such a sanction]. I've been looking into it for quite some time now, and I've been challenging rabbis—[literally] across the [North American] continent—to prove me wrong on this point, and they haven't [been able to do so], because there is no proof.

    "The only ritual religious consequence of being an intact Jewish male is that you're not allowed to eat from the Paschal Lamb, which was a sacrifice that was brought when the Temple was around, and hasn't been brought since the Temple was destroyed—and we don't know when the Temple is going to be rebuilt. That's it!

    "So, I think [that] as more people become aware of this information and leave their boys intact, we're going to have a situation where there are lots of intact Jewish [men], some of [whom] are going to be religious and are going to be participating in everything [in which] circumcised Jewish men are participating."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. of course there is more to judaism than this ritual, i was not suggesting otherwise.... I had read a lot of Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon writing and I understand that an uncircumcised jewish man still is Jewish, but it does not deal with culturally how he will be seen by the community. it is a hugely defining physical side to being a jewish man in the world today, I imagine that over 99% of Jewish men are circumcised, so I feared that it could make my son feel alienated, if in a Jewish context he was the only uncircumcised boy. It is a cultural practice that I also would like to see change, but reality is that so far very few are challenging this practice, so again I come back to the point that we need to understand why people are doing this, so we can try and present an understanding alternative.
      (Mark M)

      Delete
  4. I'll also quote Leonard Glick:

    "The notion that Judaism is a religion and a culture that cannot change doesn't correspond to what we as anthropologists know about cultures. Cultures change. They change constantly in response to individual decision making—to individual will. If we look at any culture anywhere, we see that although basic patterns may remain, all sorts of individual parts of the culture change.

    "[For instance], Orthodox Jewish men (Hassidic men) are dressing in clothing that is characteristic of the Polish gentry somewhere around the 17th Century; they don't even know that [fact]—[that] there's nothing Jewish about the way they dress. This is purely a cultural development that took place in one part of the Jewish community that really has nothing to do with anything that you can find in biblical or even rabbinic Judaism.

    "The same holds for circumcision. Certainly, [circumcision has] been [around for a long time]—[though], not since the time of Abraham ([after all], Abraham is a mythical character who never lived). It's been there since approximately 500 BCE [when it was] instituted by priests as a symbol of loyalty to the theocracy that they were creating. So, [circumcision] has been part of Jewish culture for something like 25 hundred years, [but] it has changed over time—the procedure itself has changed over time—and certainly we know that Judaism as a religion has changed immensely over time; there's no reason why at least many of us can't get rid of this abominable custom."

    ReplyDelete
  5. thank you for this. thank you for sharing your story. it illustrates the struggle a circumcised (i'm assuming) jewish man could go through so throughly and beautifully. as a non-jewish mother of an uncircumcised boy this was VERY important and moving for me to read. i cried through the whole thing, hoping it would turn out as it did. and then a surge of relief at the end knowing you made such a brave decision for your boy when it was such an emotional battle, such powerful forces urging you on in the other direction, that i otherwise really would not have understood. this perspective is so important to me. as a birth educator who became strongly intactivist (after, among other research, attempting to watch a circumcision video but being too nauseated and traumatized myself to finish the whole thing) while i was pregnant with my boy, and who teaches to a huge jewish community this perspective is so important. i never broach the subject with my students but make my opinion and resources readily available for anyone questioning and hold my breath when i hear they're having boys (even with nonjewish couples but more so with jewish). it is an emotional fear response for the children. as a non-jew and a female i feel powerless and have found solice knowing there is a growing jewish community choosing not to circumcise. your story is so so much more powerful than (even jewish) sites that rant and rave against "the barbaric practices," that are filled with fear and anger. though i too feel angry and protective at times. more personally, my circumcised partner was also unsure (and i less gracious than your wife it sounds). 2 years later we have had so many moments when we have been so happy, so relieved that we made the decision we did. it is an amazing feeling to look at them, so beautiful, so perfectly formed and healthy and know for sure that you stood up for that wholeness, allowing them the start into life with all nature (and God it seems) intended them to have. that in your (perhaps) first test as a parent, as protector of them on physical, psychological, emotional level you made the right decision. the one that leaves no doubt in your heart or theirs. so glad you will have that experience. although it was such a confusing and hard decision for you i'm certain it will only get more and more clear. and that he will thank you for that impulse to protect him. again thank you for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I did not circumcise my son (and we are, formly, Catholic). And when I read stuff like this, I feel so close to all the men and their sons making this decision.

    Today, I am a Jew.

    ReplyDelete