By DIANE TARGOVNIK
I have to admit I am biased about the film “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision.” It is this film that saved my little boy’s foreskin from myself and my Jewish religion and culture. Because on one level, this film is so basic that it was the education as a Jew that I needed. It was the education I felt others in my tribe needed, so much so that I put the film’s website in the invitation to my son’s brit shalom, an alternative ceremony that does not involve cutting. And now that I have this basic education, I do wish there was a bit more depth to the film, but more on that later.
I grew up a Conservative Jew and with two parents who were doctors. The question of circumcision was never in doubt in my growing up years, whether for religious or health reasons. It was talked about as one would talk about cutting the hole out of the donut—it was no big deal. A donut still functions well without its center and, in my formative years, I was taught so does a penis. I was so convinced of this that had my first child been a boy, I would have circumcised.
But life is a journey. First it started with deciding to home-birth my children. Then, pregnant with my second child and not sure of the sex of the baby, I had an existential angst to face. Could I circumcise this baby if he were a boy? I remember when my daughter was eight days old and thinking, “Thank G-d she is a girl.” I started doing research and feeling like the world was anti-Semitic. How dare others outside my religion consider brit milah barbaric! How dare they question this ancient ritual! Then someone on the mothering.com “Case Against Circumcision” forum told me about “Cut.” I felt at home in this movie. I loved that it’s creator Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon was a Jew exploring this subject so I could relieve myself of my anti-Semitic arguments and truly look at circumcision, in a Jewish light and in a humanitarian light. Mr. Ungar-Sargon grew up as an Orthodox Jew whose family made aliyah and moved to Israel when he was a youngster.
Much of the movie can be seen free online. The DVD, which is available for purchase, has added footage that will be of interest to viewers. I remember I watched it at night, on my laptop in my family bed. My then two-year-old daughter was fast asleep as I hit the play button.
I admire “Cut” because it shows actual circumcisions and I think if we choose to cut off our sons’ foreskins, we should be made to view how it is done. During the circumcisions the babies were crying. An intense cry that made me start crying. My daughter in her sleep started screaming “Owww!!! Owww!!!” I started to realize that if my two-year-old, in her slumber, could recognize a baby in such pain, that maybe I had been told lies about the severity of brit milah. What I had been told was that the foreskin was “just” an extra piece of skin. There was no true purpose to it; kind of like an external appendix. The movie continued and, with it, my well needed education.
In fact, the foreskin is connected to the penis like the fingernail is attached to a finger. That means the foreskin is physically torn off the penis and cut–usually without anesthesia. “Babies don’t like to me mucked with,” states a mohelet (female mohel) in the movie. “You can use anesthesia, but to me that is just more mucking with,” she says.
The movie showed me an intact penis and compared it to a circumcised penis. It was then I realized that what I had always thought was a normal penis was in fact a very scarred penis, complete with amputation neuromas. I learned the tip of the foreskin has about 20,000 Meissner’s corpuscles, specialized nerve endings that are acutely sensitive to light touch. Tickle the palm of your hand and see how sensitive it is compared to the skin on the back of your hand. It’s because the palm, like the foreskin, is loaded with these nerve endings. And they are not found on the shaft of the penis. Once I did this “feel” test I knew I could not circumcise my son. The foreskin is more than just a piece of skin. As one man explains who got circumcised later in life: “I lost so much sensitivity. It’s like being outside on a sunny day and not being able to feel the heat or the grass under your feet.”
As the movie demonstrates, the medical reasons for circumcision come and go, as the science behind each reason shows its flaws. First it was to prevent masturbation, then cancer of the penis, then prostate cancer and cervical cancer. And now HIV. Circumcision is a procedure in search of a justification. As one mother who circumcised her three sons points out: “What mother wants to hear it was done for no reason? And what man wants to hear it was done for no reason?”
“Cut” explores the rainbow of Jewish affiliations, from Orthodox to Reform, all of which still support brit milah even though a boy is still Jewish without one. As Orthodox Rabbi Lopatin explains in the film: “The boy is certainly Jewish even if he is not circumcised and he has all the obligations of a Jew.” In the Orthodox community an uncircumcised male is forbidden from participating in certain activities.
But the most telling of the interviews was from Rabbi Worch, and it made me wonder where we stopped being “people of the book” and started to be sheep. “It’s painful. It’s abusive. It’s traumatic. And if anybody who’s not in a Covenant does it, I think they should be put in prison. I don’t think anyone has an excuse for mutilating a child. We don’t have rights to other people’s bodies. And a baby needs to have its rights protected. I think anybody who circumcises a baby is an abuser, unless it is absolutely medically advised…otherwise, what for? ….I am an abuser. I do abusive things because I am in Covenant with G-d…I agreed to ignore the pain, and the rights, and the trauma of my child to be in this Covenant.”
The film did not place the Jewish opposition to circumcision in much historical context, however. In my own research after watching this movie, I discovered that I was not the only Jew who felt circumcision was wrong. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Israel, refused to circumcise his son. Also, the history behind Jewish circumcision did not always include the priah, which is the complete removal of the foreskin. Some hypothesize that Jewish circumcision used to be much more of a small, almost innocuous tribal nick. Such a small nick that when the penis was flaccid, one couldn’t tell the boy had been circumcised. Thus one explanation of why the famous statute of David looks uncircumcised.
If you watch the full length version of “Cut,” there is a segment that goes further into the Jewish view of circumcision. Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s father explains that there have been revolutions in Judaism that have changed things. I thought it would have been a more intellectual and philosophical film if the history of circumcision had been delved into and this angle of a “Jewish revolution” had been further explored. Because that is what we need now. We need to stop the biblical archetype of fathers and mothers inflicting pain on their sons.
In the end, “Cut” showed me “before a man knows he has a penis to protect, a woman knows she has a baby to protect. It’s very simple. It’s very simple. It’s a mother’s job to protect her baby…when a mother does that we are going to have a different world.” And so even though my husband (who is also Jewish) still disagrees with my choice not to circumcise our child, I am the mama. The Jewish mama who now has a fully Jewish, intact boy. Because the Jewish revolution has to start with someone. And as the filmmaker explains at the end of the film about his decision not to cut a future son: “What does being Jewish mean to me? It means knowing when to be disobedient.”
Diane Targovnik is the mama to two children born at home. In addition to being a full-time mother, she is also a lawyer. A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Ms. Targovnik looks forward to being part of the movement to help educate other Jews regarding brit shalom. Click here for more information about Cut, or to purchase the film.