|Some young Jewish men thinking ahead to fatherhood have decided they
will reject circumcision for their sons while also embracing their Jewishness.
By AL RUBENSTEIN
I am 21 years old, Jewish, and opposed to circumcision. I attend college in Indiana. I grew up in a small Southern town where my family was one of a handful of Jews. My parents were born and raised Jewish. I was circumcised when I was eight days old by a mohel at a brit milah.
My Jewish identity was always very important to me growing up. I went to synagogue a lot, spent my summers at a Jewish summer camp, had a bar mitzvah, and in high school was part of NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth). I went to Israel for a semester in high school. When I was a child and teenager, I was always proud to be Jewish, to be a part of G-d’s chosen people, to be in a culture that valued life and not death. I’m also a person who finds the idea of permanent body modification disturbing. I feel G-d made us the way we are for a reason. Every organ has a purpose. Even our imperfections are a sign of our individuality. When I found out I was circumcised, I was horrified.
I was in second grade when I first heard about circumcision. A group of boys at school were talking about it. I walked into the middle of the conversation. At this point, I knew some penises looked different than others, but had assumed it was just one more way people were naturally different, like hair or eye color. One of the boys accused the Jews of circumcising their babies. I was the only Jew at my school so I felt I had to defend my people. How could a religion of tikun olam do something destructive to their newborns?
The scariest part for me, then, was thinking this might have been done to me. I couldn’t believe my parents would have done this, so I told the other boys there was no way Jews did this to their newborns and that I wasn’t circumcised. I didn’t find out I was wrong until some time later. One day, my dad pointed to the table in my house where it had happened to me and talked about it. He seemed proud but he might have been joking. After he told me, I ran to my room crying. My mom comforted me. Before this, I had felt proud of being perfect, unaltered. Now I knew I had been changed. Somehow, I still couldn’t fully understand or accept what had happened. I put it out of my mind and “forgot.”
My dad gave me a book on puberty when I was eleven. It had a page on circumcision. I don’t know how, but I came away from the page thinking some people naturally had enough skin to cover the head of the penis while others did not. It was almost a relief for me. I began thinking most Jews just did not have enough skin to cover the head of the penis at all. My brother didn’t read the page the same way and corrected me. I remember reading the page over and over again trying to figure out which of us was right. Of course he was.
I started to feel like I couldn’t be Jewish anymore. There was no way I would cut my own kids. How could my own parents have done this to me? I managed to find temporary peace on the issue. I was at a Seder at my synagogue later that year. A family friend who just had her first son asked the group, “Wouldn’t the Pharaoh have known that Moses was Jewish?” We all knew what she meant. There was something in her voice when she asked that question. She sounded uncomfortable. Suddenly an uneven laughter broke out and we all joined in. It was here I felt I understood circumcision in Judaism. It is something horrible we do, but it is something we must do. It helps us keep our identity. At that moment, I felt I was going to have to do it to my sons, but I was okay with that. This is something we Jews must do. G-d commanded us to do it.
When I was 14, I saw an episode of Penn and Teller’s Showtime series “Bullshit!” It was about the ridiculousness of circumcision and it changed my view of the practice forever. I realized circumcision wasn’t just a Jewish thing. This horrible mutilation was being done to most American boys. I felt I had to take a stand against it but did not know how. From that point until about a year ago, I was plagued by the issue. Some days I felt like I made progress coming to terms with the reality of circumcision. Other days, I felt like nothing had changed.
I researched and learned more about circumcision, but this didn’t resolve my feelings. I became depressed thinking about the sensations I would never experience. I envied those who could have these sensations. I horrified when I thought about the pain newborns go through—and that I would have to subject my own son to this. Would I be setting him up for the same crisis I was having? Or, what if I didn’t circumcise him? What would happen to him? How would my family react? Could we still be Jewish? Thinking about my circumcision made me feel like I wasn’t human at all. It made me feel that life with a foreskin is a part of the human experience and that I was being denied this experience. I wanted to find some closure or peace on this issue but didn’t know how.
It was difficult to talk to anyone about my feelings. When I did, I never got the support I was looking for. I had spoken to my parents about my own circumcision when I was 16. They didn’t take me seriously. My mom talked only of how difficult it was to get a mohel for me in our location. My dad laughed at my feebly spoken facts. In the end, they told me not to worry about it because it would be a long time before I had children. I felt defeated by that conversation. They made me feel I was wrong—that what I’d learned about circumcision and about the purpose and function of foreskin wasn’t true.
All I wanted from my parents was for them to say it was okay. That perhaps I had a point. I understood why my parents did this to me. I just needed some support. The conversation I had with my parents made everything worse. I still felt in my heart that what had been done to me was wrong, and that circumcision was a terrible thing, but I also felt I needed to accept the fact that I was circumcised and that one day, when I had sons, they would be too.
I finally broke out of the trap last summer when I realized two things. First, that people won’t care whether or not I circumcise my sons! Second, that it’s possible to undo some of the damage done by circumcision through a process called foreskin restoration.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to people about my feelings on circumcision and many have been Jewish. Although I never got support for my feelings, nobody argued with me either. I think they actually preferred not to think about it. I remember a program I went to during a conclave with NFTY. At one of the stations, we discussed how we would react if one day our future children told us they weren’t going to circumcise their sons. I told the whole group I was not going to cut my kids. They looked at me funny (they may have said something behind my back) but it was never mentioned to me by any of them ever again. It never changed how I interacted with any of these people in the future, either. With this in mind, I question whether I will have to deal with much “backlash” from my community. And what if I do? It’s nobody’s business what my son’s penis looks like. This is my life, and if I have to choose bringing such pain to my child or having to switch to a different synagogue, I’ll go to a different synagogue. My family will still love me, and my son. If there is a fight, they will get over it. And if they don’t—if they are going to try to force me to do something I know is wrong with every bone in my body—what good are they?
No matter what, I can’t cut my kids. I will never know the advantages of being intact—how much difference this really makes—but I do know skinning a baby’s penis is wrong. I will give my sons the choice I never had. My boys will feel proud of what they are—Jewish and intact!
I also realized I had to do something about my penis. In the end, this is a very personal issue for me and waiting to make my stand when I have my first son isn’t enough. A lot of my feelings about circumcision come from feeling mutilated and less than human as a consequence of this procedure. So, I began restoring. Through consistent stretching of the remaining skin on the shaft of the penis, it’s possible over time to regain some of what I’ve lost. It can’t bring back everything—it cannot regrow nerves—but it does give me control over the issue. It’s making it so that when I look down there, I’m not focusing on what I’ve lost, but instead I’m fascinated by what I am gaining. It has allowed me to move on with my life, taking comfort in my own restoration.
Here are a few thoughts for dads and moms about talking to their circumcised sons. If your son ever comes and tells you he is angry or depressed because he was circumcised, be there for him. I think having someone to talk to, and who understands, would make all the difference in the world. Tell him about foreskin restoration and if he decides to do it, you support him. Even if he is worrying about having to circumcise kids he won’t have for another twenty years, these issues are very real to him, don’t dismiss them. Make sure he knows that if his circumcision is ever bothering him, he come to you and talk about it. I don’t feel like I got this support from my parents, but I hope you can give it to your son, if he goes through what I went through.
Future parents—if you aren’t sure about cutting your kids, please consider my experience. You don’t have to do it. I am not saying your child will feel like I do, but he might. I promise you he will be happy if you leave him be. He will be able to live life to its fullest because he will have every part he had coming out of the womb. He only gets one life on this planet. Give him the chance to experience it the way he is meant to.
And an intact Jewish male can always opt for brit milah at any time in later life. To choose milah for oneself after 21 years of age, believing that it is a mitzvah, and out of loyalty to the Jewish people and to millenia of Jewish tradition, carries a great deal of existential meaning. To cut a screaming newborn boy who cannot comprehend at all what he is experiencing, carries no meaning except cruelty to an infant.
Intactivism is NOT about abolishing Jewish circumcision. It is NOT about "forcing" spouses to experience marital intimacy with an unkosher penis. It is ONLY about delaying brit milah until it becomes an informed adult choice. Here's hoping that Reform and Conservatice synagogues will accept without reservation congregants who had chosen to remain intact.
This is an amazing article, thank you!
I wish I could give a big soft hug to your 16-year old self when you were so troubled and your parents made it worse. With love, from a mother who did not circumcise her son.
Thank you for sharing your personal story. I appreciate your candidness and wish you much luck and happiness. May your children also keep their children intact, as nature and G-d intended.
i'd love to know how many men actually choose circumcision at 21 years of age, after living their lives with a perfectly healthy, normal, functioning penis. and what exactly is an "unkosher" penis?
I say if there must be blood at the baby's naming ceremony, let the DAD whip it out and ceremonial take the burden upon himself. The boy can grow to a rational age and decide for himself whether to suffer any irreversible amputations. Imagine how much more meaningful for that choice to be voluntarily made by the person directly affected, and the deep significance of a father shedding blood for his son.
I have met only one man who chose to be circumcised as an adult for his religion.
It was a life changing experience but not in a good way. He was deeply depressed about his loss of sensation.
He regretted that decision bitterly.
Roger, that's a nice notion, and a good way to assuage "observant" Jews who fear the implications of not circumcising.
But guess what? Even cutting up your own genitalia is batshit, pants-on-head crazy; it just happens to be better than forcibly cutting up the genitalia of a perfectly healthy child, because it is no longer a sexual assault and battery, child abuse, and a breach of human rights.
People who choose to have their own genitalia cut up as adults are either mentally unstable or are being coerced by other mentally unstable people (both men AND women); the promulgating of the philosophy that it is Judaically superior for a man to choose circumcision for himself is still the building into Judaism of coercion to conform to violent, destructive, bodily mutilation.
It's not anti-Semitic or self-loathing to state what is plain and obvious. Genital mutilation rituals are a shameful disgrace to Jews, all the more shameful for passing the blame onto G-d.
It is astoundingly disgusting and non‑Jewish to tell a man that he is unacceptable and unclean and "unkosher" until he publicly demonstrates that he has mutilated a very personal part of his being.
The public spectacle aspect of brit milah should cease immediately. When Jews do not circumcise a son, there is no invitation to a bris and one's friends and extended family become aware of the break with Jewish tradition. Many brisim are held simply because the parents are not willing to undergo this embarrassment.
A powerful part of Jewish culture is sexual sophistication and openness. This fact is leading more and more Jews to discover and reflect upon the sexual advantages of the foreskin, and the damage that circumcision can do to sexual happiness. This journey of discovery will include Jewish women being intimate with intact men while they are in college.
Hence I am confident that 100 years from now, a large majority of unaffiliated, Reform and Conservative Jewish men will not be circumcised. Their parents will have refused to do it, and the men will decline to do it to themselves between the ages of 21 and marriage.
The implications of not circumcising a Jewish boy? Being stared in the YMHA locker room and in summer camp. Startled reactions when dating Jewish women. All followed by a long and passionate marriage to a delighted woman!
If you are still in contact with that man, encourage him to tell his story on the internet, anonymously.
I intended "unkosher penis" to be sarcastic.
To those of us who know the sexual virtues of the intact penis, freely chosen adult circumcision strikes us as dysfunctional. Yet it still happens. Tens of thousands of eastern European immigrants to Israel have undergone teen and adult circumcision, more to avoid embarrassment in the Army and the sports locker room than anything else.
In his 1980 book, Edward Wallerstein reported that every year, about 15-20,000 American men were circumcised after puberty with no stated reason given on their charts. He conjectured that the true reason was purely cosmetic.
Still, an intact adult Jew has the option of undergoing circumcision at any time in later life. It's not the 8th day or never.
I am so impressed by the promotion of the peaceful welcoming ceremony called Brit Shalom, by Jewish groups who are against genital cutting on infants. What a nicer way to welcome a newborn into the world. The Brit Shalom does not involve any genital cutting on the baby. Thank goodness for progressive Jews who are educated on the harms of circumcision and are courageous in spreading accurate information.
what a load of crap im an aussie done as ric at 8 days mum said she wasn't asked and i was handed back 30mins later and she was told thats neen fixed ,No probs i don't remember anything about and am not about to dig my mother up because of something that happened 60 odd years ago.Didn't know my dad was intact until I was in my fifties the problems he had in his 70/80 were horrible
Loss of sensation? How can you say that? I am cut and get an erection just from walking around and I'm 46. I would say you have a loss of sensation because your penis has been covered and the nerves are dead.