Jewish mom: Circumcision spiritually wounds, breaks bonds and trust
I took a couple days of vacation recently and went to Seattle for a three-day human rights conference that brought together about 125 people from around the world associated with the movement to end genital mutilation on the young and the helpless. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, bioethicists, anthropologists, religious people, scholars, authors and wounded women and men took their turns telling what they are doing about circumcision and awakening a world that cant or wont grasp the impact on unconsenting males and females of such a range of severe, intrusive practices.The 9th International Symposium on Circumcision, Genital Mutilation and Human Rights at the University of Washington was sponsored by the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Center (www.norcirc.org) and Doctors Opposed to Circumcision (DOC). It was a rapid-fire presentation of academic papers and the latest trends in circumcision practices around the world and whats being done to curb them. The clear message is that people in many nations and societies are committed to use medical research, the courts, media, legislatures, cultural persuasion and anecdotal accounts (botched circumcisions, individual tragedies, etc.) to convince expectant parents and medical professionals that males and females are supposed to have and keep natural genital structures that some think should be amputated. Female genital mutilation is in rapid retreat because of activism, education and a profound quest for social justice. It was outlawed in the U.S. in 1996, but many point out the double standard of equal protection under the law for males, who also suffer routine circumcision without their consent. An estimated 80 percent of the worlds males remain intact. It is largely sustained in this country as a religious and cosmetic practice and perpetuated by myths, entrenched misinformation and generous health insurance programs.
I was especially struck by the words of conference speaker Miriam Pollack of Boulder, Colo., a Jewish mother who had both of her sons ceremonially circumcised but who was deeply troubled by the impact the cutting had on them — then educated herself. For 15 years, she has spoken to Jews and non-Jews about circumcision and urging alternative b’lee milah ceremonies. Here is part of the text of her talk titled Redefining the Sacred: The Mother Wound Speaks of Circumcision:
… It is true that circumcision confers special status on the Jewish male. Yet numerous Talmudic and rabbinic treatises are explicit about the sacred role of the mother in the raising of Jewish children and the creation of a Jewish home. Traditionally a mother is seen as creating the container for nurturing the transmission of the Jewish heritage. Furthermore, how does circumcision serve our survival interests when we know how terribly vulnerable our male children and men have been in times of persecutions? How many tens of thousands of Jewish babies, children, adolescents and men have we lost when all the oppressors needed to do was to pull down pants?
Pollack, who believes circumcision disempowers the mother at the deepest biological impulse to protect her newborn, continued: In the more secure environment of the United States, there are thousands of circumcised Jewish men who are Judaically ignorant and unaffiliated. Has altering their penises effectively conveyed to them their spiritual heritage or secured their group identity? In the Middle East, is a Jewish penis really distinguishable from a Muslim one? Cutting explicitly sensitive sexual tissue ensures neither the physical survival of our people nor the perpetuation of our spiritual legacy. Nevertheless, crushing and slicing a baby’s foreskin does ensure both short and long-term damage to the male’s sexuality and well-being. As is true in all other aspects of biology, altering form invariably alters function.
Later Pollock made these observations, The piercing shrieks, flailing head and tremulous chin or worst, the dissociative silence of babies undergoing circumcision, have been insufficient for many to acknowledge the extreme degree of pain experienced by these male infants. We now have data, replicated by numerous scientific studies which have measured and quantified babies’ suffering by analysis of …respiratory heart rates, oxygenation levels, duration and pitch of cries as well as facial expressions. The findings are indisputable: Babies undergoing circumcision, even with the administration of pain-blunting techniques, experience quantifiably extraordinary pain. She asserted that research has found that circumcisions produce long-term alterations in neurological response to painful stimuli … We know that trauma of this magnitude cannot be psychological insignificant. Quite to the contrary, circumcision has been shown to disrupt the establishment of breast-feeding, an elemental part of a maternal-infant bond.
On an even deeper level, Pollack said, It may fracture or shatter an infants trust in his mother. She is his universe, source of all nurturing and protection. When that protection is violently breached, the babys entire sense of safety is invariably compromised, creating a deep fissure in the most foundational developmental test of all human, the establishment of trust.
Thats just part of a passionate speech by a Jewish mother. A younger Jewish mother who spurned circumcision for her son and who is writing a book for Jewish parents questioning circumcision told her story, underscoring that she and her husband want to celebrate so much of their Jewish heritage, but they cannot perpetuate the bris milah component and that a male does not have to be circumcised to be Jewish. Jews have historically discarded numerous harsh rules mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, and circumcision — not consistently practiced by Jews over the millennia — can and should be abandoned as well. Interestingly, the list runs long for Jewish scholars, doctors and academicians who have been the most passioinate and vocal in writing in favor of medical reform in this area.
Fortunately, education, lawsuits, many books and magazine articles, TV segments, smarter allocation of health dollars and parents raw instincts are bringing the rate of circumcision down in the U.S. — now to about 55 percent nationally and about 35 percent here in the American West. And it has become sufficinetly clear today that a son no longer has to “lack” like Daddy, that body integrity and wholeness are worthy ends for a civilized society. Here’s hoping that the cutting and the screams stop and the first violence often visited on newborns — a perverse, institionally allowed sexual violence — can be ended.