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Jewish mom: Circumcision spiritually wounds, breaks bonds and trust

Posted by on August 31, 2006 – 3:23 pm

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.


  • Randy Saxton says:

    I’m so glad that more mothers are taking a strong stand to protect their children from this brutal act.
    My compliments to Miriam Pollack and Lawn Griffiths for bringing this important issue out into the light.

  • Rood Andersson says:

    The tradition of Jewish infant circumcision as fulfilling a covenant between Abraham and his God is a based on a fiction, and it should have no force.
    Apart from the psychic and physical pain the mother and her child experience in the necessarily brutal act of circumcision, Jewish mothers … and fathers … should be aware that the Genesis 17 narrative which instituted the act of circumcision as a covenant was slipped into Genesis not at the time that Genesis was written, not during the life of Abraham, nor soon after. Some thirteen centuries had to pass, after the putative lifetime of Abraham, before Judean priests introduced infant circumcision as the rite of initiation into their male-centered society.
    Circumcision was just another of the Priestly attempts to wrest control of Jewish society after the Babylonian captivity. The actual covenant between Abraham and his God is found in Genesis 15:7. As may be seen, male genital mutilation is nowhere mentioned.
    Therefore, neither Miriam Pollack nor any other Jewish parent should feel any guilt about not following a rule, which is based on a falsehood.

  • The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective
    by Sandford Borins, Ph.D.
    It seems to me that for liberal Jews the choice comes down to this. Do we want to in some way circumscribe the sexual possibilities of our sons by performing a body modification when they are infants so as to bear witness to the covenant? Are there not other ways to bear witness? Are there not other ways to maintain our distinctiveness from the society around us? Despite having circumcised my two sons, the more I think about the issue, the more likely � were I a resident of San Francisco � I would support the referendum.

    Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power
    by Miriam Pollack
    Tikkun, June 27, 2011
    Without compromising either our children�s identity or the survival of our people, we can invite all of our Jewish children, our baby girls and our baby boys, into a brit b�lee milah, a covenant without circumcision, and school them in the wisdom, love, and beauty of the Jewish tradition. Unlike Christianity, which teaches that a child is born into original sin and must be redeemed, Judaism teaches that the soul is pure � only the penis needs �redemption.� The truth is that the whole baby is pure, body and soul, including his tender genitals, and it is both a mitzvah and our most sacred duty to protect him.
    Pollack, Miriam. 2011. Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power. Tikkun 26(3).

  • roger desmoulins says:

    In the early days of the internet, I stumbled on an essay by Miriam Pollack. Reading her changed my life. I suddenly saw that bris can inflict a primal wound on the heart and soul of a Jewish mother. I wept for her and her infant sons. She is a Biblical prophet for our time, calling on us to mend our ways and to see the light of truth and justice.

    People, never forget that unlike Christianity and Judaism, there is nothing anti-sexual in Judaism. Jews are supposed to marry and bear children. Husbands and wives are supposed to delight in each other. A Jewish husband is required to be attentive to his wife’s sexual requirements. Intercourse is so holy that it can be done on the Sabbath. I am not at all surprised that most sexual revolutionaries, including Sigmund Freud, have been of Jewish ancestry. It is becoming increasingly clear that in most cases, the male bits excised by circumcision enhance the sexual experience of both genders. Brit milah is in conflict with the warm embrace Jewish culture and ethics grant in all other ways to the sexual aspect of the human condition.

    Abstaining from intimacy before marriage is no longer a priority for most Jewish families, again unlike Christianity and Islam. Moreover, Jewish families happily send their daughters to diverse universities where Jews are in the minority. Hence it is now easy for a young Jewish woman to have had at least one intact lover. This will become more common as American gentile families gradually give up circumcision. 21st century North America looks set to become the first place and time where a large fraction of each cohort of Jewish women will have personal experience with both cut and intact. I predict that this sociological reality will sooner or later alter Jewish practice, as it has already begun altering gentile practice. During nervous weekend dates in college dorms, more than a few women intactivists were born. There is no reason why this reality will exempt Jewish young women.

  • Miriam Pollack has a new article in the latest issue of Tikkun.

    She also has a new interview.
    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Miriam Pollack’s work has helped to inspire a new generation of Jewish intactivists. I hear from young Jewish parents all the time who are keeping their sons intact. There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    * Jews Against Circumcision http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D. http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish-shalom.html

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D. http://www.jewishcircumcision.org

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    The Kindest Un-Cut Feminism, Judaism, and My Son�s Foreskin by Professor Michael S. Kimmel

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors