American Circumcision and Brit Milah in 2003
Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

Mark D. Reiss MD

You know, there are some ideas and belief systems that we never even think about, they become so much a part of us, so ingrained, so unshakable, that it takes a revelation, an "Aha!" for us to change our minds.

Four and a half years ago, I thought that circumcision was inviolate in Judaism. I was wrong!

I grew up in a traditional and large extended Jewish family in New York. As a child and young man, I attended many a Bris of younger cousins and friends. I learned in Hebrew school about the covenant God made with Abraham, and as a good student, accepted the tradition. Later in medical school I saw and even participated in newborn circumcisions. I remember being mildly uncomfortable with the way the babies were restrained, but being a good medical student, I accepted the teachings of my professors, that it was a procedure important for the health of baby boys. We were taught that newborns had undeveloped nervous systems, and their pain was so trivialized that I stopped listening to the frantic cries of the babies. We learned nothing about foreskin anatomy or function.

So, both from a health and religious perspective, there was no question that when my first child, a son, was born, that a circumcision would be done. I never considered any alternative.

Fast-forward 37 years to April 1999. I had now retired from my Diagnostic Radiology medical practice, and was happily pursuing long-term musical goals as a performing pianist. My wife and I had moved from Sacramento to our dream city, San Francisco. Both of our kids were married and pursuing their own careers. Life was good.

For many years, I indulged myself with a weekly massage. My massage therapist, who is also a licensed Rosen Method practitioner, frequently ended my session with this subtle touch therapy. At one of these massages, falling into a deep reverie, almost a hypnotic trance, I felt a sharp pain in my genital area, and my hands involuntarily moved to protect myself. I began to cry and was very disturbed. At the end of the massage, my therapist asked me about any memories of childhood abuse, which I denied, and then very cautiously asked I had any memories of my circumcision. The question upset me but I could not associate the experience with any conscious memory of my own circumcision and so I rejected this suggestion.

I was troubled and could not understand the experience. And that might have been the end of it, except that a few days later, I ran across a book called "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective" by Ronald Goldman. While carefully reading the book memories of the massage flooded my consciousness. I had an epiphany that shook me to the core: Circumcision is wrong. And we need to stop!

Now, skeptics may hear this story as a kind of unbelievable "twilight zone" narrative. Since my experience, I've learned that this story is not unique. Licensed hypno-therapists have described similar findings with age-regressed patients reliving their circumcisions, sometimes very violently. One hypno-therapist thought she was witnessing a reliving of child abuse or molestation. However, soon after seeing a circumstraint, the immobilizing device used in hospital circumcisions, it reminded her of the position that her patient had been in while thrashing around on the floor, and she then for the first time recognized circumcision was the cause of the problem. I have also read accounts, and spoken personally to men who became aware of their own circumcision trauma, either during therapy or after reading about the experience of others.

What exactly is removed with circumcision? It has been argued that the foreskin is "just a flap of useless skin. Far from the truth! Research has shown that this tissue contains highly specialized erotogenic nerve endings that are tailor-made for sexual stimulation. The effects of circumcision on sexual response are being studied, and most reports from men circumcised as adults indicate loss of sensation. Our medieval Jewish sages have even written about it. Maimonedes says in his Guide to the Perplexed "The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and diminishes the pleasure is indubitable."

Circumcision is the most common surgical procedure done in the United States. I emphasize the U.S. because we are the only country in the world routinely circumcising our newborn baby boys for non-religious reasons. In 2001 more than 1.1 million circumcisions were performed. Several medical publications have shown significant postoperative complication rates of 2 to 5%. Put into real numbers, this means that even using the lowest 2% figure, more than 20,000 newborn American boys suffered a significant postoperative complication in 2001. The death complication rate is not known, since the cause of death is rarely listed as circumcision, rather overwhelming infection or hemorrhage. We do know that every year babies do die as a result of circumcision.

As the general public and physicians are educated about the importance of foreskin function, as they come to understand the severe pain experienced by the babies, and as they appreciate that circumcision has risks which far outweigh any potential benefit, the incidence of circumcision in the U.S. has been dropping. From a peak of 85% in 1979, the national U.S. Newborn Infant Circumcision rate fell to 55% in 2001. And on the West Coast the rate has fallen below 40%. No medical society in the world recommends routine infant circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has made conflicting statements in the past, has just recently concluded that routine newborn infant circumcision cannot be recommended. I believe that when routine circumcision stops in the U.S., physicians will look at each other and say, "Why in the world did we ever do this?"

There are so many reasons not to circumcise. Why have we Jews continued practicing this ritual for about 2,500 years? Rabbis will uniformly agree that we circumcise only because the covenant of the brit is commanded in the Torah and as such becomes part of Halacha, or Jewish law. There is no hygienic or medical basis for circumcision in Judaism.

Today, more than 50% of American Jews are unaffiliated. Many if not most of these Jews probably have their babies circumcised in the hospital within the first few days of life, rather than at a Brit Milah on the eighth day, and as such would not even fulfill the requirements of Jewish ritual. I believe that in some of these cases, circumcision is done because it is the American thing to do, rather than the Jewish thing to do. When medical circumcision disappears in the United States, I think that many American Jews will follow the lead and stop circumcising. This has certainly occurred in other countries where circumcision is frowned upon, such as Sweden, where only 40% of the newborn Jewish boys are circumcised.

There are some Jews who state that if circumcision is discontinued, it will threaten the very ethos of being Jewish. They are mistaken. Circumcision is not an identity issue in Judaism. It is only one of 613 mitzvot, or laws. A man does not need to be circumcised to be Jewish any more than he needs to follow other laws, such as keeping kosher, or observing the multiple restrictions of Shabbat. The bottom line is that if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish! And many in the Reform tradition also accept patrilineal descent. Today, there are newborn Jewish boys the world over who are not being circumcised. These intact boys are being brought up Jewish, having Bar Mitzvahs, and ultimately taking their place in the Jewish community.

A few years ago I learned about the alternative naming ceremonies that some Jewish families choose, to peacefully and non-surgically bring their baby boys into the covenant. This is similar to the naming ceremony used for baby girls. Rather than Bris, or Brit Milah, the Hebrew words for Ritual Circumcision, how about Brit Shalom? This name has caught on, and I now have a web page listing rabbis and other lay leaders who will help officiate at such ceremonies. I call them "Celebrants of Brit Shalom" and that is how I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Nathan, who is one of my celebrants. It is an evolving list and I am constantly searching for more celebrants. At last count, we had 24 in the United States, and one each in Canada, England and even in Israel. Not a week goes by that I do not receive requests by phone or email from expectant parents who cannot accept circumcision, and are looking for someone to help them with Brit Shalom.

All but the most Orthodox view Judaism as an evolving religion that can and does change according to the generational needs of our people. We are far removed from the days of animal sacrifice. We no longer stone adulterous women to death. Why do we persist with this harmful and potentially dangerous tradition?

I believe that one of the reasons Brit Milah continues is that it is not openly discussed. As with other taboo subjects, there is a tremendous amount of ignorance surrounding circumcision. I've seen attempts at discussion degenerate into jokes, usually in poor taste, which for me indicates a profound discomfort level. Circumcision jokes are disrespectful to those of us who know that this is a traumatic event for baby boys. This jocularity is the same as Li'l Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima jokes that offend African-Americans, and homosexual jokes that offend gays and lesbians. There is so much resistance to having serious and open discussions, and I have found that questioning circumcision before a Jewish audience is just not the path to popularity. So I would like to heartily congratulate Rabbi Nathan for having the courage to talk about circumcision openly. Kol Hakovod.

A final thought. If you can suspend your disbelief, try to imagine that Judaism, having survived the millennia, never had circumcision as part of our tradition, culture or laws. Never harmed our baby boy infants on their eighth day of life. Had peaceful Brit Shalom naming ceremonies for baby boys as well as baby girls as we gently and lovingly brought them into the covenant. And then, try to imagine that a charismatic rabbi suddenly announces that he had a dream, that God called to him telling him that in order to fulfill the covenant, we must begin cutting off the foreskins of all of our baby boys. He calls it circumcision, and it will be the new law for the Children of Israel! What would you think?