A Tip on The Circumcision Ban

Listen up, it’s penis time.

You may have heard by now that the city of San Francisco has put a measure on the ballot for November 2012 to ban male circumcision. If it passes, it would become a misdemeanor to snip the tip of anyone under 18, punishable with a $1000 fine and/or up to a year in jail. The city of Santa Monica has a similar proposal on the table—part of a national initiative called the Male Genital Mutilation Bill—and allows for no religious exemptions.

Yes, for real. Specifically, the San Francisco measure notes that “no account shall be taken of the effect on the person on whom the operation is to be performed of any belief on the part of that or any other person that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.”

Look, I get the controversy. Not everyone wants to cut their son’s teeny weenie, and not everyone should. I understand if parents with no vested heritage in the act don’t want their sons automatically clipped by a busy pediatrician to whom it’s another line to submit to the insurance company. I get the arguments against the routine of circumcising American boys “just ’cause” and fully support the questioning of the reasoning that’s made it de rigeur. Even the “a boy should look like his daddy” doesn’t truly wash. Sheesh, I birthed my male child in the San Francisco Bay Area, where more than half of boys aren’t circumcised anyway. I’ve always viewed it as a private family matter.

As a pregnant hippie-lookin’ lady, I encountered plenty of people passionate about the “Anti-Circ” movement (also known as “intactivists”). I remember one women in particular adamantly lecturing me about “mutilation” and trauma while she sprinkled wheat germ onto her salad. (This actually happened on a freaky breathwork workshop in Hawaii where El Yenta Man I went to connect more deeply with our unborn child by swimming with dolphins. Just so you know our values are about as far out on the fringe as they come.)

I listened to Wheat Germ Woman patiently, thinking that she must have had something really terrible happen to a penis she loved to be so angry. Between childhood games and HBO, I’d seen enough penises to know they all look a little crazy anyway, circumcised and not (a boy named Josh showed me his little covered wagon behind the Amelia Bedelia bookshelves in kindergarten and feigning nonchalance, I asked him how he could possibly pee that outta thing.) I rubbed my belly as she went on and on and when I finally couldn’t take anymore, I said “Hmm. Thank you for all your information but we’re Jewish. And this the end of this conversation.”

She didn’t speak to us for the rest of the breathwork workshop. Neither did anyone else, mostly because El Yenta Man couldn’t stop laughing in one of the meditations where we were supposed to tone like whales. We ditched the whole weirdo crew three days in, rented a car and drove all around the Big Island, swimming in isolated crater lakes, eating bananas straight from the trees and having the BEST time connecting with our unborn child all by ourselves. I really did appreciate where the anti-circ lady was coming from though, and if I wasn’t Jewish, her points might have stuck. However, in spite of her horrific stories, I had far more examples of healthy, happy circumcised penises. I realized no matter what, my son would be circumcised because he is a Jew, and that’s what we do.

I’ve only been to two bris in my life, both conducted by the same mohel, the person that comes to your house on your baby boy’s eighth day of life with a toolkit and prayerbook to bring this child into the Jewish faith. Mohels have been specifically trained in the surgical techniques and religious ritual, and it would be kinder, gentler world if all of them were like Chanan Feld, of blessed memory.

When Rabbi Feld came in with his black hat and big beard, I felt an instant trust that allowed me to hand over my precious, precious baby to this man. His very Chabadness imbued our tiny apartment with a holy air, and though I was terrified, I felt prepared. My father and father-in-law cradled the boy carefully, and El Yenta Man let the boy suck on a cotton handkerchief soaked in Manischewitz. My mother-and-law and I clung together, eyes squeezed shut. Rabbi Feld intoned the prayers, there was a quick swish, an application of gauze, and my baby boy was in my arms nursing before I knew it. He didn’t even cry. We all exhaled and had a huge nosh and laughed at the dog, who during the short deed had managed to scarf an entire platter of lox. Later my dad, a surgeon for 30 years, expressed his admiration for the rabbi’s steady hand: “That was the cleanest cut I’ve ever seen.”

It was another necessary step in this Jewish life we made and continue to make for ourselves. As joyous an occasion as it is, there is a seriousness to a bris; no one is flip about cutting a tiny baby’s penis, and a good mohel sets a sacred tone that reminds us that this irreversible act forever binds this person into a covenant with God, same as Abraham, Isaac and all the daddies all the way down. While some argue that the circumcision has only been done only for sanitary or other clinical reasons, it is what has always set Jews apart from our neighbors, and outward sign of faith and a definite distinguishing characteristic. Before WWII, it was no foreskin: Jew; forekskin: not a Jew.

It also must be told that the boy’s godparents, who were present at the bris and aren’t Jewish, decided not to circumcise their own son when he was born seven years later. I respect every parent’s choice on this—and believe it should be just that: A choice.

So to push a law that makes every bris (as well as every Muslim khitan) a crime? Good GOLLY, that smacks of blatant religious oppression. I usually leave it to Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman to fight that fight while I blissfully skip through life in a country where everyone’s rights are supposedly guaranteed, but I’ve got to wonder here: Isn’t the MGM Bill just completely unconstitutional?

Bay Area rabbi and mohel Gil Leeds wrote that “the vote will empower a secular majority to impose its will, and ban one of the oldest religious traditions known to humanity. When religious belief and practice become subject to vote by the majority of a city council, government agency or referendum, it endangers all of our rights and freedoms.”

The inactivists compare male circumcisions to the horror of forced female circumcision, which was made illegal in the U.S. in 1996. I see the point, though female genital mutilation (done ritually for centuries in Africa and parts of the Middle East) usually involves a lot more cutting and is done with the express purpose of dampening sexual ardor. A worldwide women’s rights movement has turned the tides; 25 African countries have ratified the Maputo Protocol to end it.

Clearly, there are those who feel that male circumcision is flip side of the coin—though no amount of hideous photos or yelling in someone’s face is going to change their religious convictions. And this country, you’re actually allowed to have your religious convictions—the only catch is, you’ve got to let other people have theirs. Democracy is stupid messy, yo.

Not to be alarmist, but I find the San Francisco ballot measure to be anti-Semitic and downright dangerous. Some have noted that it’s a very strange move for a city so mired in other kinds of freedom—but as a die-hard, bleeding heart liberal, I still know that fanaticism goes both ways.

I hold the same opinion about circumcision as I do about abortion—that it’s personal, not political. If you are opposed, then don’t have one. If you want to prevent others from doing it, put your efforts into education. But using legislation to enforce such deeply complex matters only divides us, and we need all the unifying we can get.

In other words, mind your own family’s penises and I’ll mind mine.

21 thoughts on “A Tip on The Circumcision Ban

  1. I agree with pretty much everything you said here, and back it up with my Father in-law’s experience – he was an uncircumcised Jew b/c he was born during the Blitz and was too sick for one on the 8th day, and then his parents just never bothered about it. He got done as an adult when my husband was born, and never regretted it, either physically or culturally. (Yes, file this under things-you-don’t-really-want-to-know-about-your-inlaws).

  2. “In the 613 mitzvos, we are commanded to:

    (N 41) Not imprinting any marks on our bodies (Lev. 19:28)

    (N 45) Not making cuttings in our flesh (Deut. 16:1)”

    “It is a violation of Torah commandments to physically assault or harm another person (Exodus 21:18-27). Yet that is exactly what circumcision is! Thus, it is against the most fundamental concept of Jewish law.”

    Jews Against Genital Mutilation Sites:



    Bris Shalom/brit shalom = No Genital Mutilation. All My Jewish Friends have Bris Shaolmed and kept their babies intact.

    Jewish Genital Integrity/Human Rights Links:

    My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin: http://www.mothering.com/health/my-son-the-little-jew-with-a-foreskin

    Jewish Mother Against Circumcision: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfnqN3YgTd8

    Jewish American Scholar Leonard Glick – Circumcision: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4UEbsg-k5Y

    Our Son’s Bris Shalom: Welcoming Covenant: http://www.drmomma.org/2010/08/our-sons-bris-shalom-welcoming-covenant.html

    I’m a Physician, a Jew, a Father & Grandfather: My position on Circumcision: http://www.drmomma.org/2009/08/im-doctor-jew-father-grandfather-my.html

    Brit Shalom Celebrants: http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish-shalom.html

  3. There is no religious freedom for female genital mutilation.

    There is no religious freedom for male genital mutilation it is a human rights violation.

    Genital mutilation is a violation of a baby’s right to 1st amendment freedom of religion. What if they want to be non religious or buddhist when they grow up? Buddhism treasures the foreskin.

    Your religious freedom ends where my body and my human rights begin under constitution, UN, and the 14th amendment of equal protection whereas Female genital mutilation is banned so boys are equally protected . There is no religious exemption for female circumcision. Genital mutilation is already illegal: http://www.drmomma.org/2010/04/circumcision-already-illegal.html

    Jews Against Circ Bris shalom requires no cutting and my Jewish friends kept their kids intact: http://www.JewsAgainstCircumcision.org

    Muslims against circ: http://www.quranicpath.com/misconceptions/circumcision.html

  4. I’m Jewish and did not circumcise my sons. It is not my right to permanently alter their bodies in the name of my religion. They can decide for themselves when they are consenting adults what to do with their own bodies based on their own beliefs. That is their right and no one else’s. Many Jews are actually keeping our sons whole these days. A number of our friends and relatives have made similar decisions and the movement to keep Jewish boys whole is quite a growing movement.
    The health benefits of circumcision are questionable at best. All the claims about circumcision helping to fight HIV, STDs, or cancer have been debunked repeatedly. Over half-a-dozen medical and pediatric associations in Holland, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have therefore officially condemned circumcision. They have looked at all the latest and best research from around the world and found no reason to cut off perfectly healthy foreskins. The risks and disadvantages of circumcision, however, are undeniable. It is undeniable that up to 15 sq. inches of sensitive, nerve-filled, and vein-rich tissue is lost to adult men who are circumcised. It is undeniable that many men suffer physical scarring and life-long trauma from being circumcised. And it is undeniable that many boys die each year from circumcision. Ultimately, it is undeniable that circumcision is needless and immoral.

  5. And this country, you’re actually allowed to have your religious convictions—the only catch is, you’ve got to let other people have theirs.

    Except… your right to practice your religion stops with YOUR body. What if your child rejects your faith? Isn’t it more of a testament of faith to willingly agree to a circumcision as an adult?

    And when it comes to the FGM vs MGM bills, to have one and not the other is unconstitutional. It violates the 14th Amendment. There is no religious exemption for FGC.

  6. I have many friends who’s parents are Jewish and had them circumcised. Now that they’re adults, they’ve moved on to their own religion and completely hate being circumcised. I completely understand that there is no religious exception to the circumcision ban.

    I agree with the circumcision ban as there are already bans up that keep baby girls from being cosmetically changed to please their culture, but that ban also has no religious exception.

    I can see how some may see this ban as insulting to certain religions, but in the end, think about the religious freedom of the infant who will later be a grown man or woman.

  7. It’s past time for this brutal and unnecessary procedure to be outlawed. There’s no justification for it being inflicted on the body of a non-willing human being.

    There’s still a lot of ignorance out there among Americans – people who literally have no clue about the negative consequences (as well as the human rights violation) associated with inflicting this unnecessary genital surgery on infants.

    Many Jewish people and Muslims are upset (but not all – http://www.jewishcircumcision.org , http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org, http://www.quranicpath.com/misconceptions/circumcision.html, http://www.quran.org/khatne.htm, http://www.noharmm.org/persreligion.htm#islam). They believe this ban would be a threat to their freedom of religion. To which we counter: Muslims are legally prohibited from having the genitalia of their baby girls cut for cultural/religious reasons. Males are being denied equal protection under the law, and this is unconstitutional.

    Religion really shouldn’t be allowed any more as an excuse for inflicting physical alterations on the body of a non-consenting human being. Besides, babies don’t have a religion. They don’t even understand the concept. And circumcising a child in the name of religion actually infringes upon the child’s individual freedom of religion.

    Therefore, a ban on infant cutting would actually preserve our inherent rights acknowledged by the Constitution. It’s just that many people are unwilling to look at it that way … that’s how strong of a grip this culture of cutting has on the mindset of many Americans.

    And BTW – the so-called health ‘benefits’ are largely exaggerated. The risks/complications/damage/death associated with infant circumcision are greater than any possible issue which MIGHT arise from remaining intact.

    Please, people. Let go of what you *think* you know about infant circumcision and do your homework on this blatant human rights violation.

  8. Hi Head Yenta,

    You said, “In other words, mind your own family’s penises and I’ll mind mine. ”

    I have to wonder if you support the rights of parents to religiously cut their daughter’s vulva – in degrees equal to or less invasive then male circumcision. If not, you have a double standard and this is what this will come down to. Human rights and equal protection.

  9. “I respect every parent’s choice on this — and believe it should be just that: A choice.” But what you describe is NOT a choice for the person most directly concerned – in fact the only person directly concerned. Tzipporah’s father-in-law had the choice and took it for himself, and that’s how it should be. Nor it seems did he suffer from not having been “brought into the Jewish faith” any earlier, because that is a matter of, well, faith, not surgery. (Otherwise how could women be Jews?)

  10. Female cutting is done in Islam for the same reason as Male cutting. It is one of the Fritah – the things that must be done to keep oneself clean. It is not done to diminish sexuality, and the Qu’ran speaks of this, instructing to not remove so much flesh that pleasure is unachievable. Yet the practice is banned. To allow Male circumcision and not Female circumcision is to breach Gender Equality; and it a slight on Islam. To remove them both is not a slight on religious freedom, but rather it is a step forward in Human Rights.

  11. “I see the point, though female genital mutilation (done ritually for centuries in Africa and parts of the Middle East) usually involves a lot more cutting and is done with the express purpose of dampening sexual ardor.”


    Here is a blog from a loving mother who circumcised her daughter. Maybe you can explain to her why what she did is illegal in the USA.

  12. Jews don’t deserve any special privileges. Least of all a privilige to sexually assault their newborn males.

    Sorry Jews, but you’re equal with the rest of us. Just because your sadistic and bloodthirsty god demands you sacrifice the genitals of your baby boys doesn’t mean you get to escape the criticism and the ethical issues.

    If you want to be equals, then you have to recognize that your sexual assault of newborn males is not going to be tolerated by any civilized society. And as such, you WILL be persecuted for your actions.

    We are all equals, we are all punished as equals. It’s time the sexual assault of infant males inflicted by Jews be treated with the same disdain and disrespect as the sexual assault of infant females by Muslims and Africans is.

  13. Okay, Intactivists, thanks so much for posting your opinions. Again, you certainly have the right to them. You have the freedom to circumcise or not based on your convictions.

    But if you want to convince others to come to “your side,” this campaign to criminalize Jews (and others) for completing what the Torah defines as a holy covenant makes you seem disingenuous, anti-Semitic and downright insane. Accusing people of “mutilating” their sons is outrageous when the majority of circumcised men have no issues around this and trying to legislate personal decisions wastes everyone’s resources.

  14. Ummm . . . Intactivists you have a right to your opinions, but a few points.
    a) As far as I know circumcision does not cause loss of sensation and actually has health benefits for the female partner.
    b) Moreover, I don’t see this as mutilation. Are you going to ban pierced ears and tattoos as well?
    c) This discussion is marked by a tone of cultural imperialism. One the main problems in terms of female circumcision is that many activists took no time to understand the cultural circumstances under which it was practiced. It was selected as a particular action of the “barbaric other.” This debate seems to follow the same unproductive vein of discourse. It is interesting that circumcision is selected as a particular means of forcing cultural identity. Is infant baptism also being banned? I think not.

  15. Inactivists are certainly entitled to their opinion, but I am bothered when they try and legislate it.

    Josh’s anti-Semitism is less of an opinion and more of an issue, but I appreciate those that shared their thoughts and opinions without the hatred.

  16. I am a man. I am not Jewish. My parents are not Jewish (never were). I am circumcised. I was not mutilated. And I am happy about it!!
    I’m like that b*tch who survived her own abortion! …except an abortion is NOTHING like a circumcision.

    But seriously, in comparison to abortion…Women; you know how a lot of you hate, and most of you get annoyed, when men chime in with their two cents on the issue?? Because its irrelevant? Well, same thing applies here. You don’t have a penis? Then shut it.

    Annnd, MEN. If you are a man, and have NOT been circumcised; also shut it! Do you know what its like to be cut? Nope, ya don’t.
    Want to know what its like? Care to ask us?!?!
    Its great! I love it! I am so happy my parents did it while I was an infant! And I will definitely be snipping my future son(s). Not for Jewish reasons, not necessarily for health reasons, but just because!!

    Not until 18, hahaha. Thats so funny. What about corrective braces? Of the teeth or other bones? Got to wait huh? What about cleft pallet? Go ahead and leave it. How about kids having their tonsils removed? Babies with different length legs getting leg lengthening procedures? Ear tube insertions? Adenoid removal? NO!?!?!?
    Ya know what? A circumcision leaves no harmful or negative effects, short or long term. So why don’t you worry about your own penis, mine’s perfectly fine!

  17. Again, my “homework” around male circumcision has been done—AT HOME.

    Neither my husband, my son, their uncles, their grandfathers or any other person with a penis close enough to our family to share (thanks, Will Casey!) has expressed anything other than total satisfaction with his member.

    Trying to characterize—and legislate—this as a “human rights violation” really appears to be a hysterical attempt to force your opinion on others.

    There are clear and obvious medical and physical differences between circumcising a boy and a girl, and yes, I find the latter repulsive. But the blogger who circumcised her baby girl in KUALA LAMPUR, MALAYSIA (link above) clearly felt it was a happy occasion. One can only assume that she herself was circumcised and suffered no harm—and so chose the same for her own child.

    This world is full of different cultures, religions and opinions. Outlawing something that a few people find terrible but the majority of those who experience it feel is fine ain’t gonna bring peace. Again, if you feel so strongly about circumcision, don’t have one. Certainly keep talking and educating if that’s how you want to spend your time.

    But keep your laws of my—and my loved ones’—bodies.

  18. As head penis waggler of the Lebos clan I of course have an opinion. A big circumcised one. Wanna see it?

    I am a Jewish male with a perfectly working handsome circumcised penis. I have a son name Abraham with a perfectly working handsome circumcised penis. My father and brother, father-in-law and brother-in-law are all Jewish with perfectly working circumcised penises. I have known many Jewish males (and non-Jews) and have never known any to be unhappy with their circumcised penises nor have I ever heard a Jewish wife/mom complain about the tradition/procedure/outcome of circumcision. Like it or not it is the way our people are.

    If you are a circumcised male and wish you weren’t, then you should let your parents know how you feel and then move on. Choose not to do it to your child.

    But the idea that it is mutilation mostly falls on deaf ears. First of all, the word “intactivist” does not accurately describe the type of person who holds the anti-circumcision belief such as those who have responded in the comments above. Better word is “Phallascist,” or someone who tries to dick-tate what you do to you or your kid’s penis. (Schmuck is a much better word for someone who describes circumcision as mutilation. Mutilation is what a chimpanzee does to your genitals if it wants your birthday cake: http://www.esquire.com/features/chimpanzee-attack-0409-3)

    Describing it as sexual assault is just embarrassing and demonstrates a complete disconnect between the reality of sexual assault, as true victims experience it. It is like describing consensual sex as the act in which the male of the species stabs the female in the vagina violently with the blunt object until the evil semen invades her. That is called rape. Very different than consensual sex. A parent is a child’s legal guardian and therefore is legally able to consent to medical procedures for the child, regardless of the religious freedoms protected by the 1st amendment of the constitution.

    Having never seen an uncircumcised penis until very recently, I can assure you that having a different-looking penis than everyone else is not all that desirable for most American boys. “Thanks mom and dad for making sure that everyone stares and laughs at my dick”. No chick ever looked at my circumcised penis and said holy shit, did a shark attack your penis? It is handsome, aerodynamic and works fine, therefore, by definition, Not Mutilated!

    Most women love circumcised penises. Literally! That said, like most things in life if you don’t want one, don’t get one. My sympathies go out to those of you who are unhappy with your penises. I doubt that the foreskin would make your life that much better, but who really knows. If you did not get a circumcision, you would probably be bitching about how embarrassed and therefore scarred you were at camp when all the other kids pointed at your penis and shouted “HAHAHAHA look at Anon’s weird weiner!” Or, “Wow Josh’s penis looks like a raisin!”

    The loss of the little piece of skin/ blood vessels and nerves leaves billions still intact. Perhaps you should focus more on what you have and utilizing its powers than lamenting over what has been taken from you. Honestly, the idea that it is wrong to choose the religion of your own child is a bit obtuse to say the least. Religion is not for everyone. And believing in God is a personal family decision. But as a parent, I make many decisions for my children from what vaccines to use to what school to send them to, to what they eat, activities they participate in to who they can play with and where we live. Not all our parenting decisions will be the right ones. That is the nature of the weight of parental responsibility. Having to make decisions that are hard (like my perfectly functioning handsome circumcised penis.) Some of use our faith in God to help us deal with all that weight. And all He asks in return as that we give a little skin. But we make decisions and live with them. We even change our minds.

    Since virtually everyone I know is circumcised (I am a Southern Reform Jew with mostly Christian friends), I can only say that unhappy people will always find something to be unhappy about. Misery is a waste of a life. I recommend letting go of your foreskin angst and moving on with your life. Get a hobby like knitting or scrapbooking. Perhaps you could volunteer at the local “Impotence Clinic for the Mutilated” which is overworked with the teeming masses of flaccid, scarred, worthless, scalped victims of barbaric Jewish mohels. Personally, I like to surf to take the edge off. I imagine my surf board is a Jewish girl with nice boobies. I put my circumcised penis on it and paddle for waves and thank God I am Jewish and circumcised. Then I get barreled. I smile and shake the water out of my hair and thank God that a shark did not mutilate my penis.

    Good luck to you all and hopefully when you’re done exaggerating the benefits of a foreskin and the horrors of circumcision. Shalom!

  19. Thanks so much for this post. I really appreciated reading it! We are a Messianic Jewish family living in Jerusalem and had brit for our son when he was born. I’m also very much of an attachment parenting mom, so we’ve had some similar conversations as the one you described. His brit was a very sweet day, announcing his name and bringing him into this covenant, in the land. I wrote about it here:

    http://etzhazayit.blogspot.com/2012/05/power-of-brit-milah.html 🙂

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