A Child’s Response

Stunned by a new medical report that minimizes the health benefits of circumcision, rabbis nationwide were left groping last week for a fitting response. But one rabbi acted swiftly and with utter decisiveness: Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the fledgling National Boards of Rabbis. He had his own son circumcised.

The Schneier circumcision took place in New York on March 4, three days after the report appeared. Some 700 guests attended, among them Israeli diplomats, politicians and figures from all three religious movements. The place was Park East Synagogue, the upscale Orthodox congregation that Schneier’s father, Arthur, has led for 40 years.

“There’s no question about it,” said a beaming Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who recited the ritual circumcision blessings. “This is absolutely the most appropriate response to that report.”

Careful observers would note that the baby appeared several days before the report did, suggesting that the ceremony’s timing may have been — despite Schneier’s savvy political reputation — more coincidence than planned rebuttal. Still, nobody present could have missed the event’s symbolism.

Nobody, that is, except for little Brendan Isaac Schneier. Judging by his howl, he seemed more focused on immediate reality than symbolism.

The medical report, for those who spent the week on Mars, was issued on March 1 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It emerged from a task force that was formed to review existing research on infant circumcision. Its conclusion: “The academy does not recommend a policy of routine newborn circumcision.” The benefits, they said, are “not sufficient.”

Not that children shouldn’t be circumcised. It just shouldn’t be “routine.” Parents should “discuss the subject with their pediatrician and make an informed choice.” In deciding, the academy thoughtfully added, it’s “legitimate for the parents to take into account cultural, religious and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors.”

The doctors also declared for the first time that those who do make the cut should administer pain relief, preferably lidocaine via injection or smear. This ends an old debate about why tots cry when circumcised. Now it’s official: It hurts.

This won’t be the final word. It’s the academy’s fourth report in three decades. Others will surely follow. The last report, in 1989, urged universal circumcision. Its author, Dr. Edgar Schoen of the Oakland-based Kaiser Foundation, now says a “young couple would get better advice from their grandmother than from the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Rabbinic reactions to the report ranged from bravado to scorn, plus some nervousness. “I don’t think it should have a great deal of significance for Jews, because the reason why Jews are committed to circumcision has nothing to do with medical concerns,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, interviewed by telephone. “For us, it is a ritual of identification and binding ourselves to God.”

“It may influence some wavering souls,” said Yeshiva’s Lamm, “who mistakenly interpret every Jewish legal institution as health-related, as opposed to being a genuinely spiritual act. But it will not influence anyone who is genuinely committed to Judaism and Jewish tradition.”

The trouble is, many Jews aren’t that committed. Growing numbers are casual drop-ins. They have their sons circumcised because doctors recommend it, and, besides, hey, it’s Jewish. How will they react to the new guidelines?

No one knows. Despite a slight dip in popularity nationwide, circumcision is believed to remain nearly universal among Jews. But not all Jews have a brit, the traditional snip performed by a mohel, or ritual circumciser. Some — nobody knows how many — have the operation done clinically by a hospital surgeon.

Los Angeles obstetrician Robert Sloves, one of 200 physicians trained as mohels by the Reform movement, estimates that one-fourth to one-half of his Jewish patients have their sons circumcised by doctors rather than mohels. “As a mohel, I encourage my Jewish patients to have a brit,” he says. “But some simply prefer to do it in a hospital.”

Some Jews, of course, reject circumcision altogether. There are even organizations campaigning against it. America has Jewish organizations for everything. Ronald Goldman, head of the Boston-based Circumcision Resource Center, says that there may be a dozen anti-brit groups such as his around the country, trying to impress the public with the procedure’s, um, shortcomings.

Besides “traumatic” pain and potential post-op complications, Goldman cites studies that show long-term problems from loss of the foreskin. For one, he says, “penile sensation and sexual satisfaction are reduced for circumcised males.” For another, circumcised men are “significantly more likely” to engage in unconventional sexual behavior, such as oral sex, perhaps compensating for reduced sensation. Whether this figured in last year’s impeachment crisis, he doesn’t say.

Other studies indicate circumcised men are less prone to sexual dysfunction than uncircumcised men. But Goldman doesn’t mention those to interviewers.

Talking to Goldman and others, one senses that opposition to circumcision is no more medically based than support for it. The whole discussion emerges from deep anxieties and deeper mysteries. Anyone with a son knows this. The idea of cutting into that perfect, innocent body — especially that part of that body — is both terrifying and transcendent. The patriarch Abraham understood this. So did Freud.

By no accident, the commandment to circumcise is followed in the Bible almost immediately by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. The binding of Isaac was the test of a parent’s willingness to destroy a child to obey an invisible God. It was the ultimate Freudian confrontation, an act of love, disdain and transcendence all in one. Circumcision re-enacts that, on a tiny scale, with each new Jewish boy.

The air was thick with such intergenerational drama last week at Brendan Schneier’s brit. The platform where the knife fell, Arthur Schneier’s pulpit, was supposed to become son Marc’s by now. But Marc left a decade ago to start his own congregation. It was a painful episode, with feelings of abandonment and betrayal on both sides. Both say it’s history, but their eyes give them away.

Neither Schneier mentioned this history at the brit. Still, when Marc prayed aloud that his son would become a rabbi and inherit his pulpit — a joy his own father won’t know — a hush filled the hall.

Then the mohel went to work on the next generation, and the hall was filled with the merriment these ceremonies evoke for everyone present.

Everyone, that is, except little Brendan. He was howling with a pain all his own. And now, thanks to the new policy of the pediatric academy, he can cry all he wants. It’s his party.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.