German rabbi criminally charged for performing circumcisions


A rabbi in Bavaria has been slapped with criminal charges of committing bodily harm, in the first known case to arise from an anti-circumcision ruling in May.

The charge against Rabbi David Goldberg, who is a mohel, or ritual circumciser , means that the May decision in the state of Hesse has been applied in Bavaria, confirming the fears of Jewish leaders here that the local ruling would have a wider impact.

Goldberg, 64, a Jerusalem native living in Hof Saale in Bavaria, told JTA he had not yet received a notice from the court. He said he would decide what to do after he had seen it. The charge was confirmed to the main Jewish newspaper of Germany, the
Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung.

The rabbi also said he did not know what act the charges could refer to, since he has not performed any circumcisions recently in Germany. “Only abroad: in Budapest, in the Czech Republic, in Italy,” he said.

Still, the rabbi said no secular ruling would stop him from performing brit milah in the country. If a family in Germany came to him with a request to perform a circumcision, Goldberg said he would ask the Central Council of Jews in Germany what to do. “A few weeks ago, they said, ‘You can continue,’” he said.

Goldberg said regional journalists had informed him of the suit, saying it had been filed by a doctor in the state of Hessen who had gathered 600 signatures on an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that supported the anti-circumcision ruling. Merkel and the German parliament have said, however, that they intend to push for legislation to ensure that Jews and Muslims have the right to carry out the religious ritual.

The original ruling in May related to a Muslim family in Cologne whose son suffered complications after his circumcision. The court found that non-medical circumcision of a minor is a criminal act. Although the ruling was local, it has alarmed traditional Jews and Muslims across the country. Virtually all Jewish denominations have joined in condemning the ruling. This week, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yonah Metzger, was in Berlin for high level meetings on the issue.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence shows that Jewish ritual circumcisions continue to be performed in Germany despite the ruling’s chilling effect. Although several hospitals have declared moratoriums on the practice for now, brit milah is being performed in private homes and in synagogues.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, said of the lawsuit: “This latest development in Hof, Germany, is yet another grave affront to religious freedom and underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected.”

Circumcise your hearts


Consider the artichoke for a moment. It is an odd but instructive vegetable. An artichoke is prickly and surrounded by an armor of leaves protecting the soft center, the heart of the food. Boiling or steaming it loosens the protective leaves, permitting you to pick them off one by one, unwrapping the delicious gift that lies inside.

Each leaf contains a hint, a sampling of the delicious center. But even if you combined all of the tastes provided by all of the leaves on an artichoke, it would never equal the delicate green heart; only by cutting or pulling away its protective layers can one get to the treasure that lies within.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to circumcise their hearts in service to God. Specifically, they are instructed to “cut away the thickening around their hearts and stiffen their necks no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It is a powerful and direct statement made by Moses to the people. At first thought it appears horrific; Israel knows what circumcision is, and you can well imagine that every male in the assembled crowd quickly adjusted their gaze, if not their stance, at just the mention of the word. Rest assured — even back then they knew Moses was speaking in metaphor.

Biblical psychology localizes feelings and emotions in the body, and points to the heart as the organ of comprehension — thus an uncircumcised heart is a closed mind. (Think of the ring ceremony at a Jewish wedding where the rings are placed on the right index finger with a vein directly connected to the heart.)

The prophet Jeremiah even provides an example of this concept. A farmer does not plant an untilled field that weeds have overtaken and the topsoil of which is hard as stone. To make the soil productive, he plows it and rids it of weeds. So it is with human beings; the human heart and mind must be cleared of harmful growth and made receptive. Only then can ideas strike root and grow. Much like you can’t eat an artichoke till you have pealed away its hard shell, so too the Torah tells us that the heart and mind cannot undertake acts of justice and mercy until the defensive layers we build around it are cut away and broken down.

It’s not an easy thing to take down one’s own defenses, certainly when those defenses have been built over years of confrontation and hurt feelings. You build a wall to keep things out, but it just as often has the negative effect of keeping things in. Our lives are really not all that different from those of our biblical ancestors; life-styles might differ, but the basic truths of human nature and social interaction are as true in the Torah as they are today.

Our ancestors encountered a world where they were slaves to a tyrant; we may work in a job with our own taskmasters and pharaohs. In biblical times, such a situation caused Israel to be untrusting, stiff necked, hard of heart. Is the same not true for many of us? Have we not built our defenses against character assassination and image degradation so high as to harden our hearts to anyone who has even the potential to show us ill will?

For a time Israel did not want to accept the Torah because they didn’t trust that anyone, far be it God, would look with favor upon them. It took 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to convince the Children of Israel to open their hearts and minds to Torah, and even then Moses was compelled to command them again in this week’s parasha not to rebuild those defenses, those walls that prevented them from letting God into their lives.

When an artichoke blossoms it is the heart that grows first; the leaves come after to protect the delicate treasure. Likewise with the field in which it is planted; sure, after years of planting and harvesting it becomes resistant to growth, and if left dormant for a season it develops its own defense against those who would seek to assault it. But the treasure is always there — behind the leaves of the artichoke, under the stone-like topsoil of a field, inside the thickened walls we build around our heart.

Our tradition teaches that one of the many purposes of the covenant between God and the Jewish people is to elevate the human experience to help us find, recognize and create holiness in our lives and those we touch.

Anything that prevents this, our parasha instructs us, must be cut away and removed so that the treasure that lies inside can be receptive once again. This week entertain a new idea, embrace an old but now distant friend, rekindle relationships long dormant with those we love and have loved, let the words of Torah, the teachings of Judaism once again be a sign upon our hands, set them as a seal upon our hearts.


Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana. Visit his blog at jewishjournal.com/iRabbi.

Cost to keep circumcision off ballot: $100K


In the very public fight over a ballot measure aiming to ban circumcision of underage males in San Francisco, the Jewish-led coalition that succeeded in keeping the practice legal in the city spent more than six times what the ban’s proponents did.

The Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, which backed the ballot measure that ultimately was forced to be withdrawn, spent $14,000 on their efforts, according to the most recent filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, covering political activity through the end of September.

The same filings show the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, the political action committee (PAC) quickly organized by the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to wage a fight against the ballot measure, spent nearly $99,000 on its efforts.

The sum is expected to rise, JCRC Associate Director Abby Michelson Porth said, because the PAC still must be officially terminated.

“The good news is it cost us a fraction of what it would have cost had the legal victory not occurred,” Porth said. A California Superior Court judge struck the measure from the ballot in July, saying it was preempted by an existing state law.

If that hadn’t happened, Porth said, the Jewish-led coalition would have had to run a full political campaign all the way up to the Nov. 8 election. “It would have cost upward of four times what we spent,” Porth said.

For their effort, the JCRC hired four separate political firms to run the campaign. Although the Ethics Commission filings included no mention of Morrison Foerster, a firm that worked pro bono on the legal challenge that successfully struck the measure from the ballot, they did reveal that early in the campaign, the JCRC-led coalition paid $36,000 to the polling firm Tulchin Research.

“We ran a political poll to gauge how San Francisco voters felt about this measure,” Porth said, “to understand what were the key messages and messengers that would influence San Francisco voters’ attitudes.”

The JCRC itself charged the PAC over $10,000 for employees’ salaries, including Porth, who spent time working to defeat the measure.

All donations of $100 or more made to a committee on either side of the ballot measure are listed in the documents obtained from the Ethics Commission. Supporters of the JCRC-led coalition were mostly individuals and organizations in the Bay Area; the largest individual contribution came in July from Roselyne Swig, a prominent Jewish San Francisco philanthropist, who donated $10,000. National Jewish groups helped as well, among them the Anti-Defamation League, which donated $25,000 to support beating back the ban.

The effort to ban circumcision, by contrast, appears in the Ethics Commission documents to have been mostly supported by in-kind, non-monetary contributions. Indeed, of the $14,000 spent by the Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, $8,500 came from Richard Kurylo, who works in the operations unit of the San Francisco City Controller’s office, and his contributions are classified either as “Signature Gathering Expenses,” “Petition Circulators” or “photocopies/supplies.”

Many of the monetary donations to ban circumcision documented in the Ethics Commission filings came from prominent anti-circumcision activists. Kurylo personally gave $1,000; Lloyd Schofield, the ballot measure’s proponent, contributed $600; and Frank McGinness, the treasurer of the committee supporting the ballot measure, donated $1,600.

“It would’ve been nice to get more money to be able to do more,” Schofield said. “We did what we could with what we had.”

The very first itemized monetary donation to the campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco was $150 from Matthew Hess, the San Diego-based anti-circumcision activist who authored the San Francisco ballot measure.

Hess contributed an additional $500 in March and was also the creator of the anti-circumcision comic book “Foreskin Man,” which was widely criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and others as anti-Semitic.

Letters to the editor: Boyle Heights, Steve Zimmer, circumcision


Boyle Heights Reflections

Thank you for Tom Tugend’s nostalgic article on Boyle Heights (“The Nickel Pickle,” July 15).

Although I was born in Boyle Heights in 1928, we moved away to “upscale West Adams” when I was a few years old. However, I so well remember the Depression-era Disneyland-like feeling every Friday as we returned to Boyle Heights to shop. All along Brooklyn Avenue (now César Chávez Avenue) were the most delightful sights and smells of butcher shops with their live chickens, delicacy shops with barrels of pickles, bakeries with all of their goodies, and, of course, Canters Delicatessen. Yiddish was spoken all along the crowded avenue as old friends encountered one another.

And oh how well I recall the delicious scents in our car on the way home — salami, rye bread, white fish and one or more freshly slaughtered and still-warm chickens.

Martin A. Brower
Corona del Mar

Reading Tom Tugend’s article on Boyle Heights brought back some deeply rooted and heart-warming memories. I was greatly influenced by David and Mina Yaroslavsky, who were the heart and soul of Boyle Heights. When I first arrived in Los Angeles from England, I enrolled at L.A. City College and in professor Yaroslavsky’s Hebrew classes. My Hebrew-language skills may have benefited, albeit slightly, but the greatest benefit was to me personally. She invited me to her house more times than I can count, and treated me almost like a second son. I had no family here, but David and Mina provided the closest thing to family that I could have wished for. Sadly, she passed away far too soon. I named my first-born daughter Mina in her memory. She was truly “A Woman of Valor.”

She deserves an article all to herself.

Jason Fenton
via e-mail


Leadership Education of Steve Zimmer

We at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles were proud to read about Los Angeles Unified School Board Member Steve Zimmer’s efforts to give all public school students in Los Angeles the opportunity “to have excellence” (“The Education of LAUSD’s Steve Zimmer,” July 8).

We are also proud that Steve is a graduate of our Federation’s New Leaders Project — a program in which emerging Jewish leaders gain the skills and connections to build a better Los Angeles.

Steve’s passion and efforts exemplify our Federation’s commitment to ensuring a strong Jewish future and the well-being of our city.

Jay Sanderson
President, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Donna Bojarsky
Co-Founder and Chair, New Leaders Project


With Eshman at Helm, Journal Shines

I want to commend you for providing your readers with such exceptional commentary. I have discovered your paper via Marty Kaplan’s column and will now seek you out as a source of challenging journalism.

Natasha Radic
Paris, France

Just who is this self-appointed judge, Paul Jeser, who has personally decided who should be in charge of The Jewish Journal (advertorial, July 1)? Apparently, it is someone with a lot of audacity, as well as enough cash to buy half-a-page worth of The Jewish Journal.

As for you, Mr. Eshman, I feel privileged to have the opportunity each week to be the recipient of your brilliant editorials. I have made a collection of some of them. Framed on my kitchen wall is my favorite motto, penned by you Nov. 10, 2006 (“Size Matters”):

“The mission of Jews is not just to make more Jews, not just to beat back anti-Semitism, not even to save Israel from its enemies or from itself. Those are all projects we undertake in order to fulfill our real mission, our purpose as Jews. That purpose is to improve the world.”

How fortunate I feel to have access to your inspired articles, and how grateful that you are in charge of what has become one of the best journals in this town.

E. Ehrenreich
Torrance


Better Late Than Never

I was requested to perform a post-mortem circumcision on a 63-year-old Russian immigrant. After the circumcision in the mortuary, it occurred to me that it so sad that the deceased did not avail himself, while he was alive, to have a bris (ritual circumcision) that we usually perform with music, festivities and celebrations. May I suggest to the living to grab, while they can, the opportunity to have a live bris.

Rabbi Jacob Shechet
Los Angeles


Prager Intellectually Dishonest?

Dennis Prager must have a very low opinion of The Journal’s readers’ intelligence (“Maybe San Francisco Will Wake Jews Up,” July 8). We have come to expect, and mostly dismiss, his diatribes attributing the world’s ills to evil liberals, however he might define them, but it is disturbing when he engages in intellectual dishonesty. It has been many years ago that I read Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” but for Prager to equate Koestler’s description of a venal communist system to liberals is ludicrous! Perhaps if Mr. Prager had lived under communism in Hungary as I have, he might be a little more judicious in his oft repeated and tiresome screeds. Well, at least San Francisco can rest easy; Dennis will not likely take up residence in their fair city any time soon.

Tom Fleishman
Valley Glen


CORRECTION

In the July 15 cover story, “On the Road to Renewal, Shul Gets Multipurpose Life,” the top photo on Page 16 should have been credited to The Breed Street Shul Project.

In the same article, Ellen Sanchez was incorrectly listed at the director of Peace Over Violence. Sanchez is the director of Healthy Communities at Peace Over Violence and is heading up the Breed Street Shul Project. Patti Giggans is the executive director of Peace Over Violence.

Opinion: The realities of the circumcision debate


There is nothing esthetically appealing about a Brit Milah, the circumcision procedure performed on an 8 day old Jewish baby boy.  To witness a barely one week old child strapped down with Velcro to a “Circ Board” in sight of everyone gathered is visually unappealing, if not spiritually uninspiring.  If that were not enough, some officiants still engage in Metzitzah—the oral suction of blood from the circumcision. If not done by mouth directly, a pipette is used.

To make matters worse, some ceremonies are complete with crude, unholy behavior and locker room jokes. I can’t repeat what one officiant said as he un-swaddled his grandson in preparation of the baby’s Brit Milah.

Is there any wonder why Jewish parents are slowly opting out of the ancient ritual of circumcision performed on their newborn sons independent of the ongoing medical debate as to whether or not the procedure’s even warranted?  Is there any wonder why circumcision is currently under attack with the possibility of it being outlawed in the destination city of Santa Monica, should it be put to a vote this September?

But leaving aside all the issues that may or may not compel one to circumcise their son, the decision is for the family to ultimately decide, not the government—or even one’s religion for that matter.

As a congregational rabbi, I can only make the case to my congregants for having their son’s circumcised in accordance with Jewish law and tradition.  I can actively recommend to them officiants who conduct ceremonies with the utmost professionalism, skill and compassion.

I can tell them the ceremonies to which these hand-selected officiants preside are warm, offering meaningful words and explanations.  They welcome the child into the covenant of God and the Jewish people making clear that our hopes for this young life—once grown—consist of “Torah, marriage and acts of goodness.”

I can teach them the overarching purpose of a Brit Milah is not biological, but rather theological. It is a physical reminder intentionally made on the male organ of progeny.  It states before God and community the male drive, be it sexual or otherwise, is a good and healthy force. But left unchecked and without limits can become destructive and all consuming.

I can inform them that the current debate among doctors and researchers regarding circumcision is mixed.  I can tell them that while science is an indispensable discipline to the enrichment of life—it is far from exact and constantly changing.

It seems that over a 7 to 10 year period, conventional “state-of-the-art” medical wisdom is turned on its head and re-evaluated.  I recently took a CPR course that contradicted and rewrote what was taught to me just 4 years earlier.  Today circumcision is under scrutiny.  Even though all over Africa where AIDS kills scores of people, billboards exhort men to get circumcised, since circumcision prevents AIDS in many cases. Years ago it was recommended without hesitation. I suspect 7 to 10 years hence doctors and researchers will again offer a different and new perspective on the subject.

In the meantime the wisdom of a 3,500-year-old Jewish tradition continues to advocate circumcision on religious grounds.  Parents who choose to have their 8-day-old son circumcised are not mutilating his genitalia, anymore than piercing a little girl’s ears is mutilation.  Furthermore, it is un-provable that a child who is circumcised, as a baby will grow up having less sexual satisfaction as an adult.

True, no religion is above the law. No one who is found guilty of a legal or moral trespass should be able to hide under the protection of his or her faith.  The Biblical days when someone guilty of a crime could find safe haven within the confines—“the horns”—of the priestly altar are thankfully long past.  According to age-old rabbinic law, the law of the land is the law.

But those who advocate outlawing circumcision to anyone 18 years or younger equating it with a clitoridectomy are deeply misguided.  One is genital mutilation, denying a woman sexual pleasure, the other—male circumcision—is not.  I can’t help but think underlying the anti-circumcision movement is a disdain for religious expression cloaked in a concern for a child’s well being.

The American Jewish Committee calls the movement to prohibit circumcision as “making a direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the U.S.”  That may be true.  What is truer still, we have far more substantive issues to fill our ballots with come this September and November, banning circumcision performed on children at the request of their parents and caretakers is not one of them.

In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed


According to the proponent of a ballot initiative to prohibit the act of surgically removing a male baby’s foreskin, the term “circumcision” is nothing but a euphemism.

“Having your foreskin amputated is probably more like it,” said Jena Troutman, a doula and mother of two sons, who initiated the process of petitioning Santa Monica to include the initiative on a future ballot.

On May 19, Troutman filed a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition” with the Santa Monica City Clerk aimed to prohibit what she called “medically unnecessary genital cutting of male minors.”

That language is being rejected by city officials. The official title, which was prepared by Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is “An Initiative Measure Amending the Municipal Code to Prohibit Circumcising a Male Under the Age of 18 Except in a Medical Emergency.”

To get the initiative onto the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, backers will need about 6,000 registered voters to sign a petition that includes that language. More than 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition that successfully put a measure aimed at prohibiting “male circumcision” on the November 2011 ballot.

The term “circumcision” was used on the San Francisco petition and will be included on the Santa Monica petition, in spite of each measure’s backers having initially referred to their initiatives as measures prohibiting “genital cutting of male minors.”

Already the language of the self-described “intactivists” has provoked strong reactions from Jewish community leaders. A coalition led by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council is working to defeat that city’s proposition at the ballot box. Because the measure has not yet qualified for inclusion on the Santa Monica ballot, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have been less vocal so far. At press time, a joint statement opposing the proposed measure was expected to be released in the coming days.

Jewish groups primarily are fighting the ballot measure on the basis that it infringes upon freedom of religion, however many are also accusing the measure’s backers of using misleading language.

“These people went out with a false approach, and they got this on the ballot by convincing people that they were signing something against genital mutilation, not something against religious circumcision,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the national liaison from Chabad Lubavitch to Jewish Federations of North America.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gil Leeds, a rabbi and certified mohel (ritual circumciser), called the language of mutilation used by the proposal’s backers toxic and deceptive. “The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means ‘a covenant,’ ” Leeds wrote. “It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago.”

The language of the San Francisco proposition and the proposed Santa Monica ballot measure originates with a San Diego-based group, MGMbill.org, which was initially intent on pursuing federal legislation prohibiting what it calls “male genital mutilation.” The language is based upon a similarly worded federal law, passed in 1997, that prohibits female genital mutilation.

Election law experts said that the actual language of the propositions that appear on each ballot could be contested. In both Santa Monica and San Francisco, city officials have to give “an objective title and summary” to the proposition, Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney in Santa Monica, said.

“If they don’t like it, they have an opportunity to litigate it,” McAndrews said. “If the court deems it ‘false and misleading,’ the court can strike the words or rewrite them.”

It appears likely that the ballots, like the petitions, will use the word “circumcision” and not “genital mutilation” or “genital cutting.”

“American society has always regarded male and female circumcision very differently,” Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at University of Toledo and author of the Religion Clause blog, wrote in an e-mail. “It has generally been felt that government has a compelling interest in outlawing female circumcision because of the physical, psychological and health effects on girls. On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the U.S. is not seen as giving the government a compelling interest in outlawing it,” Friedman wrote.

The medical benefits of circumcision — which are cited by opponents of a ban and disputed by backers — are sure to have an impact on the debate as it progresses.

The language used by each side is not likely to change anytime soon, however.

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

But no matter what the courts or the voters decide, Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist, said that people on each side of the argument are unlikely to start speaking neutrally.

“There are people who say that abortion should not be legal and should not be an option for women, and there are people who say that abortion should be legal and should be an option for women,” Wertheim said. “That is a neutral phrasing of those stances. But no one ever discusses abortion that way.”

S.F. archbishop raps proposed circumcision ban


San Francisco’s Catholic archbishop expressed his opposition to a city ballot initiative that would ban circumcision for minors.

Archbishop George Niederauer condemned the initiative in a May 23 letter sent to the San Francisco Chronicle, his archdiocese’s newspaper reported.

“Although the issue does not concern Christians directly, as a religious leader I can only view with alarm the prospect that this misguided initiative would make it illegal for Jews and Muslims who practice their religion to live in San Francisco—for that is what the passage of such a law would mean,” he wrote.

“Apart from the religious aspect, the citizens of San Francisco should be outraged at the prospect of city government dictating to parents in such a sensitive matter regarding the health and hygiene of their children.”

The initiative garnered enough petition signatures to appear on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot. Jewish groups have condemned the proposed ban and have been joined in their opposition by the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

Snip Judgment


If you were circumcised as an adult and have experienced sexual relations both before and afterward, then Emily Bazelon wants to know about it. Why that concerns me — and may concern you — takes a little explaining.

Bazelon, a writer for the online magazine Slate, commented in her column on a study conducted in South Africa that showed that circumcised men are less likely by some roughly 70 percent to contract the HIV virus from an infected female partner. That report has generated tremendous interest and a degree of controversy among international AIDS researchers, especially as regards Africa, where the disease is often transmitted via heterosexual partners.

As Bazelon notes, the study adds new fuel to an old debate: Does male circumcision (assuming it is done in a sanitary and correct manner) offer any health benefits? Or conversely, does it have adverse effects? For most Jews, of course, that debate is essentially beside the point. Circumcision is not carried out as a health measure, but as a divine commandment stressed several times in the Bible (“Every male among you shall be circumcised/and ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of a covenant between Me and you” — Genesis 17:11-12).

It is unquestionably the most widely practiced religious ritual among Jews, and also most likely the oldest. Considerable evidence has been found to prove that circumcision was a common practice among other peoples in this region long before the rise of the ancient Israelites.

But even if health concerns are not the reason that Jews practice circumcision, it doesn’t mean that (just like with kashrut) Jewish sources haven’t tried to also credit it with physically beneficial properties. A long line of Jewish thinkers equally versed in medical matters, beginning with the first-century C.E. philosopher Philo, continuing on to Maimonides and to such present-day experts as Dr. Mordechai Halperin, have argued that penises without foreskins are more hygienic and less prone to infection.

For decades, that was also the prevailing medical opinion in the United States (but not Europe); as a result, circumcision was a commonplace medical procedure until the past decade. Although its use in the U.S. general population has declined after studies in recent years failed to conclusively prove its health benefits, circumcision is still carried out on more than half of all newborn American boys.

Although its positive properties are widely debated, the same isn’t true regarding any possible drawbacks. Only small fringe groups with little medical credibility have argued that circumcision is detrimental. One such group, the Society Against the Genital Mutilation of Infants, actually petitioned (unsuccessfully) Israel’s High Court of Justice about a decade ago, claiming that brit mila violated the basic law: human dignity and freedom.

These opponents of “male genital mutilation” usually base their opposition to infant circumcision (as a religious practice) on the claim that it is a traumatic experience with lasting psychological consequences for the newborn.

Speaking from personal experience, I can’t agree. On a more objective note, it’s hard to imagine how circumcision can seem quite so traumatic to a newborn boy who just a week earlier was so rudely ejected from the comfort of his mother’s womb into the wide, cold world.

There is although another possible downside to circumcision cited by its opponents — that losing a foreskin reduces a man’s capacity for sexual pleasure. As Bazelon notes, that idea has long existed in traditional Jewish sources, including Maimonides, who wrote that brit milah helped “to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse” by “diminishing lust beyond what is needed” for procreation.

That prospect has her, the Jewish mother of two circumcised boys, asking: “What about my kids’ future sex lives — have they been deprived of the capacity for optimal pleasure? With no definitive scientific literature on the question, here’s the best way I can think to find out.

“I propose a highly unscientific Slate study of men who have experienced sex as both circumcised and uncircumcised — in other words, who changed their status as adults. If you fit that description and would be willing to discuss it (tastefully, of course), write to slatecircumcision@gmail.com.”

Well, even if I can’t contribute to Bazelon’s survey, perhaps I can steer her in the right direction. In 1998, then-Jerusalem Post writer Esther Hecht, in a comprehensive article on the circumcision debate, noted that “Israel, with its sizable population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were circumcised as adults, would seem to offer a unique opportunity to test the claim that the operation dampens men’s sexuality.

“Gynecologist Avraham Teper, who also heads the Women’s Health Center at the Ben-Gurion Clinic in Upper Nazareth, concluded from reports of 138 men who had been in the country at least a year and had been sexually active prior to their circumcisions, that, once they had healed, they had intercourse less often and enjoyed it less.”

Uh-oh. Are the Bazelon boys, myself and almost all Jewish men missing out on some pretty good times? Not quite.

Hecht adds that “a study like Teper’s could be colored by, among other subjective factors, the respondents’ attitudes toward their own circumcisions, according to Jerusalem-based sexologist Uri Wernik. If a man had himself circumcised because of his religious convictions, he might perceive sex as more pleasurable afterward, Wernik says. But if the operation resulted from social pressure and was fraught with anxiety, that might reduce subsequent pleasure.”

That certainly makes sense to me. While I hate to throw cold water on Bazelon’s proposed survey, I can’t possibly see how the experience of undergoing circumcision in adulthood can be compared to that of infants. Let me also suggest that it strains credibility to think that such a large percentage of the world’s male population (Jewish and otherwise) would over the millennia willingly submit (or submit their sons) to any procedure that would diminish their own capacity for sexual pleasure (alas, it is conversely all too easy to believe that so many would do just that to the opposite sex in those societies that still maintain the horrific practice of female genital mutilation).

Put another way, as tastefully as I can, I find it hard to believe from a personal perspective that sex gets better than it already is — and if it does, I’m not sure I even want to know about it.

Then again, as the father only of two daughters, perhaps I’m being a little complacent about the issue. The same could be said of Israel as a whole. In a society where almost every Jewish custom is a matter of debate, circumcision is a consensual issue — no doubt, in part, because there is no law making it compulsory, unlike, say, Shabbat restrictions.

Outside this country, though, complacency about circumcision’s acceptance may no longer be a wise position. Responding to Bazelon’s piece, the widely read Gay-Catholic columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote: “My own view is that circumcision should be a decision made by an adult male on health grounds alone — and the data on HIV should make many men consider it. But the involuntary genital mutilation of newborns remains an outrage.”

As a “victim” of “male genital mutilation,” I certainly don’t share that outrage. Quite the opposite; I proudly wear my circumcision (privately) as a badge of honor in the oldest continuing men’s club in the world. As no less than Philip Roth (surely the last man on Earth who would support a practice that inhibited male sexuality) once wrote in defense of brit milah: “Circumcision confirms that there is an us.”

 

+