Dear Tanta Golda,
I’m hearing a lot about an anti-circumcision initiative on the ballot in San Francisco this fall. I hope you don’t think of me as a “bad Jew”, but what is the hullabaloo? I thought that Reform Jews had a take it or leave it attitude about the practice. My Catholic friend says that it’s healthier to be circumcised, but my other BFF says it’s as barbaric as female circumcision.
My darling Totally - I certainly don’t think of you as a “bad Jew” - remember, Tanta Golda firmly believes that the only foolish (or bad) question is the one you don’t ask!
Where to start...I suppose the beginning is still a good place. According to the Torah, Abraham was instructed, “Every male among you shall be circumcised….and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17) The Hebrew term for this rite is berit milah literally “covenant of circumcision”. Abraham circimcised himself, the men of his household, and his sons - including his eldest, Ishmael. This is one of the reasons many Muslims also have their sons’ circumcised. Jews were not the first people to practice circumcision, many ancient peoples were known to, often as a puberty rite.
While many of us were brought up believing that Jews have faithfully followed this practice, Exodus points out that Hashem was ready to kill Moses for not circumcising his own son, but was saved when his wife Zipporah did it. In fact, Israelites born in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt were not circumcised, so Joshua had them circumcised before they entered the land of Canaan. And during the Hellenistic period (the height of the Greek empire) Jews who wanted to participate in the Greek games, which we done in the nude, underwent a painful procedure to fake “undoing” their circumcisions.
Now this initiative in SF is not the first time that “powers that be” have tried to put an end to circumcision. 168 BCE the Assyrian king Antiochus Epiphanes IV tried - it was one of factors leading to the Maccabean revolt. In 132 CE the Roman emperor Hadrian made it a capital crime. Many Jews of the time chose martyrdom rather than complying. More recently, It was forbidden in Soviet Russia along with many religious rituals.
Confused one, you are right that the Reform movement has a history of being ambivalent about this practice, especially in the early days of the movement claiming that it was a barbaric, bloody holdover of the past. Nonetheless, many Jews continued practicing it. By 1979 they declared it a mitzvah to circumcise a male child, and in 1984 the URJ began training mohels. However, the Reform movement does not forbid a boy from being called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah if he isn’t, nor does it require converts to our faith to undergo circumcision.
My kinder you can tell your friend that Tanta Golda looked into the current medical views about circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not routinely recommend circumcision. While they agree that there is evidence that it can help decrease the incidents of infection and cancer, the occurrences of these problems are so slight to begin with, that the changes are miniscule. They state that only 1/100 uncircumcised boys experience urinary tract infections (how many girls can say that) and fewer than 10 in 1 million develop cancer. The World Health Organization does cite studies that show that circumcised men are less likely to spread HIV/AIDS, but so does using a condom.
As for your BFF’s point equating it to female circumcision, she is most definitely misguided! Let me quote Abby Porth, a lovely young lady working with the SF Jewish Community Relations Council, “Female genital mutilation is cruel, medically harmful” (oy, so many deaths in developing countries) “and performed for the explicit purpose of preventing female sexual satisfaction.” Male circumcision doesn’t even come close.
Now, Tanta Golda was raised in a traditional household and when her sons were born she didn’t give a second thought to having them circumcised. However, I’m not sure how she would have approached this if she had been raised in some other faith tradition. The hippie part of her (yes, while TG is old, she did have a hippie phase) might well have seen it as an outmoded and painful practice. On the other hand, somewhere between 60-75% of all American baby boys born since the 1980’s have been circumcised, so people of many faiths have apparently come down on the side of this not being a barbaric practice.
I strongly believe that the decision to circumcise or not, should be left up to individual families and their doctors, and not dictated by law. Whatever your personal feelings/beliefs, this is a time to stand together along side our Muslim brethren and oppose this restrictive law. Love as always, TG