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New Life, Old Tradition


Now that I have just become a grandpa again (the sixth time) my total delight is tempered by the thought of another circumcision, a brit (nothing to do with awards).

I am a terrible, terrible softy when it comes to blood and the very sight of it tends to make me weak at the knees. I don’t watch any of the popular TV hospital shows (not that I would willingly waste the time) because when it comes to cutting up bodies, even if it is all fake, I cannot bear to look. Similarly, I can’t watch those nip-and-tuck documentaries on plastic surgery. I can’t even bear to look at injections. I do not understand how doctors or surgeons do it.

As part of my rabbinic training I had to study the laws of ritual slaughter. It was required of me by my teacher that I witness the real thing. I have to tell you I was sick for weeks afterwards, and even today the thought of chickens being whirled around for the annual Hassidic ritual of kapparot (atonements) before Yom Kippur makes me run for my charity checkbook as a substitute. And if the Temple was rebuilt tomorrow and the sacrifices brought back, I think I’d make sure I got a doctor’s certificate to justify my absence.

I have never been able to understand those individuals at a brit who get up close to have a look and examine the differing expertises. Neither can I fathom that recent phenomenon of bringing a video camera in as close as possible to record every last snip and then digitally send it off around the world to the delight of aficionados.

So when it comes to circumcisions, I stand as far back as I possibly can. When I have been honored with holding the child while it’s done, I simply cannot look. For me it’s “eyes wide shut”!

So if that’s how I feel, why does it not enter my mind for one minute that maybe I ought to desist or at least object? Not only, but when I read of objections to circumcision I have to laugh. Does it really reduce sexual pleasure? Well, if it does, we Jews don’t seem to have noticed it. Four thousand years of sexual activity, and according to the Talmud we Jews are not less susceptible to sexual temptation.

Neither, to the best of my knowledge, are the Muslims feeling deprived. On the contrary they are only too pleased to extend their suffering into the next world too! There was apparently a time when almost all Americans were circumcised but now it’s dropped a lot. All the members of the British Royal Family were circumcised and certainly they did not seem to be sexually inhibited.

It is true that fashions change and now it seems undoing circumcision is in great demand in certain areas. At the time of the Greeks assimilated Jews used to “pull on the skins of their penises” to cover up their Jewish identity. And I’m sure that might be a reason nowadays for some. But I’m hardly going to be influenced by Jews who want to escape their Judaism.

Recently the New York City Health Department has said it is issuing warnings. This is because one particular mohel (that’s the guy who does it) has infected three children over a ten-year period, one fatally, by giving it herpes when he put his lips to the cut to draw blood. This practice, called metzitzah, traditionally disinfects the wound and helps the healing. (Indeed, it is one of the amazing things about circumcisions how quickly they do heal). It is a tradition as old as the Mishna and probably the Torah. In most Orthodox circles it is still adhered to, though repeated fears of infection led many rabbis to permit the use of a glass tube to do it. Every mohel I have ever seen washes his mouth out with disinfectant beforehand (once upon a time vodka was considered enough, no longer!) so perhaps the New York fellow was rogue and you do get rogues in any profession. But of course human life is so precious and Halacha so insistent on preserving life that I believe that if there is reasonable doubt custom should be dispensed with. Not a fashionable point of view in resurgent Orthodoxy nowadays.

The mohel is a highly trained professional, often a medical man, usually pious as well as skilled. The actual operation takes seconds. With the millions of circumcisions it is exceedingly rare for accidents to occur although they do. But then people die after piercings and tattoos and in hospitals as a result of errors or hospital bugs.

I do not find the brit ritual aesthetically pleasing or even religiously uplifting. But I am a believer, in my tradition, in Torah. I also know that it is a fundamental of Torah that whatever the command, if there is any question of health risk it is suspended or waived altogether. I do not believe Torah laws are utilitarian or necessarily logical. I realize I am disagreeing with Maimonides, but then so have others far greater than I. So I do not accept circumcision because of the evidence that it inhibits cancer of the cervix, STD’s, and is healthier for men and women. I accept it because if I want to belong to a tradition and derive the benefits of its greatness, spirituality, and beauty, then to pick and choose demolishes the structure and makes it no more than another human, transient fashion. And if, furthermore, I believe this to be a link between me and God, then I feel I must submit my limited intellectual capacity to that of something I intuit to be eternal and far greater than me.

Circumcision reinforces my commitment. It’s not just about the child. We certainly all impose far greater evils on our children emotionally, socially and psychologically.

Blood has always been both emotive and sanctified yet at the same time it is so transferable as well as dispensable. It occupies central positions in religious worship and motifs from the most primitive to the most “sophisticated”. In Christianity blood is the central motif of the Eucharist. For Catholics the wine does actually turn into blood. If civilized people can be at ease with symbolically drinking the blood of their god, then the once-in-a-lifetime ritual of the brit, the covenant, seems to me to be infinitely less problematic.

It is like the idea of sacrifice, that one allows blood to be spilt to affirm one’s commitment to something greater than human blood. If one is ever called upon to spill it, it is only therapeutically, or in the most restricted and limited of rituals, as part of the very cycle of one’s own existence.

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