Today I want to talk about an intimate, yet very common, human body part – the penis — which really means, let’s talk about circumcision.
A true story from the mother of a high school age boy
When my son was in middle school he decided he wanted to go to a Jewish summer camp with three of his close friends. My son is extremely private and was worried about showering and dressing in a strange place that might not offer his preferred level of privacy. My husband and I talked to him about other camp experiences we’d had as a family. For example, there is a public bathhouse at Yosemite, but each shower has a tiny, private room where you put your dry clothes. Reassured, off he went.
When he returned two weeks later and descended the bus with a suntanned face and a big smile, we were eager to hear about his experience at camp. From the back seat he described adventures, counselors, hikes, rivers and more. Finally I asked him, “how did the showering work out?”
“Mom,” he replied soberly, “it was one big open room with shower heads all around. I walked into a room full of penises.”
My husband isn’t Jewish but he is circumcised so we never even discussed circumcision, we just did it. What popped into my head was, what would it have been like for an uncircumcised Jewish boy to walk into a ‘room full of penises’ and to look different from all the other boys?
The question of circumcision
The reasons a parent chooses NOT to circumcise can range from a fear of it causing physical or mental pain (no medical studies have born this theory out), to a disinterest in Jewish tradition, to the desire to have a boy look like his uncircumcised father.
The decision TO circumcise often comes from a primal place for Jews. It is the mark of the covenant, proof that the parents have committed their child to being a Jew. This practice is said to be the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in civilization. Secondarily, all medical studies have shown tremendous health benefits, so much so that many countries have adopted the practice to save lives.
When considering whether or not to circumcise a boy that will be raised Jewish, it is important to think about how your choice will impact the boy’s life and how you will live with which ever choice you make.
It is normative to be circumcised as a male Jew. An uncircumcised boy will look different in a Jewish locker room. An uncircumcised male will be considered not able to approach the Torah in traditional Jewish settings. For the boy in this situation, he doesn’t have to drop his pants for anyone, but he will know in his own head that he is not circumcised. So it is important that you discuss your reasoning with your son. Begin when he starts noticing his penis. Be casual. If his father is uncircumcised you can say, “You’re like Daddy” or “We wanted you to look like Daddy.” If you didn’t circumcise for personal moral reasons or for fear of inflicting pain, use I statements. Chances are he will know other boys, perhaps family members, who will be circumcised and you don’t want him to start worrying about them. “Your mom and I didn’t want to do anything that we thought could hurt you so we didn’t have you circumcised.” “We don’t believe in doing anything to a baby. We think a baby is perfect as he is. So we decided not to circumcise you.” (This explanation works even if Dad is circumcised.)
Halachically, the responsibility to circumcise belongs to the parents; however the boy is responsible in adulthood to become circumcised if his parents didn’t. Some young men decide to go get them selves circumcised. If your son makes this decision, be supportive. Think of it like a tattoo or a piecing. “It isn’t want we wanted to be responsible for doing, but if you want to do it, then we support you.”
If you are raising your son as a Jew, don’t be dismissive of Jewish law. You can state that, while much of Jewish law holds beauty and meaning for you, this particular act does not.
Interfaith couples have an additional aspect to address. What does NOT circumcising your son mean in regard to his being a Jew? What does it mean to the non-Jewish parent?
A liberal rabbi told me that she had initially been happy to performed non-circumcision welcoming ceremonies for boys of interfaith parents. However, she found that in multiple cases conflict arose around raising these boys as Jews. A number of non-Jewish parents told her, “When my spouse decided to forego circumcision for our son I knew he/she wasn’t really serious about raising him Jewish.” The rabbi noted that in these cases it was the non-Jewish person who saw circumcision as the symbol of Jewish identity. That said, it is important that Jewish parents in interfaith relationships who choose not to circumcise be very clear about what they do mean by “raising our son as a Jew.” Does that mean joining a synagogue? Sending the boy to Hebrew school? Will he be expected to have a bar mitzvah? How will your home support his identity – will you go to synagogue with him? Will you observe Shabbat? Which Jewish and non-Jewish holidays will you practice?
Have a detailed and frank discussion with your partner. Make an appointment to talk to a rabbi. Be sure you BOTH have all the information you need in moving forward together. If you want non-clergy help, give me a call.