It has been almost two years since I cut off the foreskins of my two sons.Noam and Jonah, my identical twins, are now singing "rubber duckie," feedingthemselves oatmeal, and re-arranging the porch furniture--a long way from thepreemie infants whom we welcomed into the world.Why did I cut them? I knew that the procedure had been declared medicallyunnecessary. I knew that I was causing them pain. I had heard that the lackof a foreskin might diminish their sense of sexual pleasure. I say all this,and yet when I stood above my boys, scalpel in hand, I experienced anunparalleled sense of connection to and responsibility for life. The birthwas pure wonder. The circumcision was primal and mysterious, connecting meto flesh and blood in a violent and careful moment of father-love.Since the cut, I've read or heard that my actions were "barbaric," "savage,"and "criminal." One host of a New York radio talk show called circumcision"child sexual abuse," a sentiment confirmed by my wife's favorite magazine,Mothering. In an interview I gave to Icon magazine, my positive opinion onthe subject was placed in the context of an article that promoted the ideathat circumcision kills babies. The worst was when a woman I met at abenefit dinner called what I did "torture." I'm not a doctor. I got the idea of doing the "final cut" from a friend ofmine in Philadelphia who did his sons. Here's how it was done--the moyel (ritual surgeon) sets up the procedure by using a scissors-like device thatslips between the penis shaft and the foreskin. Then the moyel places theforeskin into a stainless steel clamp. The clamp allows the father to removeit with a single cut of the scalpel. The whole procedure takes less than twominutes.Cutting my firstborn son was harder than I thought it would be--not theemotional challenge, but the physical part, the actual slicing involved. Ittook more elbow grease than I had imagined. It was easier five minutes laterwith my second son. I think that explains why he urinates straighter thanhis brother.So, am I a child abuser? Should I be locked up?As a Jew, I am a member of a small tribe that has survived generations ofphysical abuse from the outside world--so I find it ironic that my peopleare seen as the abusers. Hitler, who engaged in the same anti-circumcisionrhetoric that I hear today, later enacted a government project tosystematically murder hundreds of thousands of infants and toddlers.
But the Nazi horror is old news. The question is how to live now, in a timeof virtual peace and prosperity, when I can give my children the absolutebest. So why didn't I let my sons run around with foreskins?Every parenting book or magazine I read told me to leave them alone. Thevideo at the birthing center showed how to clean a foreskin. Our Lamazeteacher talked about how natural it was to be "intact." But with over 50people watching, I quickly uttered a blessing and did my first surgery. Ieven surprised myself--I was more calm and focused than I could haveimagined. Thankfully, the boys didn't cry much--their eye exam a few daysearlier was 20 times worse. And to be honest, there wasn't much blood. After the ceremony, this is what I felt: Cutting my sons' foreskins hadmade me more of a man than losing my virginity, getting my driver's license,getting hitched, or even becoming a parent. Any fool can become a parent. Myactions were a public declaration that I am responsible for my sons' livesand that I will protect their lives by any means necessary.All this got me to think about father-son relationships. In a world wheremillions of sons grow up without fathers, or grow up emotionally detachedfrom their fathers, the act of circumcision establishes a bond betweennatural enemies. That's what fathers and sons are, natural enemies. Theywill fight over mom's love, over money, over power. And in a society ofaffluence and freedom, the sons will eventually run away. But why violence?Why blood? Why mark the body? Couldn't I have just said some words to myboys? Or lit a candle or given a gift?I hate to say this, but on a certain level you need small, ritualized actsof violence to curb larger ones. This is how sports work to channelaggression, or dancing in a mosh-pit, or chopping firewood. Circumcision,like a gang tattoo, is a small act of violence that makes a covenant betweenbodies. The implicit meaning is that "you are now like me, so we willprotect one another."I don't know much about having daughters, but it seems that they, ingeneral, do not act as rivals in the same way that sons and fathers do.Fathers I know see their daughters as possessing the best qualities of theirmothers. And though daughters rebel and run away, their enemy is most oftenmom.Maybe that is why my ancestors did not cut baby girls. Ultimately, I hope that the moment of ritual violence I performed will beplaced by my sons into a larger context of love, loyalty, and protection thatthey receive from their father. That is how I view my own father's actions,and hope that my sons will view theirs and so on down the line.
So am I an abuser or torturer? In a world where real abuse and torturecontinue to affect the lives of children, the question disturbs me. What Iam is simply a parent, a father who like all first-time parents goes offinto uncharted territory. I have chosen to take some traditional wisdom withme. Some traditional wisdom, and a knife.