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," feeding
themselves oatmeal, and re-arranging the porch furniture--a long way from the
preemie infants whom we welcomed into the world.
Why did I cut them? I knew that the procedure had been declared medically
unnecessary. I knew that I was causing them pain. I had heard that the lack
of 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 an
unparalleled sense of connection to and responsibility for life. The birth
was pure wonder. The circumcision was primal and mysterious, connecting me
to 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 on
the subject was placed in the context of an article that promoted the idea
that circumcision kills babies. The worst was when a woman I met at a
benefit dinner called what I did "torture."
I'm not a doctor. I got the idea of doing the "final cut" from a friend of
mine 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 that
slips between the penis shaft and the foreskin. Then the moyel places the
foreskin into a stainless steel clamp. The clamp allows the father to remove
it with a single cut of the scalpel. The whole procedure takes less than two
Cutting my firstborn son was harder than I thought it would be--not the
emotional challenge, but the physical part, the actual slicing involved. It
took more elbow grease than I had imagined. It was easier five minutes later
with my second son. I think that explains why he urinates straighter than
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 of
physical abuse from the outside world--so I find it ironic that my people
are seen as the abusers. Hitler, who engaged in the same anti-circumcision
rhetoric that I hear today, later enacted a government project to
systematically murder hundreds of thousands of infants and toddlers.
But the Nazi horror is old news. The question is how to live now, in a time
of virtual peace and prosperity, when I can give my children the absolute
best. 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. The
video at the birthing center showed how to clean a foreskin. Our Lamaze
teacher talked about how natural it was to be "intact." But with over 50
people watching, I quickly uttered a blessing and did my first surgery. I
even surprised myself--I was more calm and focused than I could have
imagined. Thankfully, the boys didn't cry much--their eye exam a few days
earlier 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 had
made 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. My
actions were a public declaration that I am responsible for my sons' lives
and that I will protect their lives by any means necessary.
All this got me to think about father-son relationships. In a world where
millions of sons grow up without fathers, or grow up emotionally detached
from their fathers, the act of circumcision establishes a bond between
natural enemies. That's what fathers and sons are, natural enemies. They
will fight over mom's love, over money, over power. And in a society of
affluence 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 my
boys? Or lit a candle or given a gift?
I hate to say this, but on a certain level you need small, ritualized acts
of violence to curb larger ones. This is how sports work to channel
aggression, or dancing in a mosh-pit, or chopping firewood. Circumcision,
like a gang tattoo, is a small act of violence that makes a covenant between
bodies. The implicit meaning is that "you are now like me, so we will
protect one another."
I don't know much about having daughters, but it seems that they, in
general, 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 their
mothers. And though daughters rebel and run away, their enemy is most often
Maybe that is why my ancestors did not cut baby girls.
Ultimately, I hope that the moment of ritual violence I performed will be
placed by my sons into a larger context of love, loyalty, and protection that
they 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 torture
continue to affect the lives of children, the question disturbs me. What I
am is simply a parent, a father who like all first-time parents goes off
into uncharted territory. I have chosen to take some traditional wisdom with
me. Some traditional wisdom, and a knife.