For once, I'm glad the biblical patriarchs didn't give as much
attention to their girls. Circumcision is weird.
I remember clearly when the thought first hit me, even though
it was 16 years ago. I was nursing my infant son, surrounded by
loved ones who had gathered to celebrate our firstborn's circumcision.
The mohel (ritual circumciser) gently asked me not to nurse the baby because my son might pee on the spectators. Over those first seven days, I too
had learned to move quickly with a new diaper--and to giggle at the
tender outrages of parenthood. So I laughed. But then I panicked.
It was as if I suddenly came to my senses.
This was crazy! I had yearned for this child, doing
everything I could to protect him during my pregnancy. Now I should
submit him to have--of all things--the tip of his penis altered?! A
penis that was perfectly healthy just the way it was! Was this a
I felt betrayed. I had assumed that the naming ceremony
would bring the same warmth that other Jewish rituals had brought to
my life's events. Big mistake!
Tradition wisely dictates that the mother should not be present
during the circumcision, so I fumed and gnashed my teeth in another
room. Luckily, it was over quickly--long before my sputtering
hardened to courage. One second longer, and I would have stormed the
living room to rescue my baby and apologize to my guests for
involving them in this disturbing ritual.
If my son cried, I didn't hear him. In fact, I never ever
saw any indication that it hurt him at all. But reality is no match
for my anxiety. After a day or so of caring for the "area," which
had turned an alarming shade of scarlet, I went to see my
"Is this the way it's supposed to look?" I asked. He peered
over his glasses to make sure our gazes locked, and dripping with
sarcasm he said, "This is the best looking penis I've ever seen in
I fired him. But the implication stuck. If I was so upset
by this business, why had I done it? Especially since pediatricians
say circumcisions have no effect on health.
I struggled with the worry that it's a form of genital
mutilation. Why couldn't our forebears have picked another part of
the body, such as the ears for listening or the lips for praying?
Marking a penis as a sign of dedication seemed so...kinky.
During his follow-up visit, our mohel explained that the
ancients were less squeamish than we about very personal matters. A
quick read of Leviticus proves his point. Nor did the Israelites
invent circumcision; other groups used it to celebrate male puberty
and fertility. The covenant has to do with offspring--Abraham
promised God that Jews would be loyal, and God promised that Jews
would be numerous and possess land--so the penis seems an appropriate
site. Phew! At least Father Abraham wasn't a complete sicko.
I decided to ask my son, now 16, if he had any regrets. "Of course not!" he said. Why? "Because I'm Jewish!" It was as simple as that.
He went on with a mischievous grin: "Sometimes, I wonder if
Abraham was just a crazy guy hearing voices." He gave a quick shtick
of Genesis 22, when Abraham invited his son Isaac to his
saved-in-the-knick-of-time-sacrifice. "Not to vorry, my
He's right. Abraham's mental health seems iffy.
But maybe--in our horror--lies the point. Abraham proved his
commitment by almost sacrificing his beloved son. When we draw our
infant's blood--something that strips the gears of our parental
instincts--we too are showing our commitment--as well as our
entitlement to God's promises.
A pact with God deserves a frightening, unsettling act.
Anything less wouldn't have the same impact. Maybe we should think
of circumcision as a mini-sacrifice with mammoth implications. When
circumcisions became commonplace, I think we closed our eyes to its
grisly nature and forgot that we were closing a deal with the
Shouldn't someone figure out a more symbolic ritual? I
celebrate Passover without actually slaughtering a lamb and painting
my doorpost with its blood.
Maybe someday someone will, but until then, as my son said:
We do this because that's what Jews have always done.
When I see how comfortably he accepts his Jewish connection--
including his circumcision--I find I can admit something to myself.
For reasons that can't be processed with my left hemisphere,
I feel proud. With this strange and scary act, I proclaim my
identity, and my children's Jewish origins are something they can
see. I did something important: I passed the baton. My team is
still in the game. It's as if I'm shouting to the bullies of history,
"Hey! Look who's still here!"