15 June 2012

Circumcision in the Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs, 2007, Excerpts

He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised throughout your generations – Genesis 17:12

Day 366: My twin sons have been in this world for eight days, which means today is the day to follow one of the first biblical commands: Circumcision. I actually knew quite a bit about circumcision even before my biblical adventure. For a year of so in my early career as a journalist, I wrote a surprising number of articles about circumcision. It was my first real beat. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and my eccentric aunt Marti introduced me to some anti-circumcision activists who saw the snipping of the foreskin as cruel and unnecessary.

I was never able to confirm this, but the claim is that circumcision blunts the sensation. Sexual sensitivity aside, the medical aspect of circumcision remains a matter of debate. The American of Pediatrics makes no recommendation either way. Circumcision may reduce penile cancer, and there’s now compelling evidence it lowers men’s susceptibility to AIDS. The World Health Organization recommended medical circumcision be practiced in high-risk locales.

So when my first son, Jasper, was born, I had mixed feelings abut circumcising him. There’s no rational reason for it. At least there wasn’t before this latest round of AIDS studies. And even if it makes good medical sense, should we really turn the procedure into a party with sesame bagels and veggie cream cheese?

My aunts fueled my confusion. I was subjected to dueling campaigns. On the one hand, my Orthodox aunt Kate left voice mails encouraging us to go ahead with it. On the other hand, Marti sent pamphlets with stomach-churning stories of circumcisions gone bad. In the end, Julie put her foot down. Jasper would have a circumcision and it would be at our apartment, and it would be done by a family friend, Lew Sank, a New Jersey pediatrician who also has mohel credentials.

When the day came, and the family gathered, I did my best to ignore what was actually happening. I deluded myself into thinking of it as a brunch, with a short detour into some minor medical procedure.

Circumcision is huge part of the Bible; it merits eighty-seven mentions. It was seen as the way to seal the covenant between God and humans. A signature in blood. Abraham was the pioneer. God appeared to him and instructed him to circumcise all males in his house, and all newborns after eight days. Abraham had no newborns at the time, so the first inductees were his elder son, Ishmael, 13, and Abraham himself, who was all of ninety-nine years old.

In the New Testament, circumcision becomes optional, at best. The Apostle Paul – whose mission was to expand the Christian faith beyond the Jewish people – said that circumcision wasn’t necessary. You didn't need the physical proof as long as you changed your heart. The phrase he used was circumcised “in the heart.”

Lew has come with a case full of gleaming metal equipment, which he’s laid out on a yellow apron, and pulls out a box of alcohol wipes. I gaze back at my son, who has started to cry. Lew attaches some clamps. More crying. He takes out a brown leather strap. And scalpels. Drops of blood stain the towel, Zane is now wailing, openmouthed.

In a sense, it’s all hygienic, medical, sanitized. And yet…nothing can disguise the fact that what is happening on that table is deeply primitive. It’s the most primitive thing I’ve seen in my entire biblical year. There, on a patch of white gauze, is a piece of my son. He has sacrificed a part of his body to join an ancient community. Who am I to break thousands of years of tradition? Circumcision is a crazy, irrational ritual. But here’s the thing: It’s my heritage’s crazy, irrational ritual. So maybe I shouldn’t dismiss it.

Bris Milah – Traditional Jewish Circumcision

Circumcision: The Delicate Dilemma

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