Sunday, December 05, 2010

Ready to Talk: A Jewish Mother's Change of Heart

By Rebekah Costello © 2010
More from Costello at Thoughtful Momma


I’m coming out of the closet! I am strongly anti-circumcision and I’ve given a lot of thought to talking about it now. It’s such an important issue and I truly feel as though I have a responsibility to raise awareness.

Circumcision is one of those issues that has moms flaring at the nostrils and screaming in protest, regardless of how they personally feel about the issue. I remember the first time someone challenged me on the topic and how furious I was when she suggested I was advocating for infant mutilation. I was, to put it blandly, enraged.

I grew up being raised in a blended faith. My family are Messianics: Jews who embrace Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Tenach. I remember my youngest brother’s Bris quite well but because his Bris was a reception only (the actual procedure was done in the hospital), and the only other one I’d attended occurred when I was so young I couldn’t really remember it. I had no idea, really, what circumcision entailed other than my parents' sublime explanation: “It’s when a little flap of skin is cut off as a sign…”

Years later, I married a man who is intact. Not to go into too much private detail, but I will tell you that I thought it was so COOL. I had this idea that it made him unique, almost exotic. I laugh a little at myself now, of course. I have only ever “been with” my husband so it’s not as if I had anything at all to compare it to and now it seems ridiculous to consider something entirely normal as “exotic.”

However, as we talked here and there about our faith, future children, that sort of thing, circumcision came up a lot. At that time in my life, I truly believed that our son(s) needed to be circumcised. That not doing it to him would be a sin. For me. Not for my son, but for me and for my husband.

I am explaining this to demonstrate the backward and completely blinded point of view I had at that time. When I conceived my first child, I still felt that circumcision was just something I had to do. Thankfully, she came out without a penis! I deeply cared about my child and had she been a boy, I would have had her circumcised believing I was doing the very best thing for her physically and spiritually. I wasn’t any less of a loving person then. I haven’t become more intelligent over the last six years, either.

That said, I was definitely thinking backward. See, I would never have dreamed of asking my husband to be circumcised. If asked, I would have explained that it was his body, not mine, and that the decision to cut himself was between him and God alone.

Are you catching the discrepancy here? It wasn’t okay for me to ask a grown man to circumcise himself, but it was entirely okay for me to make that decision for my defenseless baby?!

Then, one day, when my oldest was about a year old, I become involved (to my embarrassment, now) in a flame-war going on in a wonderful little Yahoo-group that revolved around birthing. As I’m sure you can imagine, people can be vicious at times and don’t really pull any punches when they are advocating their choices for their children. This little war was epic... Someone had posted an informative link regarding circumcision awareness and someone else had immediately retorted about being judged and it went off from there. I kept my mouth shut at that point as my personal opinion was that circumcision for any reason other than religious was stupid.

But then, the fateful words hit my inbox: “Mutilating your son in the name of your god is still wrong, regardless of your religion.” Ooh I was hot! So angry. It was like someone punched me in the stomach. How dare this woman comment on something so intimate and personal as another person’s religious beliefs! I’m afraid I wasn’t even really hearing her point. I was just pissed she presumed to know another person’s heart when making decisions like this. Looking back on it, she did not say anything cruel or intentionally insulting - she was just speaking truth. But it was ON in that moment. I wrote a lengthy, heartfelt, passionate response. She returned it with one of her own. She made me look like a complete idiot without even trying because she had all this “information” about what was done and its life-long implications and I realized I had no idea what I was talking about! So I set about researching her claims, intent on digging up the opposite research to shut her up.

Only, that isn't what happened. I had been told growing up that the intactivist movement was “the Enemy’s” attack on God’s people. That it was anti-Semitic, etc. And I was convinced that I could prove her wrong by going to science. After all, wasn’t it true that being circumcised was healthier? I mean, obviously she was just bigoted or misled…right? RIGHT?

Nope.

In fact, every click I made drew me further and further into an education I didn’t even know I needed.

I learned, for the first time in my life, what a foreskin really was and how it compared to female anatomy. I also learned about other forms of ritual genital mutilation (FGM) that are not socially acceptable, but defended with the exact same arguments that I was using!

I watched circumcision videos (not for the faint of heart, let me tell you! I cried…a lot). I read medical websites devoted both to defending the practice and ousting it as an outdated, unnecessary, and yes, harmful procedure. I learned things I never dreamed could be true, including that just as many baby boys die during the neonatal period of their lives from being circumcised as those who die from SIDS. That interesting fact spurned me to learn even more, and by the end, I was a changed person. I was humbled and I had some serious thinking and soul-searching to do.

I, like so many others, looked for ways around the religious “need” without actually denouncing circumcision. I researched “gentler” ways to remove the foreskin from the son I hoped for, even going so far as to consider doing it myself so that it was done “Biblically” and with the least amount of harm possible!

It was then, when considering doing it myself, that I realized that I had lost my friggin’ mind! I mean, I’m sitting there, considering cutting a piece of my son off myself in order to protect him from harm!? What was wrong with me?

I came to the conclusion that there was something seriously flawed with my thinking. My husband, of course, had been going through his own thoughts and research, and being intact himself, came to the same conclusions. It was a relief, in a way, but posed other issues for us. Concerns about “sin” and about rejection from my family (who still see this as something sacred and necessary). I’ll come back to my thoughts on that at a later time.

I’m happy, and even proud, to say that I now have a 13 month old baby boy who is happily and blissfully ignorant of what he’s been spared. His body was left intact, as it was designed, and functions normally. It may be that someday he’ll grow up and, for his own reasons, decide to get circumcised. I admit that as his mother I hope he doesn’t: I think he’s perfectly created just the way he is and it would be a real shame to mutilate a part of his perfect little body. But it’s his decision ultimately, and that’s what matters. HIS choice. Not mine.

I share all of this because I want people to understand that I get it. I know how complicated and difficult this “choice” feels because I’ve been there. I’ve agonized over it, defended it, and seethed when anyone contradicted my perceptions of reality.

I really want to talk about this more - it’s a subject I’ve come to feel very passionate about. I want to help stop this horrible practice and enable other parents to wake up and see what it is that we are doing! I realize this topic may piss people off at Thoughtful Momma. For a long time I hesitated to write about it because I don’t really like intentionally offending people. Unfortunately, though, the truth is the truth. Sometimes hearing it angers people. That’s okay. If someone hadn’t offended me, my son’s little penis would be mutilated today, and I sincerely hope that I can share that gift of enlightenment with someone else.


Costello is a mother and gentle parenting advocate who has been blessed with three amazing children. She likes to think of herself as an instinctual mother. She's a home-birthing, child-led breastfeeding, cloth-diapering/ECing, baby-wearing mom who also formula fed her youngest son due to life throwing some curve-balls her way. Her greatest passion is empowering and supporting mothers in raising and protecting the precious lives they bring into this world. Read more from Costello at Thoughtful Momma.


Additional resources on Judaism and circumcision here.

Additional resources on Christianity and circumcision here.

Additional research (scholarly books, websites, articles) on the prepuce, intact care, and circumcision: Are You Fully Informed?


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20 comments:

  1. I bet that other mama would be thrilled to know that she helped save a penis :)

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  2. I can SOOO relate to this! For years I thought that circumcising my sons was the Biblical thing to do. I thought that NOT doing so would be a sin and rebellion against God and his covenant. Add to that the fact that my husband is circumcised, it just seemed logical that our sons would be as well. And not only that, but I thought socially, the only ones who didn't circ their boys were those over-the-top hippy people, of which I certainly was not.

    *sigh* If only I would have spend a little time actually researching it. I have 3 boys now, all of whom are circumcised. In a way, it makes me sad that I learned about it all too late for them, but I;m so thankful that I did learn so that I can make a better decision with any other sons we're blessed with. I can never take back what I've already done, but I can give my boys the gift of information so that this decision is not perpetuated onto my grandsons. My boys will NOT grow up thinking that this is just what you do when you have a son. They will know the truth, and armed with that truth, they will make wiser decisions. I can't think of a greater gift to give them than that.

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  3. I am currently 22 weeks pregnant with my second child. My first was a girl, looking back I am more and more thankful for this. For the record I am a Registered Nurse, in nursing school they taught us a brief bit about the pros and cons of circumcision. I even watched one or two, the babies had a nerve block done and were clueless. I left school thinking oh easy my husband was circumcised, I even saw it done. It is "better" for them, I will have my sons circumcised. I can clearly remember being admitted to labor and delivery in labor with my daughter (we waited to find out the sex of the baby until birth). And signing the consent for circumcision paper. While looking at blogs for cloth diapering I kept running into words like "intactism" and "intactivist." So after seeing it a few times I was like I'm going to google this and see what this means. And needless to say I have never been the same again!!!!!!! I was convinced my future sons will be intact. I didn't know how to bring it up with my husband but I did. And one of my "thoughts" I threw his way was "what would be do if someone wanted to cut DD's parts?.." His eyes bugged out of his head. I followed up with "Exactly we would kill them.. so if we have a boy this time why would that change anything." With that he was convinced. And as I read him facts and statistics about the risks and "benefits" of circumcision I swear he looked like he was going to vomit. It was that day I subscribed to your blog. Keep writing and sharing people are reading and learning. My possible future sons are thanking you and others like you! :)

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  4. I love this. Not just the experience, but the understanding it gave me. There is a lady who keeps claiming she was attacked by intactivists, but I haven't seen that and found it hard to believe. Now I see it was her perception of being told the facts.

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  5. @Gabrielle And anyone else reading this. We must be careful at what some people construe as "attacks." Many times, no one is "attacking" anyone, but some people simply don't want to be told that circumcision is wrong. The facts are biting, no one wants to face them, and instead of considering they may be wrong, they want to shoot the messenger. No one is "attacking" anyone; only the guilty need feel "insulted."

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  6. What a phenomenal post! Thank you Rebekah for sharing your heart. I will mention something here that has really disturbed me, as I feel the need to share with someone. I do some volunteer work with young children and often have to change diapers and take them to the bathroom. All the boys I've seen are circumcised, I'm very sorry to report. Mine are intact.

    Anyway, recently I saw two different little boys who had almost no penis left at all!!!!!!! They are the same age as my youngest, two. My son's penis is probably about an inch long (when he's not "happy" that is!) I haven't measured, but am guessing. I'm also going to guess about these other boys. I only saw them for the short time it took to change their diapers. I bet one only had about a quarter inch left and the other little boy had even less. That boy seemed to have almost no penis at all. :( I couldn't believe it and felt so bad for these boys and horrified as well.

    I actually dread diaper and potty duty with the boys as I hate to see circumcised boys. I always feel so bad for them and what they went through and what has been taken from them. I had not seen boys left with so little before, though. Since circumcision removes 1/3 to 3/4 of the penis, apparently I have now seen a couple of very unfortunate boys on the worse end of that spectrum. :(

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  7. @christy- i totally know what you are talking about, i have seen a few friends kids and it was exactly as you described (vs my son who is also intact)

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  8. I worked in daycare and also saw the same thing (Christy, Trista). It is absolutely disgusting. Tiny, raw, sometimes bloody itty bity penis heads that were recently cut apart. There were parents who would drop their baby off the same day they had him cut. He would cry and cry and cry and we'd have to try and get the poop out of the surgical wound area and it would be all in the crevices of the scar tissue. It is absolutely the sickest thing we could see 'regularly' in a U.S. daycare. Imagine if we went to change a girl baby's diaper and saw the same thing... I wonder what we'd do? How would we react? The baby would likely be taken away from her parents... When will infant boys deserve this same amount of respect and dignity?

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  9. Rebekah....I love this! wow! I didn't know this.

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  10. As a Jewish man, my greatest regret in life is being circumcised. I remember at age 5 when I first understood what it was, telling my father that to cut someone was against anything that Judaism could stand for. To harm anyone, especially a baby is the opposite of anything that a good religion would do. I remember feeling terrible about circumcision, and knowing that it was wrong as a child, long before anyone in the media was objecting to it. Individuals have legal rights, but religions do not.

    I am a Jewish man, and I hope that San Francisco, Finland, and Sweden make circumcision against the law. If I lived there, I would vote to make circumcision illegal. The violation of a minors body against their will is wrong in any form. The same should be true regarding Islam, nobody has the right to harm a child under any circumstances, regardless of religion.

    Of all the people that I’ve ever heard speak against circumcision, I’ve never heard anything but respect of Judaism and Jews in general. The only objection has been to violent surgery on a baby.

    For Jews, it is against religious law to violate or mutilate the body in any way, and this itself should cause Jews to stop circumcision completely.

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  11. A great read. At the end of the day the right to one's own body overrides any religion. We do not have the right to chose for our sons when it is there body.

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  12. This is really insightful. I've just been involved in a discussion (here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=181911845187606) where mothers were claiming how 'judgemental' everyone was being just for providing information. I never really understood and found it all rather bewildering - so thank you for providing such a wonderful explanation!

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  13. Rebekah,
    I remember you from the yahoo forum, I had no idea you were of Jewish heritage--how fascinating. I've always thought of you as a very intelligent and thoughtful person so hearing that you once considered circumcision for your son blows my mind--it just goes to show how deep in the psyche this issue is situated. I'm so thankful you had lots of time to process the information and decided to keep your son whole!
    I was inclined against circumcision from the first, but the information I got from that group moved me from a sort of vague "sounds like a bad idea" to "not happening to my son, ever!" I ended up not having a UC, but I do have a whole baby boy, and for that I'll always be grateful to the other UC/intactivist mommas.

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  14. Thank you so much for sharing your story! My 9 month old is intact and so happy and healthy. I can't imagine any other way. My husband, from another country, is intact, which helped me be enlightened on the subject. I hope male infant circumcision becomes illegal.

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  15. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  16. Thank you. We agree. There was no reason to do it and so many reasons NOT to. We are happy with this decision and agree if he wants to be circumcised when he's older he can choose that of course. After asking what our decision was for baby the pediatrician said "thank you" and that there are over 10,000 nerves in the area where a baby is circumcised. Thanks for sharing this. I think so many circumcisions happen because people don't know of any other way. God bless!

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  17. Another thing to think about, which maybe you have already, is that the New Testament did away with circumcision of the penis. It says true circumcision is of the heart! So, the sin is not in keeping baby boys intact. Sin is in not removing our heart from the filth of the world. Just something to ponder.

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  18. Just so you know, your thoughtful momma links don't work.

    And why does the circumcision have to happen to the babies? Why can't men decide to take that spiritual leap for themselves just like the first men who did it for God years ago?

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  19. i'm jewish and my 21 year old son is intact. never did i believe in a god who'd want me to torture my newborn. the real "sin" is being brainwashed by religion to the point of harming one's own child.

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  20. I apologize the links no longer work. That website has been down for a long time and I no longer have the time to keep up with it. :(

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