About a Boy’s: A Meditation on Circumcision

The compendium of Jewish circumcision humor is brief. Here it is.

After his regular Tuesday lunch with Rabbi Hershel, Rabbi Yosef removed a crisp twenty from his new wallet. “Where did you get such a beautiful wallet?” inquired Rabbi Hershel as he leaned in for a closer look.

“Mohel Erez sold it to me for four-hundred dollars,” replied Rabbi Yosef, beaming with pride.

“Four-hundred dollars! That’s a lot of money for a wallet,” said Rabbi Hershel who was beginning to worry about his otherwise thrifty and reserved old friend.

“Ah, but this is a foreskin wallet,” Rabbi Yosef said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. “Rub it and it enlarges to a valise!”

As this joke illustrates, foreskin can be both funny and useful. Circumcision, however, is no laughing matter. It can be a source of anguish, and I am not referring to that which may be experienced (or not) by baby boys but by their parents. To snip or not to snip? It’s a question I’ve considered but, thankfully, never had to resolve.

Circumcision is not (or ought not be) entertained by parents of girls and for this I rejoice. I dodged that bullet twice. Each one of my daughters was considered perfect just as she was delivered, not one fold or flap of skin too many or too few. I never had to answer the question I dreaded for years before becoming a parent. What would I have wanted if I had had a son? Even now the thought occasionally torments me, until I think about it too long and then it seems absurd. Just contemplating the sculpting of an infant’s member strikes me as preposterous. Naturally when I consider circumcision I ponder the arguments for and against, but I never find any of them compelling.

I am as surprised to be writing this as you are in reading it: I was circumcised. Even though I know my circumcision story I do not know why my parents decided as they did. I’ve always assumed it was just the thing to do to Jewish boys in the early 1970s. But here’s the Big Secret: I did not have a Bris, the Jewish circumcision and naming ceremony performed by a Mohel eight days after birth. The Bris itself is brief, and the actual blade work is astonishingly so. (I verified this recently when I attended my first Bris. The Mohel unsheathed that boy so quickly—literally in under a second—that my immediate thought was, “Shouldn’t he be taking a bit more time with that?”) Most of an occasion of a Bris is a party to celebrate a new (male) life. Still it is a celebration justified by a minor procedure. My parents thought that going to so much fuss over a little surgery was silly. So there was no fuss over my phallus, no Bris for me, and thus, my Judaism really had little to do with it.

Some say a boy should look like his dad, and I do. This is not a tremendous source of pride for me or major occasion for bonding between me and my dad. Even when overcome by self-pity on my worst days it never occurs to me to draw solace from the thought, “At least mine looks like my dad’s.” He and I never raise glasses and exchange hearty back slaps to revel in this minor resemblance. So I am not satisfied with this like-father-like-son rationale. It is too simplistic. Either circumcision is a good idea or it isn’t. Just because it was (or wasn’t) done to dad does not alter the objective merit of the act.

All sorts of health benefits are promised to the circumcised. Apparently penile cancer, an exceedingly rare condition, is eliminated. Fair enough. I wonder though, why don’t we apply a similar technique to eliminate the minuscule risk of ear lobe cancer too? Then there is the promise of reduced infections of the urinary tract and of the foreskin (um, duh!). These advantages probably had some sway in Talmudic times when a boy with a bright future and deep pride of his (and his dad’s) attached foreskin was one nasty bacterial infestation away from death. As the ancient Jewish saying goes, “Shlimazl is he with a prepuce upon his schmuck.” (Shlimazl means “unlucky.” Schmuck means “schmuck.”) Today, thanks to antibiotics, infections are mostly no big deal. We just don’t tend to lop off body parts as protection from them anymore. So why make an exception in this instance?

Maybe it has to do with sex. Research shows that the penis is often involved, though not in infancy. Research also shows that males who are circumcised have a slightly lower risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases. STDs are no trifling matter so this is a promising line of argument. But then we’re told—and I’m not sure how anybody knows this—that removal of the foreskin causes a decrease in sexual pleasure. Oy, that’s a fine knee in the crotch! Baby, bathwater, out you go.

It is hard to convince new parents with arguments based on sex. The first days of the life of a baby boy is simply the wrong time to ask his parents to consider this aspect of his distant future. There’s a substantial “ick” factor. Parents are no more interested in contemplating their newborn’s one-day bedroom exaltations than they are in entertaining that of their own parents. Sex and infants are like oil and water. You can only mix them by adding mustard, which is neither sexy nor appropriate for consumption by or application to infants.

When I get fed up with the circumcision catch-22 I take my mind off it by wondering why I wonder about it. I don’t expect to have another child and the decision for me has been made. There’s just little justification for thinking about it anymore. I suppose the only reason is to prepare myself in the event one of my daughters has a son. If they do then it is likely my thoughts of foreskin, like Rabbi Yosef’s new wallet, will swell once again beyond proportion.

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