Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon: Culture is Changing

Independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon discusses the experiences that informed his film:

Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision

(slightly modified)

I should mention [that] I was raised as an Orthodox Jew. When I was 13 years old, my family moved to Israel to seek better religious education for myself and my [five] siblings.

So, we moved to Israel, and I was living there, and when I was 17 years old, I was given a very unusual honor of being the Sandek at a cousin's [ritual circumcision, called “a bris” or “brit milah”]; the Sandek is the person who holds the baby at the bris, and this [role is] considered a huge honor—it's usually reserved for elders [and] very important members of the family, but this was a small family affair, and I was given this honor of holding my cousin for his milah (for his circumcision).

I had never been in this kind of proximity to a bris before. You know, growing up Orthodox, you're always going to brises, but [there tends to be] a kind of human ring that forms around the proceedings—people are sort of hunched up and kind of looking at what's going on, and it's kind of almost impenetrable if you're a [small] size, so children tend not to get to [the center], [and they] never really see the actual [circumcision]—of course, you hear the babies' crying, but that's pretty much the extent of it.

So, here I am, I'm 17 years old, and I'm not just in proximity, but I'm [actually] holding the baby. The mohel makes the blessing and he cuts my cousin's penis, and my cousin is screaming. [The mohel] then puts his mouth on the wound—on the freshly cut penis—and sucks, and he comes back up, and there's a little bit of blood on his beard.

I was shocked out of my ignorance of this issue, basically.

At this time, I was starting to think about all sorts of elements of the Jewish tradition critically—the role of women was bothering me, [and] there were a number of issues [with which] I was starting to sort of feel uncomfortable. [However], that incident—and the image of the blood on the mohel's beard—was what really got me thinking critically for the first time about the ritual brit milah—ritual circumcision.

The next time I really thought about brit milah—circumcision—was when I went to medical school. I did the Bagrut matriculation (I finished my high school [in Israel]). I did a year in between high school and medical school where I was studying theology, philosophy, sociology, and [the] Talmud, and then I went to medical school in the United Kingdom. [Medical school] was a really amazing experience; I had never studied anything in that kind of depth before.

There are two things that happened to me when I was in medical school. The first thing was [that] I started to become fascinated with the relationship between the human nervous system and human experience. This was something that became really [very] interesting to me, partly because my world view was going through a dramatic shift; I had been on my way out of the religious world view for a while, [and] in terms of thinking about the human body, medical school was really sort of the final push: I was no longer thinking about the world in terms of dualism [of the flesh and spirit]; I started very much to be enamored with the monistic, materialist understanding of reality. Part of that, again, was being so immersed in what we do know about the human body—that you just don't need to appeal to some sort of supernatural explanation to account for things like human personality. Studying anti-depressants in pharmacology really got me thinking about [it]: If depression boils down to a chemical imbalance, then we're really talking about molecules here; that was another sort of thing that really got me thinking in that way.

All the things that I love about life and that I love about the world are mediated through my nervous system. Neurology became fascinating to me—neuroscience, cognitive science, all of these disciplines that try to explain the ways in which experience is built neurologically.

So that happened, and that was definitely an important thing. Of course, [at the time, I was] learning about all the different parts of the body in [extreme] detail, and so when we came to studying the perineum—[the region between the anus and genitals]—it just sort of made perfect sense to me that I start looking back into this circumcision business [to which] my awareness had been raised when I was 17 [years old].

The rationales given for circumcision—the so-called health benefits, the health claims—[are] just [extraordinarily] weak, supported by very flawed data, glaring methodological flaws—just sort of obvious things that jump out of the studies at you if you're at all sensitive to the way proper scientific data is [supposed to be] collected, [something for] which I was gaining an appreciation [through] my education. So, it started to become apparent to me that [circumcision is] a cultural practice disguised as medicine. I just [realized that] something fishy is going on here; this is not good science.

I had not started to draw any kinds of personal conclusions from this, and I was completely unaware about the foreskin—we were not taught about [foreskin tissue] in medical school. I did a 7-week course [on] Gross anatomy dissection in New York at NYU, and it was really great; [I count it as] one of the highlights of my life—being able to really explore on that level of detail the human body and [to] understand what the structures look like. [However], even during that course—and [at] no other time in our medical education—[did] we learn anything about the foreskin other than that it [covers] the glans [(the head of the penis)] or something [banal] like that; this was in the late [1990s], and I should add that most of my professors were British, which you'd think would have made a difference, [because circumcision is rare in Britain, just as it is fairly rare in basically all of the developed world].

I should step back. I took an elective course in high school: a cinema course, because I thought it would be an easy credit, [but] it ended up changing my life; it was then that I knew that I wanted to be a film maker. I didn't realize how it would work out; I didn't know how I would make a living at it—I still don't know!—but I became enamored with film in high school when I took this course, and I realized that there [have been] great artists out there who [have] made films that [are] much more than just entertainment. At that point, I just intuitively knew that this is what I [want] to do with my life; [I enrolled in] medical school [because it] seemed to be a good idea to have [a] sound fallback profession, but I [have] always wanted to be a film maker.

In any event, as I was getting to the end of my third year in [medical school], I was getting closer to clinical medicine, and I was realizing that all of the things that I [love] about studying the human body and basic medical science—just really getting a grip on a scientific discipline—was going to change when I actually started to have to see patients. I have a great amount of respect for what doctors do, but I just started realizing that this is not how I want to help people.

I had a choice [between] going to film school or art school, and because I had no training in aesthetics—no training in art—I thought it would be a good idea to get a broader education [by going to art school]. I got into the Art Institue of Chicago (which is one of the best art schools in the country) on the strength of my photography, which was the only thing I knew how to do. So, I went through a four-year program, and I [achieved] two degrees [concurrently]:

  • A Bachelor of Fine Arts.
  • A Bachelor of Visual and Critical Studies.

In my final semester, I took a documentary-film-making class, and I thought circumcision would actually be a really interesting subject for a film. At the time, I was [just going to make] a short film; it was just going to be a 20-minute film, and it was actually going to be about a mohel [with whom] I had contact through my father, who's a very prominent member of the Jewish community in Chicago.

This mohel [is] actually an embattled mohel; I had read about the [year] 2005 cases where two babies died of herpes infections due to a practice known as metzitzah b'peh, which is the practice that had [originally gotten] me thinking about circumcision—the direct oral-to-genital suction. These two babies were infected by herpes [because] the mohels [who] sucked their penises had oral herpes, and [consequently, the babies] contracted genital herpes and they died.

I remember reading about it in 2005, and here I had [direct access to a] mohel who [has] also insisted on performing metzitzah b'peh; he [is] a controversial mohel—apparently [he botched some circumcisions], and so I was going to make a film about this guy. I met with him and [we had this conversation]:

He said: "You can't turn your camera on until you sign [an agreement] that I have absolute editorial control over the finished film."

"I'm sorry, but I don't work that way."

"Well, I was interviewed by PBS, and they let me come into their editing rooms and make decisions."

"Well, my name is Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, and I don't work that way."

and I turned on my heel and left. I was devastated because this guy was [going to be] the center of my film, and I had [course-credits] riding on it—I had a documentary-film class [in which I was enrolled], and I had to produce work to show; my whole film went out the window.

In any event, I ended up realizing that the subject [is] much deeper than I had initially thought. I started doing some research. I met some local intactivists in Chicago, and [a] film really started building there in that documentary-film-making class.

I got the idea to do an interview of my father. My family is very lively, [and] we're constantly having deep debates about all sorts of subjects, and I [decided to record] a conversation [about circumcision] that [I would have] with my father; I showed some of the early footage to my documentary-film-making class, and they went crazy over it—they thought it was great, and I started to become aware that this [is] a subject that require[s] much more than just a short film—that this could be a feature-length documentary, [which I made]:

Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision

My father was involved from very early on, because I had this idea of having a conversation with him. I had a sort of sense that he would probably not be happy with my questioning [circumcision], but I didn't know what he would say. I did know that he [is] a very impressive person, and of course, I think [he] has proven to have some very intense screen-presence (he has a British accent, which helps).

[My mother] knew about [this project], because I asked her early on to be part of it, [but] she refused—just flatly refused; my mother is a religious fundamentalist, and she's ashamed of my work on this issue; I actually just [traveled] through Chicago for the tour [of my film], and I spent some time with my family while I was there. I said to [my mother]:

You know, everyone is asking about you—“What do you think?” and I'm telling them that, you know, you're ashamed of my work.

and she said:

I don't approve.

and that was it. She's maintained that stance, and she's uncomfortable with much of my work that questions religion—for obvious reasons.

Of course, my brother, Naftali, is part of the film. You see in the film [that his first reaction] was:

Oh no. Not another one of Eliyahu's controversial subjects!

and then I started telling him some things and he was very receptive; in the film, you see him sort of struggling a little bit with some of the information. Now, he's very strongly against circumcision; he said he would never do that to a child, [but] not so much for the same reasons that I have—and this is something that I've found is very interesting: People who are opposed to circumcision often have different emphases: What is more important to them, what is less important to them, what they think is a bigger problem or not such a big problem, etc. [In any case], my brother definitely agrees with me that [circumcising a completely healthy child] should not be done, and he would never do it to a child of his.

I have four sisters. I haven't really spoken to them at length, with one exception. My sister Siona has two boys who are circumcised, and before she circumcised her first son, I had a conversation with her about it. I mean, it was a futile conversation in the sense that she's extremely religious and her husband is extremely religious and it was sort of a foregone conclusion that [they were going to circumcise their son], but I just felt that it was my responsiblity—knowing what I know—just to talk to her brother-to-sister and say: “Look, you know, I've learned a lot about this. You don't have to do it.” Again, of course, she went ahead and did it.

I think a lot of people even after seeing my film don't really understand the import of the neurological damage [caused by circumcision], or [at least] don't have the same appreciation for it that I do; I have a deep respect and appreciation for the nervous system's contribution to human experience. So, when you contemplate damaging the nervous system, to me, that's a really profound thing that you're doing to someone—especially permanent damage; it's really irreversible, and in my opinion, [it] is going to profoundly affect [the victim's] experience [for the rest of his life].

I should mention that I finished the film within a month of when my sister circumcised her first son, and one of the interesting things that happened was [that] the process of participating in the film and seeing the film changed my father's experience of [the circumcision of his first grandson]; he was at the bris, and he confided in me later that he was [an emotional] wreck that day, and that he had never thought about it from the baby's perspective and that his participation in [my film] and having seen the film at the premiere forced him to think about [the issue] from the baby's perspective, and it had a profound impact on him.

[The tour has] been an amazing experience. I've been meeting some really remarkable people. I think [that] in general—and this has been my experience from the moment I met the first intactivist in person when I started making Cut—intactivists as a community are a remarkable group of people; I think you need to have a certain [higher-than-average] level of humanity and sensitivity [in order] to care about something like circumcision, and my experience of intactivists is that they are warm, wonderful human beings.

The audiences have been variable (different sizes, different compositions). It's still a tough sell. [However], I think that there has been a cultural shift; I have a number of concrete indications that there has been a cultural shift—not just reaction to my film. [For instance], a very famous [Jewish] intactivist named Miriam Pollack (who lives in Boulder, Colorado) has been trying for about 15 years now to get her essay on circumcision:

Circumcision: Identity, Gender, and Power

published in Tikkun magazine, which is a very famous and prominent Jewish journal, and it was [just] this summer that they finally accepted her article. There are a number of other indications that there is a cultural shift going on around this issue.

[Circumcision is] not a comfortable subject; it's not something people want to spend time thinking about.

  • If you're a circumcised man, it's definitely not something you want to think about.

  • If you've done this to someone else—if you're a mother or a father who has done this to [his or her] child, it's probably not something you want to think about.

That sort of covers a lot of people.

It's been really interesting engaging with doctors and nurses on this issue. For the most part, I find it difficult to talk to doctors about things like this because doctors tend to have a sort of god complex; the notion of presenting them with new information if you don't have certain credentials is challenging. [Nevertheless], my experience on the tour engaging doctors in the audience who have sat through my film and understand that I'm not the average layman has been that they have very little to say for themselves—I'm talking about doctors who perform circumcisions. Most of them (and this has been a suprise, too) accept that [circumcision is] not a medically necessary [surgery], so I then push a little further, and I say:

“Well, if it's not medically necessary, how is it that you feel it's ethically permissible? How can you be doing this to an infant?”

“Well, the parents ask for it.”

“OK, well, if the parents asked you to take a little bit off of their daughter's clitoris in sterile conditions with anesthesia, etc., would that be OK, too?”

and then they'll either not answer or they'll say:

“Well, no, because that's not socially acceptable.”

or something along those lines, but it forces them to think. Again, I'm surprised—I was suprised by this when I made the film, and I continue to be surprised—by how few medical professionals are willing to really make the case that [their practice of circumcision] is medically necessary or [that] this is something that is really important for parents to do for their children. The thing that's surprising to me about it is that they [already] accept that [it is not medically useful], and yet they still practice [circumcision]; it would seem, to me, obvious that if you accept that [destructive genital surgery is medically unhelpful], then there's an obvious ethical problem here: You can't get informed consent from an infant, and [yet] you're doing something medically unnecessary to [him].

When you come to a procedure that the vast majority of medical experts agree is not necessary, the tolerance for complications at that point is basically zero; if anyone dies from this, that [right there] means you shouldn't be doing it; if it's not necessary and you're causing death as a result of it, then your cost-benefit analysis [has immediately determined against doing it]. So, the people who try to argue that it's necessary, I don't find them credible. To be honest with you, I don't know many physicians who find their arguments very credible either.

I've been overwhelmed by the reception of [my film in] the Jewish community. I have to say, I expected a lot more resistance. Now, there are two sides to this:

  • I think that—and this must be stated—at this point in Jewish history, no one is worried that Jews are going to stop circumcising their kids, so my questioning this ritual is not particularly threatening to anyone, because it's not happeninig in great numbers. You might read about dropping rates of Jewish circumcision in the United States, but it's nonsense—everyone is still doing this.

    So, the powers that be don't see my film as particularly threatening—they do see what was going on in San Francisco as very threatening because they [feel] it would set a precident [with which] they [are] uncomfortable, but [not so much for] my film.

    Part of this is my approach, which is very respectful; I come from a deep love of the Jewish tradition—an appreciation for certain elements of it. So, people in the Jewish community don't really feel threatened by me; [as for] the ones who do choose to engage [me on this topic], I've been impressed with their ability to tolerate my questioning of this very central ritual.

  • Now, there's another side to this, which is that most people just aren't willing to engage, and this is particularly true of liberal Jews, which is a great disappointment to me. Growing up Orthodox, I always sort of looked over the fence at the liberal Jews and thought:

    Man, they've got it right...

    and [now I've] come to find out that when you question circumcision, [liberal Jews] run for the hills—with their liberalism flying behind them. So, I'm supremely disappointed [with] the reaction [to my film that] the establishment liberal Jews have had, which has basically been to stonewall—you know, not talk.

    [The liberal Jews] seem more scared than the Orthodox, which is a paradoxical sort of phenomen[on] that comes from what I believe is [the liberal Jews'] deep insecurity with where they are in the Jewish world today, and that's a shame. The Orthodox Jews [with whom] I've spoken sort of [undertand from] where I'm coming—understand that I'm asking serious questions—and I would say that I'm satisfied with their response to my film. I think [that] for the most part, I haven't had the sort of hateful response that I might have expected (I get much more [of that] for my next project—a lot more; my views on Israel draw a lot more ire than my views on circumcision).

A large, [ignored] part of why [Jewish Americans] still circumcise in such huge numbers is because they are American. It's always assumed that [Jewish Americans] do it because it's the last vestige of their Jewish identity, [but] I think that's nonsense; I think a lot of [Jewish Americans] circumcise because they are Americans, and I think it's a deeply embedded American practice.

The reason I'm optimistic is because [of] those concrete shifts—the indicators for the cultural shift that I was talking about [earlier]. American culture [is] shifting on this issue; it's happening at a glacial pace, and if you're an activist or if you have the activist gene, that's very frustrating, because you've already gotten to the place where you think the culture needs to be, and cultural shifts don't happen quickly.

[As an analogy], I think [society] really hit a tipping point around gay rights issues—which is not to say that there isn't an enormous amount of work that needs to be done around those issues, just that there was a cultural tipping point at which it has now become [more or less] culturally unacceptable to be homophobic. [However], we are no where near there with the issue of genital-cutting practices; I mean, we're not [even] close. [At best], the subject bobs up and down—into and out of social consciousness. Every time [society becomes aware of it] like [society] did this summer around the San Francisco ballot initiative, [culture shifts] a little bit [in the right direction].

We had a [positive shift] in 1999 when the American Academy of Pediatrics said that though there are potential health benefits [to circumcision], there are not enough [such benefits] to recommend routine neonatal circumcision [(the circumcision of completely healthy boys)]. [Circumcision] shifted at that point from being something that is automatically done to something that parents [need] to decide; that was an important shift. [Then], the San Francisco ballot initiative sought to shift the discourse even further, to a point [at which circumcision is regarded as] something that an individual needs to decide for [himself].

I think every time [circumcision] bobs to the surface [of society's consciousness] again, more people are convinced that this is not a decision that parents have the right to make for their children—it's a decision that they have to allow their children to make for themselves; I see that there's a very distinctive vector [for the cultural shifting], and that vector is [pointing] in the right direction.

So, when I think about the future, I think [this issue is] going to eventually hit a tipping point; I don't know when, [but] I think it will be in my lifetime, and at that point, the practice is going to fall off—the rates [of routine infant circumcision] in the United States are going to go down [precipitously] to probably where they are right now in Canada [(30%)]. So, it's not just going to disappear, but I think the rates will really dip way below 50%—[the rate in the U.S. is] already hovering just a little bit above 50% to the best of my analysis of the data; it's going to dip well below 50% in my lifetime.

At that point, [Jewish Americans] are going to be faced with what everyone else is faced with: The data and the information that I present in my film [and] that intactivists are pushing—that [circumcision] is a harmful practice, and that it's a permanent body modification, and a permanent modification of a person's sexual experience. [Jewish parents are] going to be confronted with that as a serious issue, and just like many other Americans, they're going to abandon the practice.

So, I'm very hopeful about the future.

Furthermore, [while touring with my film], I've encountered some people who have connections to the more traditional—or Orthodox—Jewish communities in the United States, and one of the things that I tell them—and this gets some rabbis that I've met very upset, but it's absolutely true—is that the religious consequences to leaving a Jewish boy intact in today's day and age are zero; there are no actual religious consequences to being a Jewish male [who has a complete penis].

This blows people's minds, because there's a perception out there that if you're [a] Jewish [male] and you're left intact, [then] there's some sort of severe [religious] consequence; you won't be able to do this or you won't be able to do that—[but] there's nothing that you can't do!

There may be some nasty rabbis out there who will try to impose some kind of sanction on you for political reasons, but that would first of all be blaming the wrong person, because it's [the fault of] the parent who didn't circumcise [the individual], not the [fault of the] individual [who was never] circumcised. [Secondly], there's also no real religious basis for [such a sanction]. I've been looking into it for quite some time now, and I've been challenging rabbis—[literally] across the [North American] continent—to prove me wrong on this point, and they haven't [been able to do so], because there is no proof.

The only ritual religious consequence of being an intact Jewish male is that you're not allowed to eat from the Paschal Lamb, which was a sacrifice that was brought when the Temple was around, and hasn't been brought since the Temple was destroyed—and we don't know when the Temple is going to be rebuilt. That's it!

So, I think [that] as more people become aware of this information and leave their boys intact, we're going to have a situation where there are lots of intact Jewish [men], some of [whom] are going to be religious and are going to be participating in everything [in which] circumcised Jewish men are participating.

I don't call myself “an Intactivist”—not because I disagree [with intactivists] on anything, really. I mean, my position on circumcision is the intactivist's position:

  • I think it's wrong.

  • I think it should not be done to someone who doesn't have the ability to consent.

  • I accept that it's severe damage to an individual's future sexual experience.

I accept all of that, and I consider intactivists to be some of my most important teachers. [However], I don't call myself an intactivist for a very esoteric reason: I consider myself an artist, and I believe that my commitments are not exactly in line with the commitments of [an activist] in general; my commitments are to Truth and Beauty; my commitment is to providing my audience with the best possible intellectual and emotional experience that I can provide them—that's how I judge my success.

An activist judges [his or her] success based on how many people [he or she] is able to convince, and that's just not my orientation. I love to try to convince people of things, and if they listen to me, I try to convince them of my viewpoint, but I don't see my function in the world as pursuading people; I really see [my function] as providing people with the tools to make up their own minds about things, and to provide quality emotional and intellectual experiences.

Maybe that's a distinction without a difference, and I will certainly continue [to oppose the practice of circumcision] whenever it comes up in conversation—because of what I do, it always comes up! I will continue to share what I know with people, and talk to people about this. I do feel that the knowledge that I've accumulated and acquired carries with it a certain responsibility [to share it], and I take that [responsibility] seriously. [Nevertheless], I don't see myself as an activist as much as an artist.

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