Miriam Pollack: Jewish Mother on Circumcision and Jewish Identity

Miriam Pollack, a Jewish mother and feminist and longtime intactivist, encourages fellow members of the Jewish community to give serious consideration to the issue of circumcision and to welcoming their boys into the world with love instead of pain.

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My name is Miriam Pollack and I'm a Jewish woman.

Judaism has always been a very central part of who I am; it has defined and inspired my understanding of compassion and justice and what our task in this world is, and that is to be co‑creators with God and to repair this world. I've always taken that very seriously. So, when my two baby boys were born, I never questioned circumcision, because I love [Judaism], and I love the values that I have absorbed from it.

For many years after that, I could not even articulate the trauma that I felt as a mother having witnessed this rite [being imposed] on my babies. I didn't know how to even formulate the questions because they were in total contradiction with everything that I believed and trusted. It wasn't until many years later that I finally took a step to start learning about circumcision, and I was devastated [at what I learned]; I was really beyond devastated, and my heart has never been whole since.

Had I known then what I know now, I never ever would have permitted this to happen to my boys—and I know they would have been Jews anyway, because:

  • Their mother is a Jew.

  • She brought them up with Hebrew, and holidays, and Jewish education.

But they would have been spared this massive trauma, and circumcision is trauma. I was told:

  • The foreskin [is] “just a little flap of skin”—that's a lie.

  • I was told that [the foreskin] is “simply redundant, useless tissue”—that's a lie.

  • I was told that [circumcision is] “basically painless”—that's a lie.

  • I was told that because babies don't remember the pain, [circumcision is therefore] inconsequential—that's a big lie.

What I've learned about circumcision [is] a lot; I know now that:

  • The foreskin is essential, highly innervated, sexual tissue.

  • Taking it away matters for life.

  • The foreskin covers up to one half of an adult male's erect penis. [NOTE: Actually, the tissue that circumcision removes can cover the entire erect penis; it's up to half of the shaft tissue for the entire penis.]

  • When that tissue is taken away, the glans—the head of the penis—becomes externalized, which it was not designed to be, and as a result, it becomes desensitized—it loses its mucosal covering, it becomes thickened and keratinized, and [the] man experiences a secondary loss of sensitiviy which grows greater the older he gets.

  • Trauma to neonates is highly significant; we now know that the cortisol levels in the amygdala rise measurably and acutely during a circumcision, and they do not go back to baseline on day one; they do not go back to baseline after the first week, nor after the first month, nor after six months! So, circumcision is altering neurological response, and that's very serious.

None of these things is a mitzvah!

We need to think very seriously about who is defining the sacred in Judaism, and why people feel compelled to repeat what really is sexual abuse and torture of our baby boys—and I know that's very strong language, but when we really look at this honestly, there's no way around it. There's absolutely no way around it.

I remember being so appalled when I learned about the reality of female genital multilation, thinking “How can anyone possibly countenance such a thing?” Once I started learning more about circumcision (which is a euphemism), I started hearing my people—and it used to be me, too—say the exact same things that the people who are justifying female circumcision say:

Now, in American society, we say it's pathological—we pathologize the foreskin. All of these things are false, and we need to understand how we have participated in this.

Most Jews don't realize that in biblical times, circumcision involved cutting the foreskin that extended beyond the glans—it was not a full ripping away of the foreskin—not that [this lesser variant is] OK, but it's very different from what has been done since Hellenic times when the rabbis were very disturbed that some Jewish men were stretching and tying their foreskins [over the glans] because they were being ridiculded by the Greeks who were in that area at the time; [the rabbis] commanded that the new circumcision had to be pariah—it was a full reaming of the glans and cutting away of the foreskin.

That's living tissue! I was told that [the foreskin isn't living tissue], but I don't know how anyone who witnesses a baby experiencing [circumcision] cannot understand that [circumcision causes] excruciating pain.

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Circumcision has gone through an evolution. Overlayed on the biblical injunction to circumcise has been the perennial trauma of Jewish existence; so much of the aggression against Jews has begun with a critique of circumcision: The oppressor—pick the century!—has said basically “No cirumcision!” and used it as an excuse to say “See how primitive these people are? See how primitive their spirtuality is?” A few steps later: “You [Jews] don't have a right to exist!”

So, the Jewish response understandably has been “Don't you tell me how to define myself! We will define ourselves according to what our holy scriptures tell us, and you have no right whatsoever to make a comment in this area, especially because you don't even want us on the face of the Earth!” The knee-jerk response of Jews to the critique of circumcision has been—and I think it's pretty understandable—“Who are you to tell us what's primitive, when you guys have been slaughtering us for millennia?”

[Thus], circumcision has been laminated to our identity through countless generations of trauma, and I think had this survival issue not been so paramount for the Jewish people, we would be able to have a conversation about [circumcision], but because [circumcision] is so immeshed not only with sexual trauma [but also] really our identity trauma, it's very very difficult for us even to come close to having a discussion about this.

If we really think about whether circumcision is in our survival interest, it becomes pretty clear how irrational that argument is; I mean, think about what happened during the Nazi era: How many thousands and 10 thousands of Jewish baby boys and adolescents and men and older men did we lose because all [the Nazis] had to do was pull down their pants [and say] "Oh, you're a Jew! Goodbye!" It certainly did not serve their survival interest. Do we really want our boys that vulnerable? Our girls weren't that vulnerable. Why do we have to have our boys so vulnerable?

Especially in a country like the United States—and luckily there aren't too many countries like this, where circumcision is very common in the non‑Jewish population—certainly for people [age] 30 [years] and over, most of the men have been circumcised. So:

  • [Where] is the virtue in [circumcision for] a [Jewish American to be] able to distinguish himself from any other non‑Jewish American?

  • How many hundreds of thousands of Jewish men do we have walking around in America who [were] circumcised, [but] who are totally judaically ignorant—who are unaffiliated [with Judaism], who [couldn't] care less about Judaism; circumcision certainly hasn't in any way perpetuated the legacy of Jewish spirituality. In Israel, the Jewish penis doesn't look any different from a Muslim penis.

Again, the question is: How are we transmitting our legacy? How do we keep our continuity? Cutting a child's genitals doesn't do it! [Even if we do cut our children's genitals], we're still left with the issue of how [to] perpetuate and keep what is sacred and eternal about Judaism.

[Indeed], we need to state it that way:

  • It's not "simply a bris".
  • It's not "simply circumcision".

We are genital-cutting people. That's pretty hard to swallow, but that's what we're doing. We do not have the right to hold down another human being and subtract healthy tissue for non‑medical reasons. We do not have that right.

There is plenty in Judaism that does contradict [circumcision]. [Consider] much of the commentary in the Talmud and certainly many of the laws in the Torah that talk about no tattooing of the skin, about how we are to treat animals, about how we are to treat each other; [genital cutting] really doesn't qualify in terms of Jewish values and Jewish principles; [genital cutting] is something that is very archaic, and we need to look at it for what it really is, and stop it.

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