By MARK MORRIS
Author, Mark Morris, with his partner Jude and their son Lev.
I always thought that if I had a son I would not circumcise him. I felt the need to challenge this Jewish tradition. It felt like quite a brutal decision to take on behalf of my newborn son, for a covenant that I did not believe in. (I am secular but very culturally identified.) But when I found out that we were going to have a baby boy, the sudden emotional desire to have him circumcised was immediate and very strong.
From age 16, Judaism has been a very important part of my life. I think at that age I was looking for something to give me stability and a sense of meaning. My family life had been a little rocky. With my parents getting divorced when I was around five, I struggled to find a place of comfort in life. When I was fifteen I made some new Jewish friends, and became involved in a Jewish youth movement, RSY-Netzer. A year later, in 1987, I went to Israel with a group of kids my age. It was life-changing for me when I realised I belonged to a people with a long and varied history. I ended up living in Israel for six years and immersing myself in secular Jewish culture. And still today it is a defining part of who I am.
So now I faced what felt like a huge decision, the idea of not circumcising my son. Jude, who is also Jewish, was clear it was something she did not want. For her, cutting off any part of her son’s anatomy for an ancient ritual meant nothing. So why did it all change for me, the moment I found out I was having a baby boy?
It was a very personal and emotional response. I felt by not circumcising my son, I was effectively cutting off (pardon the pun) his connection with a 5000-year-old cultural history. For thousands of years Jews have performed this ritual as the first and important means of identifying with our tribe/community. So as a self-identifying Jew, the idea of not doing this for my son created a lot of anxiety and confusion in me. Making the Decision
I understood Jude’s reasons for not wanting to circumcise—that it was a ritual that needed questioning. Jude worried about the pain it would cause, and the potential trauma held in the body that could manifest itself in the future. We both seemed to understand each other’s positions very clearly. We even got to a stage where we both could not see how we could ask the other to do what we wanted, i.e. Jude felt my pain at the idea of not circumcising, and I felt hers for the idea of circumcising. It almost felt like we had no idea how to come to a decision.
We did a lot of research. We spoke to a rabbi, watched a number of documentaries, contacted and spoke to someone in Israel that is a part of the “intactivist” community, went to a discussion on circumcision and read a lot of material. We wanted our positions to come closer. I also felt on a deep level that I wanted the courage not to circumcise and to potentially forge a new way of looking at being Jewish and having a foreskin.
I researched the medical pros and cons. There seemed to be no health benefit enough to justify circumcision. The one strong argument I found is about the transmission of STDs among heterosexuals, including HIV, being lower in circumcised males. This might be a good argument for circumcision in a country that has an AIDS epidemic in its heterosexual population, but in the West today we do not face such a situation. And sensible safe sex education and practice has worked well as a preventative measure against sexually transmitted disease. Concerns About Sexual Function
It is argued that by cutting off the foreskin, the head of the penis becomes calloused and is less porous, and this is the reason HIV is less likely to be transferred. This logically leads to the idea of the head of the penis being less sensitive, and I came across testimonials of men in their twenties who chose to get circumcised. After doing so they found that their sex lives had drastically changed, with far less sensitivity. A great analogy that I read is that it is like listening to a Mozart concerto without the violin section. It is still beautiful, and if you never hear it with the violins you will never know the difference. I thought about this, and the idea of denying my son the full enjoyment of sex was something I did not feel comfortable doing, of deciding for him.
Anyway we made a decision. It kind of happened gradually. After Lev was born, he had complications with breathing and the very usual jaundice, and had to spend six days in Hospital. The fear we felt in those days made us feel there was no way we wanted to cause any more distress for the little man. So I said, let’s not circumcise and leave it for a while and see how we feel. And today, nine months on from his birth, I feel very happy with our decision.Looking Toward the Future
I do have fears about giving Lev a mixed message about his identity. But I hope that I can help him understand why we decided not to follow this ritual, and I hope that he will become a confident young man who is happy in his body. For me, actively looking for the messages in Judaism on a secular level will be a life-long endeavour. I hope to pass on a pride in his cultural identity and a pride in his differences. I am sure we will have a somewhat different Jewish life to the norm.
I am sure we will pass on to Lev other practices that might help him to be a compassionate caring human being. And that these will not be a source of conflict for him, but rather more a place of diversity from which he can draw. If Lev ever decides he wants to become circumcised I will happily support him. And I will feel content in knowing it was his decision.
I really do hope that in the future other Jewish families will decide not to circumcise. I would love for there to be a community of Jews that are not circumcised, partly so that Lev does not feel like he is the only one, and as I think it would make for a more pluralistic community.
I make no judgements on any parent that decides to circumcise. I feel it is a decision for each family to make. It does not feel to me like mutilation. But I really hope that every Jewish family (and non-Jewish family for whom circumcision is an option) spends time looking into the arguments for and against—as no decision is better than an informed one. Mark Morris, who is English, lives in Sydney Australia with his partner Jude. He is happy to speak to anyone struggling with the circumcision decision regarding his own experience and feelings. He can be contacted at mark@boweavilrecordingscom.