Circumcision: Ordinary and Universal in My Community

Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics 13 (2):71-73 (2023)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Circumcision:Ordinary and Universal in My CommunityAllan J. JacobsMy1 circumcision experiences are remarkable mostly for their ordinariness. My wife Danaë gave birth to our son Perseus2 while I was a resident in obstetrics and gynecology in a city where we had no family. Perseus was circumcised in a Jewish brit milah3 ceremony on the eighth day of his life, as were my wife's and my male ancestors back into ancient times. We were relieved because Perseus had just recovered from a potentially serious condition. After a difficult forceps delivery, his blood bilirubin rose almost to the point where he might have developed the dreaded kernicterus syndrome. Kernicterus can cause permanent severe motor, intellectual and visual impairment. It was unclear whether he would be discharged from the hospital in time. He had to spend a week in restraints under a bright light whose frequency degraded bilirubin. Happily, he came home the day before the scheduled brit.Our four parents attended the brit. Danaë's father was the sandek,4 being granted the honor of holding our son on his lap during the circumcision ceremony. The mohel, or circumciser, was the local Conservative rabbi. We were mildly anxious because he didn't do many circumcisions in this city with few Jews. Perseus cried briefly after he was circumcised. The circumcision undoubtedly was far less stressful than treatment of elevated bilirubin. The circumcision certainly was less painful than the prodding and sticks for the many blood tests he had to undergo in the hospital, not to mention the pain of his difficult forceps delivery. Perseus did not seem to have much discomfort in his penis afterward, and had no circumcision complications.After the brit, our parents and my resident colleagues ate refreshments and chatted for an hour or so. A brit milah is a happy occasion, but not an elaborate one. It marks the end of the joy, anxiety, and excitement of the child's birth and its aftermath and is followed by the less exalted rhythm of feedings, diaper changes, and sleep deprivation.At the brit, our boys are assigned Hebrew names and confirmed in the Biblical covenant between God and the Hebrew people established between God and Abraham, and reaffirmed between God and Moses. Regardless of the historical truth of the formation of the covenant, it is accepted as a myth tantamount to [End Page 71] truth. In other words, regardless of its literal truth, such a myth is to be regarded as true because it concretizes God's demands or a moral truth. The covenant is real for me whether or not there was a historical Abraham. As with other religious commitments, the obligation to circumcise our sons is unprovable, but binding. On this basis, Perseus's ancestors on both sides were circumcised in brit milah ceremonies for many centuries into the past.My two grandsons were circumcised as well. Achilles was circumcised among friends and relatives. The mohel was an experienced obstetrician who was certified to officiate at a brit milah following the practices of Conservative Judaism. He administered adequate analgesia with topical local anesthetic cream followed by an injected regional block. Achilles slept through his circumcision, suffered no complications, and had little discomfort afterward. My other grandson had a circumcision performed as an infant outside the context of Judaism and is not being raised as a Jew.The two brit milah in my family were beautiful, dignified ceremonies, welcoming the infants into the Jewish fold, and bestowing their Hebrew names.5 Some of my relatives, including Perseus's son, had circumcisions performed in a medical setting without a ceremony. None of the many boys in my family had obvious short- or long-term problems with their circumcisions. My social circle has many Reform and Conservative Jews. I have never heard any Jewish man in my circle of acquaintances complain about his circumcision. Circumcision is a given. Problems are rare, and an exposed glans is the norm. Our men typically enjoy sex and have no difficulty in fathering children. Circumcision is part of the comforting cocoon of custom and tribe that helps to protect us as a group. It also reinforces Jewish endogamy...

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