Hayim Leiter
Rabbi, mohel, misader kiddushin, beit din member

Foreskin at the forefront

Anti-circumcision activists use selective, out of context and untrue claims to make a case that is gaining traction in Israel

The anti-circumcision movement has truly arrived in Israel. The Zehut party came under fire last week when Moshe Feiglin would not renounce the anti-circumcision comments of one of its members, Gadi Wilcherski. Wilcherski, a stand up comedian, also released the above video in the recent past, much to the dismay of mohalim and religious Jews alike. If the elections come to fruition in the next few months, he could become a member of the Knesset. But this video is no joke and as much as Feiglin may try to justify it, Wilcherski is clearly against circumcision. This is a very disturbing reality that has become more prevalent all over the world, and apparently, Israel is no safe haven. 

Here is a translation of the video:

There is one commandment that we, the non-religious, still keep religiously, and that’s chopping off a piece of our son’s penis. Why do we still do this? Because all of us do it. And why do we all do it? Because we all do it. Right, but why do we all do this?!

Let’s begin with the fact that today, there is currently no health organization in the world that recommends circumcision. Even in Israel. The foreskin, my brothers and sisters, is an inseparable part of the penis. It protects it and has a central role in sex and sexual pleasure. The Rambam himself says that this is the rationale for removing the foreskin: ‘to significantly reduce our sexual pleasure in order that we don’t lose our minds.’

Tell me, have we lost our minds?

In addition, it is true, that the removal of the foreskin reduces the chance of penile cancer. But this is referring to a very very rare form of cancer. And also, the removal of the foreskin is in every respect a surgical procedure which can cause complications and risks. And it is also true that the removal of the foreskin can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections. But do you know what can be done instead of removing the foreskin? Washing your son’s penis really well.

Now I’m sure you’ll say, ‘but our child will be different!’ ‘An uncircumcised penis is unseemly!’ Yes, ladies and gentlemen, my son is going to be different. He’s going to be a complete child. There are children, whose parents have cut off a piece of their bodies, because they are worried about what others will say. There is nothing more beautiful than a complete child.

‘But what about my child? Will he be a Jew?!’ Ask any rabbi, and he will tell you that a Jew is someone who’s born to a Jewish mother, having nothing to do with what he does with his foreskin. Friends, I’m not telling you what to do. All in all, I’m asking you: check the same way as you would before buying an iPhone or television. Your son’s penis is no less important. Word!” [the Hebrew for ‘word’ is Milah, a play on word from Brit Milah]

It is true that there are no medical associations that overtly recommend circumcision. But the statement in the video is a quote out of context. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, all but recommends circumcision outright. Here is the statement in full:

Male circumcision is a common procedure, generally performed during the newborn period in the United States. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) formed a multidisciplinary task force of AAP members and other stakeholders to evaluate the recent evidence on male circumcision and update the Academy’s 1999 recommendations in this area. Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits identified included prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed this statement.

As you can see there are many health benefits listed here. But what’s not listed are the statistics of how circumcision reduces STD transmission. HIV transmission is reduced by 60% in circumcised men. The video also fails to talk about how circumcision decreases the chance of cancer for both partners. Women have a greater chance of contracting cervical cancer with an uncircumcised partner. Therefore, circumcision is better for everyone involved. And washing the foreskin to solve this problem is a complete understatement. The foreskin, by nature, traps germs in it’s crevasses, making it a carrier for bacteria and the like. Washing, alone, does not solve this problem. 

Complications in circumcision are something that no one wants to think about or even worse experience. But the statistics show that complications occur at a staggeringly low rate:

“The rate of procedure-related complications during and after circumcision in the neonate is approximately 2 to 6 per 1000. This rate increases 20-fold for boys who are circumcised between one and nine years of age, and 10-fold for those circumcised after 10 years of age.”

Perhaps more important than the low frequency of occurrence is the rate at which the likelihood of complications increases with age. Any medical professional will tell you that the safest time to perform a circumcision is as young as possible, that is, around eight days. And that’s not even taking into account the barbaric nature of a child having to go through the procedure later in life. 

The question of whether or not a child is labeled as ‘different’ if he is not circumcised is a poignant one, especially within the Jewish community. Brit Milah is so prevalent in our community, one study reporting that 91.7% of boys in Israel were circumcised in 2016; if parents choose not to circumcise their child, he will indeed be different in that respect. But is being uncircumcised any more or less aesthetically pleasing? The International Society for Sexual Medicine recently released this study which found that:

“Women’s preferences generally favor the circumcised penis for sexual activity, hygiene, and lower risk of infection. The findings add to the already well-established health benefits favoring [male circumcision] and provide important sociosexual information on an issue of widespread interest.”

Of course, this proves nothing on an individual basis. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But in the Jewish community, there is no doubt that this is far from the norm and could lead to uncomfortable moments in the future. I am not making the case that one should circumcise to avoid this, but such a reality is something that will inherently distinguish the child from the rest of the community.

When it comes to the Rambam’s statement that removing the foreskin reduces sexual pleasure, this too must be taken in context. The statement is not found in his legal compilation on Brit Milah. The statement comes from the Moreh Nevuchim, his philosophical work. So, in a sense, the Ramabam at this point in the discussion is wearing his ‘rabbi hat’ and not his ‘medical hat’. This statement is more homiletical in nature. He is attempting to draw out the meaning of the commandment. And just as we are not meant to eat everything under the sun, we are also not meant to have relations with everything under the sun. Sex is supposed to have a specific, holy purpose – procreation. And for some, this explanation of the Mitzvah can be very meaningful. 

Now if the Rambam had been wearing his ‘medical hat’, he might have put it differently. Wilcherski’s statements in the video are based in the rhetoric of the anti-circumcision movement. These groups actively choose to ignore fact or scientific data in their obsession to end neonatal circumcision. One of their major claims is that the foreskin contains 20,000 nerve endings. This piece of data is a major leap from a limited amount of information gathered in the study done by Henry C. Bazett in 1932. 

Bazett counted 212 nerve endings of all types in a single square centimeter. Only 2 of the 212 nerve endings were fine-touch receptors […] and none were genital corpuscles, the ones that most experts attribute to erogenous sensation.”

The anti-circumcisionists just took the number Bazett found, measured the area of the skin which is generally removed in the procedure and multiplied. But there have been no studies done to measure the actual number of nerve endings which exist in that region. This article does an in depth analysis of the issue of sexual sensation in the foreskin. The article concludes that there is no basis for the claim that the removal of foreskin leads to a decrease in sexual sensation.

I couldn’t agree more with the video’s final point. Wilcherski’s admonishment that we should all seriously weigh what we do with our child’s body is 100% correct. But I disagree with him on one point. This careful consideration shouldn’t lead parents to dismiss circumcision; it should lead them to choose the correct mohel. 

Circumcision may have its complications but what is more psychologically troubling is that a candidate running for the Knesset feels a need to attack one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism. We have enough external battles to fight in this arena. We don’t need our governmental representatives giving them more ammunition to use against us – especially if this video is meant to be a joke. 

Far more important is the battle to educate parents and help them find the correct mohel. 

The organization I founded, Safer HaBrit, is fighting this battle on a daily basis: We’re tirelessly working to get the information to parents on how to properly screen the mohel, to make sure that he is using gloves and that he is not doing Metzitzah B’Peh. If you have questions about any of the issues spoken about here or anything else regarding Brit Milah, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with us.

About the Author
Rav Hayim Leiter is a rabbi, mohel, wedding officiant, and member of a private Beit Din in Israel. He founded Magen HaBrit, an organization committed to protecting both our sacred ceremony of Brit Milah and the children who undergo it. He made Aliyah in 2009 and lives in Efrat with his wife and four children.
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