The documentary “Circumcision: Yes or No?” recently aired on HOT 8. As a mohel, this fact distresses me deeply because of the work’s anti-Brit Milah message. Although I’ve yet to see the film, Ha’artez ran a lengthy interview with the work’s German director, Insa Onken, which warrants a response.
Onken seemingly starts off on the right foot, claiming her documentary is meant to educate the public on circumcision. I’ve spent the majority of my career educating parents about such issues as Metzitzah B’peh in the hopes of protecting all who will undergo it. But safety is not the goal of this film.
“I didn’t want to shock, but I wanted to show what it really is. […] People must know how the process is done,” Onken stated in the interview. While I agree there’s an importance in researching and making sure the most competent professionals are at the helm, showing people the actual operation will only deter them from having it done. And let’s be honest, that is the goal here. If I showed you close up footage of a root canal, I’m fairly certain you’d do everything in your power never to have one.
Like all operations Brit Milah is not without its risks, but statistics show that complications occur at an astonishingly low rate. Jenny D. Lee in the journal Up To Date states:
“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 complications is the rate at which the likelihood of such 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 of age.
As many anti-circumcisionists argue, Onken would like people to wait for the child to make his own decision when he comes of age. The problem is, as the statistics show, waiting is a decision in and of itself. By delaying the procedure, parents have ensured that the child will have a significantly more complicated and painful experience — not to mention the horrific nature of having to remember the event.
Additionally, whether governmentally mandated or just suggested, delaying is an attempt to eradicate Brit Milah. The requirement to have it done on the eighth day is an essential aspect of the rite. To postpone it for anything other than medical necessity is to undermine the mitzvah completely and can’t be allowed.
A major part of the interview with Onken deals with how Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) relates to Brit Milah. Although there are physical similarities, the two rituals are diametrically opposed. FGM is intended to subjugate women to their husbands by removing all sexual pleasure and can leave the victims in constant agony. Beyond the fundamental difference in intent, FGM is a cultural practice not required by any world religion. Brit Milah, on the other hand, has been a pillar of the Jewish tradition for over 4,000 years and raises the child to full status in the community.
One of the most heavily debated topics in the world of circumcision is whether or not removing the foreskin reduces sensitivity. The truth is, the jury is still out in this regard. There are studies with results on both sides. It seems impossible that there isn’t some change in sensation. But there is a psychological aspect to this question as well.
How one feels about his circumcision will most likely depend on whether or not it was desired in the first place. If an adult had a foreskin complication and needed its emergency removal, there is a good chance he might not be happy about the situation, as opposed to someone who opts for the surgery of his own accord. And such emotions can affect the perceived result.
Even the feelings of those who have had a Brit Milah as infants will have their effects. Dr. Jennifer Bossio of Queens University in her doctoral thesis studied the correlation between neonatal circumcision and sexual function. “The novel finding that men’s negative attitudes towards their circumcision status — as opposed to their circumcision status, per se — is associated with lower sexual functioning[,] demonstrating that lower body image in men is associated with impaired sexual functioning.” These findings correlate with a recent study published in the psychological journal Spring Link.
The most unfortunate part of all of this is that the anti-circumcision movement fosters negative body image issues. It is evident in all of their propaganda. In 2017, just before the release of another anti-milah documentary, one of these organizations sent out a press release stating that the American Association of Pediatrics had finally admitted that circumcision reduces sensation. This release included an audio recording of a doctor speaking at an AAP conference about his experience as a medic in the Vietnam War. He mentioned that during the war there were consistently long lines of soldiers outside his office who wanted to be circumcised because they desired to “last longer” with their partner.
“So we can see,” the doctor reported at the conference, “even though there is a loss in sensation, there is an increase in overall sexual satisfaction.” A representative of the anti-circumcision movement in the audience questioned the doctor: “How is it possible that there could be an increase in satisfaction if there’s a decrease in sensation?” “Because there are two people involved in the act,” the doctor replied. The questioner simply repeated his question, “But how is this possible?”
It was clear that these two individuals were not speaking the same language. Many of those associated with the anti-Brit Milah movement have been duped into believing that the foreskin is a magic solution to all of their sexual woes and that, through circumcision, they were robbed of something special against their will. Their obsession destroys relationships with family members and friends and has even led some to publicly threaten the lives of the practitioners responsible for their present state. But the ritual itself is not to blame.
This film, much like the literature distributed by anti-circumcision groups, is just more fodder for people to hate themselves and the religions that continue the rite. Interestingly, at one point in the interview Onken referenced how important it is for Germans to remember their history and to be cautious in restricting Jews’ religious freedom. I couldn’t agree more. Not accidentally, one of the first things the Nazis outlawed was Brit Milah. They knew how central it was to our faith.
However, it is just as important for us to remember our history, especially those working at Hot. We should not be giving a platform to films like this one, which only seek to stop people from keeping the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. It is one of our most fundamental and universally observed mitzvot, which has preserved the Jewish people as a nation for so many centuries.