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

To the film ‘Circumcision Yes or No?’ — No thanks

Photo: Facebook

The latest news in the Brit Milah world is the documentary ‘Circumcision: Yes or No?’ that just aired on Hot8. Ha’aretz interviewed the German director, Insa Onken, on the eve of the film’s airing and, not surprisingly, she touched on every hot button issue in the field. Although I’ve yet to see the documentary, the interview in Haaretz was problematic enough to warrant a response.

Onken actually began the interview with a subject we both agree upon. She encouraged parents to research the topic before having the procedure performed on their sons. I couldn’t agree more. The more parents know about Brit Milah the safer their children will be.

The director said that she “focused on the medical aspect, which is the basis of the whole discussion.” This is only true for a self-proclaimed secularist like herself. The medical benefits of Brit Milah are not the basis of our tradition. Even the most irreligious of Israelis consider the ritual as an important link that connects us to our nationhood and past, if not necessarily a commandment from a higher power. 

Even if Onken wanted to discuss Brit Milah from a medical perspective, she’s on shaky ground at best. Circumcision has multiple proven medical benefits, such as protecting against urinary tract infections, STDs, and later complications with the foreskin itself, just to name a few. But her only goal in discussing the medical nature of the rite was to talk about the perceived risks and traumas associated with it.

When it comes to risks, statistics show that complications occur at an astonishingly 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 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, this 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 barbaric nature of having to remember the event.

When it comes to trauma experienced by the baby, Onken states that “the memory of the pain remains in the body for life even if you don’t remember the event itself.” This makes no logical sense. It’s as if she said, ‘You remember the experience of Brit Milah even if you can’t remember it.’

Even if we grant that Brit Milah is a traumatic event, Onken’s assertion that a memory has been formed in infancy is just not true. A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal entitled Memory, moved the memory clock back a whole year. “If an age of about 3½ years has been widely seen as the age of earliest memory, it may be that a more accurate age is more like 2½ years.” This is a truly staggering discovery. However, what’s clear from these findings, though, is that there is no scientific data indicating that memories from even the first year of life can be accessed, let alone the first eight days.

Onken continues with the anti-milah trope that “religious freedom should stop at the point where it touches someone else’s body.” She also states that the child should be free to choose his or her own religion. These notions are completely antithetical to Judaism. 

The two statements are simply evidence of aversion to religion itself. Even secularists make decisions that impact their children on both a physical and emotional level. We all choose our children’s schools, whether or not to give them vaccines, or even pierce their ears. To insist that one could never make a decision about a child’s body without his or her consent would mean that parents couldn’t even fix a child’s cleft palate. And even secularists teach their children about morality. They raise them to be good people and follow the laws of society. Religious adherents impart their values to their children as well and in Judaism, that guidance begins at the very first moment with Brit Milah.

The saddest part of the interview came when Onken spoke of an individual who was circumcised at age 5. When he learned of the procedure he’d undergone, he became so resentful that he began to hate his mother and these feelings subsequently destroyed their relationship. The tragic fact is that this story is not uncommon in the anti-circumcision world. Most of these people are deeply troubled by the knowledge of their own circumcision. But the procedure is not to blame.

Are these people depressed because they don’t have a foreskin or are they depressed because these groups tell them they’re missing something of “ultimate value” in their life? Many of them believe that if they only had this piece of skin then all their sexual woes would disappear. Some are so deranged that they’ve publicly threatened to kill the doctors and mohalim who performed their Brit Milah. One mohel in California received so many threats that he started carrying a gun.

This film, much like these anti-circumcision groups, is just more fodder for people to hate themselves and the religions that continue the rite. But in truth, I don’t blame Insa Onken for this problem. Of course, I wish she’d never made this movie, but she’s not Jewish and, therefore, is not bound by our commandments. The people at fault here are those in charge of Hot8 for airing it in the first place. Even Onken commented that she “didn’t imagine that it would be possible to present such a critical film in Israel.” And that’s exactly the point. It’s sad that even she understands how out of place it is here and those heading up the television station don’t. We should not be giving a platform to such motion pictures — especially ones like this that are completely one-sided and are only invested in convincing people to stop performing Brit Milah. 

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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