Is Brit Milah Cruel and Unnecessary?

A debate about whether the time has come to reconsider the practice of circumcision

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The time has come to reform the pain but preserve the feeling of brit milah.

Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum

Dubious Benefits

Dear Dr. Greenbaum,

is circumcision cruel?

The young man who has to live with a lifelong disability due to a circumcision gone wrong will find no comfort in your assertion that his tragedy is "freakish" nor in your notion that the amputation done in adherence to religion and tribe was meant to "perfect" him. Your preferred statistics underestimate the real frequency of complications, but even they indicate that each year in the USA some thousands of newborn babies suffer complications.

You say, "reform the pain," but in a recent article for mohalim, you say you rely on an anaesthetic cream that cannot numb the deep tissues that cause the ba­by the most pain--a fact not mentioned on your website for parents. If circumcision is as beneficial as you claim, why not let young men choose it for themselves when they are old enough to give informed consent?

The claims of health benefits are contradicted by a variety of more recent research studies too numerous to mention here, but you do not refer to this data at all. You imply that theAAP advocates circumcision when in fact it has now reversed its position, as the recent policy clearly states: "Research studies suggest there may be some medical benefits ... but these data are insufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision." When you blind parents to the full picture, that's coercive and should be seen as such. And if the cutting of a baby boy's genitals is to be taken as the profoundly positive event you paint it as, then what's the message this transmits to Jewish women? Circumcision in this day and age is a perverse way of affirming Jewish identity.

Victor Schonfeld

A Part of the Covenant

Dear Mr. Schonfeld:

You distort the truth. Your "research studies too numerous to mention" were obviously not regarded as valid by the AAP, which hedged on recommending routine neonatal circumcision, in spite of its medical benefits, only because of cost issues. And you take my own statements regarding anesthesia out of context--I have great success using a combination of pain-control techniques.

If we wait for the child to be old enough to make his own decision about circumcision, we turn a one-minute, at-home, very safe procedure into one that requires a hospital stay, general anes­thesia, and much higher risk. In addition, circumcision done after infancy does not protect against cancer of the penis.

Circumcision is essential, but not the only part of the brit, the covenant. Standing with the baby in a ceremony that transcends time are Abraham and Sarah and our other ancestors, all who were at Sinai, up to and including us. At that ceremony you are connected to all the generations of your family that preceded you. I'm sorry your son's brit wasn't like that, but that is what it should have been. Since Sarai became Sarah, Jewish women have been part of the covenant. The reason Jewish men have to be circumcised into the covenant is to be worthy of a Jewish wife. We are born covenanted. If you don't see it this way, that is your prejudice.

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Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum

Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum is a Board certified Pediatrician, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a certified Mohel.