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Why Bris?

Recently, I was at a website for expectant mothers when I happened upon a forum entitled "To circumcise or not." One Jewish woman posted a message asking for opinions on whether or not she should give a Bris to her unborn baby. She had many women respond to her (quite strongly, I may add) that it is a cruel, barbaric procedure that can traumatize the baby. People went so far as to cite medical studies proving that a Bris is traumatic for a child, decreases future tolerance to pain, increases the risk of infection, has long term psychological effects, etc.

I was horrified that people were trying to dissuade a Jewish mother from giving her son a Bris, so I posted my opinion. I explained to the woman that before she makes any decision she should find out more about the meaning and importance of a Bris. I told her jokingly that my husband, father, and brother have all been circumcised and none of them ever regretted the decision.

My questions are: Did I deal with this issue in the correct way? How can one refute these medical studies? And how can one prove that a Bris is not barbaric?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The truth is, there is no "logical" argument for such an elective procedure. Yet circumcision has been practiced on Jewish males for close to 4,000 years, ever since Abraham was so commanded by God. Why?

Let's tackle the issues:

It is a foundation of Judaism that we are to control our animal desires and direct them into spiritual pursuits. That's why the Bris is done on the organ where many people unfortunately express "barbaric" behavior. If we bring holiness into our life there, then all other areas will follow.

Another aspect of circumcision is that it is integral to Jewish identity. This point was made quite powerfully in a movie called "Europa Europa," the true story of a young Jewish boy trying to escape detection by the Nazis. The boy looks Aryan and speaks German fluently, so he poses as a non-Jew and is eventually recruited into an elite training program for the next generation of SS officers.

This boy was on his way to a fully non-Jewish life, except for one thing: His circumcision. He couldn't hide it. And that is what kept him Jewish throughout the entire ordeal. The man survived the war, and made a new life for himself in Israel. Instead, he may have ended up becoming a Nazi officer. It all depended on the Bris.

It is a principle of Jewish life that we do not perform mitzvot based on the "practical benefit." At the same time, the mitzvot frequently have positive observable effects in our everyday life.

Regarding the medical issues, Rabbi Yonason Binyomin Goldberger writes in "Sanctity and Science":

As an operation, circumcision has an extremely small complication rate. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine (1990) reported a complication rate of 0.19 percent when circumcision is performed by a physician. When performed by a trained mohel, the rate falls to 0.13 percent or about 1 in 1000. When a complication occurs, it is usually excessive bleeding, which is easily correctable. No other surgical procedure can boast such figures for complication-free operations.

One reason why there are so few complications involving bleeding may be that, according to recent studies, the major clotting agents, prothrombin and vitamin K, do not reach peak levels in the blood until the eighth day of life. Prothrombin levels are normal at birth, drop to very low levels in the next few days, and return to normal at the end of the first week. One study showed that by the eighth day prothrombin levels reach 110 percent of normal. In the words of Dr. Armand J. Quick, author of several works on the control of bleeding, "It hardly seems accidental that the rite of circumcision was postponed until the eighth day by the Mosaic law."

Furthermore, circumcision has been known to offer virtually complete protection from penile cancer. According to a recent review article in the New England Journal of Medicine, none of the over 1,600 persons studied with this cancer had been circumcised in infancy. In the words of Cochen and McCurdy, the incidence of penile cancer in the U.S. is "essentially zero" among circumcised men.

Several studies reported that circumcised boys were 10-to-39 times less likely to develop urinary tract infections during infancy than uncircumcised boys. In addition, circumcision protects against bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections and a variety of other conditions related to hygiene. The extremely low rate of cervical cancer in Jewish women (9-to-22 times less than among non-Jewish women) is thought to be related to the practice of circumcision.

As a result of studies like these, a number of prestigious medical organizations have recognized the benefits of circumcision, and the California Medical Association has endorsed circumcision as an "effective public health measure."

The bottom line, however, is that Bris is the sign of the covenant, maintaining one’s spiritual attachment to the Jewish people.

Maybe posting this on the forum will help.

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