The Jewish Advocate - February 13-19, 1998
New Findings Related to Circumcision Stir an Old Controversy
By Karynne Naftolin
BOSTON - The question of whether to circumcise baby boys - and what to do with the foreskins - has resurfaced with the publication of new medical findings about skin substitutes made from the foreskins of circumcised babies and the use of the foreskins for skin grafts.
The research has stirred longstanding concerns by opponents of circumcision, including health care specialists in Massachusetts, and has prompted some new thinking on the topic among Jewish medical ethicists.
In interviews with the Advocate this week, medical professionals and rabbis on both sides of the issue suggested by their comments that the controversy is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, especially in light of the new developments on uses for the foreskins of circumcised babies.
Speaking from New York, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University's rabbinical school and an authority on medical issues as they relate to Jewish law, voiced support for the donation of foreskins for the purpose of aiding medical research.
"The halachic view is very supportive," he said in a telephone interview from his office. "It seems to be a proper and even holy use of what would otherwise be waste material." There is sanctity to skin or other matter removed from a dead body but not to skin removed from a live body, he explained.
According to the Torah, Jews have been circumcising their sons for more than 4,000 years, and the biblical commandment to do so is unequivocal. But the notion that all Jews circumcise, according to Ronald Goldman, founder and director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, is a myth.
Goldman, a psychologist, founded his center in 1991 because of what he perceived to be "a large gap between what is known about circumcision and what the public and professionals believe about circumcision," he told the Advocate in a recent interview. He said he believes that circumcision causes psychological trauma to the child and that it "conflicts with significant Jewish laws and values"; he cited biblical proscriptions against stealing and causing physical harm to another in an article he wrote last year for the California-based [now Israeli] Jewish Spectator, entitled "Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain."
In the same article, Goldman calls the pain caused by the procedure to be "severe and overwhelming." But two ritual circumcisers, or mohelim, claim otherwise.
Rabbi Shimon Miara has been performing ritual circumcision in Greater Boston for 11 years. The rabbi, who said he performs as many as 15 circumcisions a month, said that a competent mohel does the procedure "so fast" that the baby cries out briefly and is then almost immediately calmed by sucking a piece of gauze soaked in wine before being nursed by his mother.
Encountering a parent's anxiety about the circumcision, Miara said he often soothes a mother's worries by having her stand by his side "so she can see everything and see that it's not a big deal."
Rabbi Raphael Malka, a mohel in Maryland, said in a telephone interview this week that when he performs circumcisions in hospitals, "the nurses are amazed at how quick, how clean the whole thing is."
Dr. Julie Stein, a resident at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, told the Advocate that more than half of the male babies she delivers are subsequently circumcised. She said that, because of the discomfort the procedure causes the babies and the lack of a compelling medical argument that circumcision is preferable, she does not believe that, except for religious reasons, boys must be circumcised.
"When done for religious purposes, then it holds a deeper meaning," she said. But Stein is skeptical about those who maintain that circumcision may reduce the risk of contracting penile cancer or that it is more hygienic. Of the first argument, she said, it "is not exactly a No. 1 killer in this country"; and regarding hygiene, "with running water, people can generally keep themselves clean."
While mainstream rabbis who actively discourage circumcisions seem few and far between, Rabbi Jonathan Kraus, spiritual leader of the Reform Bern El Temple Center in Belmont, is not harshly critical of Goldman's theory about the procedure.
In a testimonial he wrote for Goldman's book, "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective," Kraus stated that "by giving us an insightful and carefully documented exploration of a controversial perspective, Dr. Goldman helps to foster a healthy and valuable dialogue within the Jewish community."
Kraus told the Advocate that although he may not agree with Goldman's conclusions, "it is a voice that ought to be heard."
While Kraus sees Goldman "arguing a minority viewpoint" and acknowledges that, as a rabbi, he encourages couples to circumcise their babies, he said he occasionally performs "covenant naming ceremonies" that do not include circumcision.
Still, Kraus was skeptical about Goldman's claims of "severe and overwhelming" pain - an issue he said parents most often question him about.
"For the most part, parents are anxious about about the degree of pain," Kraus said, "but my impression is that while there is some pain, it is not as severe as he [Goldman] suggests."
The Jewish Advocate, March 6-12, 1998
Letter to the Editor
Discussion of circumcision must consider impact of the surgery
The Feb. 13 article on circumcision ("New findings related to circumcision stir an old controversy") incorrectly describes my statements about the severe and overwhelming pain and trauma of circumcision as being a "theory." My statements are based on numerous empirical medical studies that have been published in reputable journals.
Studies also agree with Maimonides' conclusion that circumcision significantly reduces sexual sensitivity. The surgery removes the adult equivalent of about 12 square inches of highly erogenous and functional tissue. A Journal of the American Medical Association report shows that this loss affects male sexual behavior.
I thank The Jewish Advocate for the article and look forward to more discussion of this very important issue.
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