Thursday, October 14, 2010

Should We Chop Fingers Off?


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Question of the Week:

We had a baby boy and we are very excited. But we are still undecided about the Bris. I have issues with it. I am aware of the spiritual significance of the circumcision, but I have much more practical concerns:

1) Is it not barbaric to put my baby through the pain of a medically unnecessary operation?

2) He was born uncircumcised, why should I mess with his natural state?

3) My son has no say in this, and can never reverse it. Shouldn't I let him choose later on in life if he wants this done to him?

Do you have any rational answers? 


Imagine the following scenario. Your baby is born, healthy and well. But there's something unusual. He has six fingers on each hand. An extra little growth protrudes right next to each pinkie.

What would you do about it? Have the extra fingers surgically removed? Or leave them? After all, he was born that way. And he can live with twelve fingers. Maybe the child should be allowed to choose whether or not he wants his extra fingers later in life. Can you think of anything more barbaric than chopping someone's fingers off?  

And yet I suspect you would do what most parents have done in such circumstances. Better remove the extra fingers now, when it is relatively painless and quick to heal, than subject the child to feeling like an anomaly in his future life. He has no use for them anyway, and would later resent the fact that his parents didn't remove them for him.

And so, kind and loving parents will unflinchingly put their babies under the surgeon's knife. The short term pain is worth it to avoid any long term discomfort. All other concerns would quickly dissolve. What is called barbaric in one context is quite humane in another. 

If this logic works for removing extra fingers, a purely cosmetic operation, how much more should it work in favour of the infinitely more meaningful act of circumcision. I am not suggesting that being uncircumcised is the same as being twelve-fingered. But for a Jewish child there are several similarities.

An uncircumcised Jew often feels like an outsider among his own people. He will always be a Jew, but may come to feel ambivalent about it, knowing that to actively embrace his Jewishness entails undergoing an operation - one that is minor at eight days old, but quite a bit more daunting in adulthood. I have attended adult circumcisions, and it is inspiring when someone makes that choice. The actual operation is not such a big deal. But the decision to actually do it is. You are in fact limiting his choices by not circumcising him.

So putting all spiritual considerations aside, from a practical perspective, here's the equation. Leave your son uncircumcised, and you leave him with a psychological barrier to exploring his own identity. Give your son a Bris, and he loses nothing more than a bit of skin. But he gains immediate entry into the four thousand year old covenant of Abraham. That is a gift you will not regret giving.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss

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  1. I have two friends who are converts to Judaism from Europe and were not circumcised until they converted to Judaism in their 30s. When I empathized with their pain after their brit-milah – the pain of which was far more severe and painful than what would have been had it been done at 8-days – they both agreed that the pain of the mila, even at that late age, was no worse than several infections that occurred on that site. I was surprised at this and they told me some things that we Jews are not aware of because circumcision is so standard in our sub-culture, thus we are unaware that there are problems when one is not circumcised.

    It turns out that if the foreskin is left in place the area must be cleaned very regularly and if it isn’t then yeasts and molds can start to grow there. There are sebaceous glands that emit oils but those oils can go rancid and when that happens a foul odor is released. What’s worse, an infection can develop on the foreskin's sebeceous glands and that can cause as much or more pain than a circumcision. Both my European friends have had at least 4 infections there until they were circumcised and were both grateful to get rid of that troublesome hunk of skin that required additional care and cleaning. After circumcision the matter of cleaning and infections are no longer an issue, thus if you do the math, circumcision as early as possible in life is really the kindest cut.

  2. Thank you for your comment.