Circumcision in America -- Part Two

Why is the most "advanced" nation in the industrialized world alone in practicing a disturbing archaism from less enlightened times? In "The Saharisian Connection," Dr. James Meo, who calls circumcision "an ancient blood ritual ... that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with medicine, health, or science in practically all cases," puts forth this hypothesis: "The fact that so many circumcised American men, and mothers, nurses, and obstetricians are ready to defend the practice in the face of contrary epidemiological evidence is a certain giveaway to hidden, unconscious motives and disturbed emotional feelings about the penis and sexual matters in general."It remains to be seen to what extent "unconscious motives" are responsible for the perpetuation of circumcision today. However, "emotional feelings about the penis" may very well be knit into the fabric of certain long-standing myths that persist in the United States despite logical or empirical evidence to the contrary. After much verbal intercourse with friends over the years about near misses and close calls with the intact penis, it seems evident that three persistent myths or biases dominate.The mother of all myths, now locker-room gospel, is that a circumcised penis is more hygienic than an intact one. This comes as no surprise in a culture where the art of sterilization is so pervasive that certain foods have a half-life that probably exceeds that of plutonium. Still, doctors discredited hygiene as an advantage of circumcision years ago. When I asked our pediatrician what I needed to clean my son's intact penis, he replied: "Common sense." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put it another way: "Good personal hygiene would offer all the advantages of routine circumcision without the attendant surgical risk." (This, of course, is the case for both sexes: Leave any body part unattended for too long and things get, well, unpleasant.) Yet another doctor posited in "Circumcision: A Medical or Human Rights Issue?" that removing the foreskin for hygiene's sake is like removing one's eyelid for a cleaner eyeball.Another popular and profoundly baffling myth is that circumcision is painless. Studies indicate that those babies who appear to sleep through a circumcision have most likely slipped into a semicomatose state, and a slew of recent studies on newborns, traumatic experience and sensory perception support this hypothesis.Equally strange is the cultural bias for the aesthetics of a circumcised penis. In moments of free-associative candor, girlfriends have compared the looks of an intact penis to everything from an elephant trunk to a dachshund. The queerness of it was reinforced by the unsettling feeling that it required at best a refresher course on basic anatomy, at worst a whole new sex education, as if an intact man were some sort of Minotaur. To the extent that the circumcised penis is endorsed largely through culturally determined views about hygiene and aesthetics, one wonders if it's not in some odd way a metaphor for America itself: sleek and streamlined, the way we like our cars and buildings, connoting speed and unimpeded verticality; but also surgical and sanitized, and thus thoroughly modern. By contrast, the intact penis is a little too unruly, too Paleolithic, a little too, well, animal. (If penises could walk and talk, the circumcised penis would be a suit and tie, a clean shave and a shoulder-high salute. The intact penis would be a rumpled shirt, a five o'clock shadow and a finger flipping you the bird.)Either way, passing judgment on an intact penis in America is like passing judgment on a real nose in a country where rhinoplasty is imposed at birth. Quite simply, most Americans have forgotten that an intact penis is actually the norm, and that for thousands of years the only people who were circumcised were Jews and Muslims. Which leads me to a word about Jews and the penis. When I mentioned to certain relatives that my son would remain as nature intended him, the conversation, once the shock wore off, went something like this:"But honey, what about the, er, Covenant of Abraham?""What exactly is the connection between the Covenant of Abraham and my son's penis?""Well, I'm not sure. Let me put Sam on the phone."Sam wasn't sure about the God-penis-Covenant connection either. Neither was Ruth. Nor Morley. Nor were any of my Jewish friends or relatives.In fact, the Covenant was a pact between God and Abraham, an expression of both faith and tribal belonging that set the "chosen people" apart, and which has been passed on to all Jews. Jewish identity, however, is not determined by circumcision nor is it passed through the penis. As most Jews know, Jewish identity is passed through the mother, hence the traditional and immemorial Jewish concern about assimilation through intermarriage. The "Encyclopedia Judaica" reaffirms this: "Any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not." I'm reminded of a Jewish friend who insisted that his son be circumcised despite the fact that his wife was Catholic. "Circumcision," his rabbi reminded him, "will not make your son Jewish." (His wife's conversion to Judaism, however, would.)Despite all this, the issue of Jewish identity, in which circumcision is inextricably bound up, remains one of the most complex, thorny and eternally debated subjects around. Volumes have been written on the subject, and everything is up for personal interpretation. With this in mind, and given that a vast number of Jews do not know what the Covenant really is -- their sons are circumcised in hospitals without a bris; they are not Orthodox, and do not keep kosher -- one can only surmise that circumcision is not an act of religious conviction but rather one of deeply entrenched cultural conformity rooted in the deep past. In fact, a cruel irony lingers here: Originally, biblical circumcision involved cutting only the tip of the foreskin (called brith milah), which still left enough foreskin for certain Jewish men to stretch it forward and pass as gentiles. This gave rise to a rabbinical movement called Brith Periah. Much more radical in nature, Brith Periah essentially removed the entire foreskin, making it impossible for Jews to emulate gentiles. Modern circumcision is based on this much more radical procedure of Brith Periah -- a strange medical twist that has leveled the playing fields of the penis among Jews and gentiles alike.Jew or gentile, to the extent that "God" is behind circumcision and the oft-cited Covenant, one can only wonder: Why ordain the removal of such a fundamental part of the penis? And why the penis? Here the views of Moses Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, rabbi and figure in the codification of Jewish law, are enlightening in a more universal context. In "Guide to the Perplexed," Maimonides wrote that the commandment to circumcise "has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally." Celebrated for his chastity by the sages, Maimonides elaborates: "With regard to circumcision one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible ... The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened."Maimonides' views evoke not only the Victorians, the doctrines that underlie female circumcision and the "unconscious motives" Dr. Meo wrote about: They also hark back to the forbidden fruits of sex and religion that have festered in the gardens of earthly delight ever since Adam and Eve discovered the apple.Considering the troubling history of circumcision in light of my own son's corpulent little penis, I'm reminded that it is the choice -- and in some cases, the courage -- of American parents that will determine whether the next generation of American men reclaims what is rightfully theirs to begin with. In this regard it might be the late Dr. Benjamin Spock who stands for conventional wisdom at its best. When asked about circumcision in an interview with Redbook in 1989, he said quite simply, "My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone."

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