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Interview: Jewish Activist Rebecca Wald is Working to End Circumcision

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“I think it’s awful. It’s shocking what people are willing to accept just because everyone else in their community goes along.”

On April 25th, activist Rebecca Wald joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss her efforts to end the practice of circumcision in the Jewish community, citing the risk of complications and the lack of medical necessity, her book proposing alternative ceremonies for Jewish families who forgo the practice, and to address arguments that circumcision is essential to maintaining the traditions of the Jewish community.

Ms. Wald, good afternoon, and thank you for being with us today. To start off, can you describe how you became involved in this area of advocacy?

My entire family is Jewish. This will probably come as a surprise, but many of my family members are against circumcision. I’m not the only one, or even the first. My father is a physician and witnessed a circumcision during his internship. He saw the brutality of what was being done and the coldness of the doctor and staff. He identified with the suffering child. My father had to then do a circumcision. This was a requirement of his medical training. The saying was: “See one. Do one. Teach one.”

He did it, and he said that the baby suffered tremendously. That was the last circumcision he did—or wanted anything to do with. Had I been a boy, my parents tell me I would not have been circumcised.

My husband is also a physician. From our first conversation about the subject, we were in full agreement that any boys we had would be spared. He didn’t have to be convinced as he, too, had witnessed circumcisions during his medical training. I have many other Jewish relatives and friends who feel circumcision is harmful. Not all Jewish people circumcise. Not all of us support this.

The issue became personal for me when my son was born. When he was a baby, I had the feeling that sparing him from circumcision wasn’t enough. It felt wrong to remain silent, standing by and quietly doing nothing, while other Jewish babies were being subjected to this, often because their parents had no other information.

And how did your thoughts on the matter evolve into your decision to create the“Beyond the Bris” project?

I knew I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure what exactly. I started to do research for a book I had in mind to write. It was going to be a primer written specifically for Jewish parents. My plan was to present evidence-based information against infant circumcision, while also making the case that [the practice] was in conflict with fundamental Jewish values. My working title for the book was “Beyond the Bris.”

I learned a tremendous amount, while doing my initial research, but I never wrote that book. This was about eight years ago. Blogs were just starting to get popular, and I decided that a web project could make a bigger impact than a book. A web project can be a dynamic, growing body of information. I also liked the idea of bringing together a community of like-minded Jewish people, rather than being an “expert,” telling others what I thought. I’ve never found that telling others what I think is particularly effective.

Can you talk a bit about the book that was eventually published and how it differed from the one you had originally planned to write?

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I teamed up with my wonderful colleague Lisa Braver Moss to write Celebrating Brit Shalom. It’s a book of alternative bris ceremonies for Jewish baby boys who won’t be circumcised. The brit milah (or bris for short) is the religious ceremony where the foreskin is removed and the baby is blessed and given a Jewish name. In our three alternative ceremonies, a pomegranate is cut to symbolize the act of circumcision. The baby is unharmed. The ceremonies can be led by an officiant or more informally by family members. The book doesn’t argue against circumcision. It’s for parents who have already made the choice.

We are all familiar with the biblical story of Abraham and circumcision. Also, the practice is notably mentioned in Exodus 4. Can you walk us through some of the other textual evidence that some Jews might cite when making the case for circumcision?

Circumcision is explicitly mentioned seven times in the Bible. If we view the Bible as a human-created document, written and edited by many different people throughout the ages, scholarship reveals the various circumcision stories appear to have been rewritten, and rearranged, at different times. It’s no easy task to unpack how these textual references inform today’s Jewish circumcision practice. Much of Jewish law, which includes how rituals are to be observed, comes from traditions passed on through the generations and not written down until after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

And closer to the present, there was the case in New York, which gained considerable press in 2017, and I’d be interested in your reaction. As you recall, infants in certain Hassidic communities contracted genital herpes from a circumcision practice where the mohel uses his mouth to remove the blood from the incision site.

I think it’s awful. It’s shocking what people are willing to accept just because everyone else in their community goes along. The unsanitary practices leading to babies contracting genital herpes are not taking place in mainstream Judaism. This is just occurring within some very insular, religiously fanatical sects. Of course, these babies deserve the same protection from harm as anyone else.

Moving onto how governments are treating the issue, Iceland gained notice for attempting to outlaw the practice. Is a legal solution one you might favor in the United States or do you prefer that families opt-out of the practice voluntarily, without getting the government involved?

One of the most fundamental roles of any principled government is to step in when innocent people are being physically harmed—especially infants and children, who are among the most vulnerable in society.

Many of us don’t want the government telling us how we should raise our kids or practice our religions—I know I don’t. But when parenting or religious practices result in physical harm, there’s a case to be made for the government stepping-in.

If one views infant circumcision as a maiming, it’s hard to justify allowing it. Moreover, it’s 100% against the law to cut the genitals of minor girls in the U.S. and many other countries. Legal equality dictates that if it’s against the law to cut girls, the same should hold true for boys.

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That said, as a Jewish person, I’m also acutely aware that banning Jewish religious practice, and specifically circumcision, has long been a mechanism for driving Jews out of places where they’re unwanted and for deliberately inflicting pain on our people. For many reasons, I’m also not convinced that banning religious circumcision will help our cause and bring about the change we seek.

What do you say to those who argue that circumcision is such an important part of the Jewish people’s traditions that cases of the practice gone awry, from time to time, does not warrant its removal? Of course, there are other proponents of circumcision coming from the perspective that it has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of some sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV. But, for the purposes of our conversation today, the religious argument is probably the more topical point.

Even Baruch Spinoza, hardly regarded as among the religious of Jews, had stated: “Such great impor­tance do I attach to the sign of the Covenant, that I am persuaded that it is sufficient by itself to maintain the separate existence of the nation forever.”

First of all, I don’t see the circumcision problem as being limited to a few occasional complications. Complications are said to occur at a rate of approximately 2 to 6 per 1000. To put this in perspective, about 4 million babies are born in the U.S. every year and a little more than half are males. Thankfully not all of these boys will be circumcised, but we’re still talking about a high number of complications every year in the U.S.

Even if there are no serious complications in a particular instance, it’s my belief that there is always lifelong irreparable damage to the sexual organ. As for sexually transmitted diseases, you don’t cut off a part of a body part for the sake of preventing some possible risk for disease years later.

And, lastly, when it comes to Spinoza, I can only speculate on the role that circumcision has played in the ongoing separateness of the Jewish nation, or our continued existence as a people. This is something I’ve thought deeply about. About how it’s helped us, made us what we are, and enabled us to exist in the present day—I am sure it has.

But I know it also has harmed us as individuals. I know it has harmed our children. There’s a Yiddish saying, which translates to, For the sake of one’s children, parents would tear apart a world.”

Thank you for your time today, Ms. Wald.

Thank you for having me.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.