Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon on Cut Podcast

Jewish Perspectives
Vol. 9
No. 1
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
Thu, 12/08/2011
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Jewish filmmaker. PHOTO/James Loewen

My name is Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon and I’m an independent filmmaker. I grew up as an Orthodox Jew and circumcision has always been a part of the fabric of my reality. As it happens, I also went to Medical School before deciding to become a filmmaker. In 2007, I completed my first feature-length documentary film, Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision. Male circumcision is a taboo subject in the United States and when the film was first released, we ran into some cultural resistance. It was very well-received by critics, but finding an audience for it proved to be a challenge. We had a number of high-profile screenings, but the distribution process always felt a little like moving mountains. Four years later, while the cultural taboo still exists, it seems to be losing its grip a little. People seem more willing to discuss circumcision openly and though it’s still a hard sell, the culture seems ready to start reexamining this ubiquitous practice.

Earlier this summer, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a celebrity Rabbi and host of TLC’s reality show, “Shalom in the the Home,” challenged Lloyd Schofield, a San Francisco resident and proponent of a ballot initiative that would have made the non-therapeutic circumcision of minors illegal in his city, to a debate on circumcision. Schofield declined. At the behest of a childhood friend and being aware of Boteach’s challenge, I stepped into the fray and proposed to Boteach that he debate me instead. Much to my surprise, he agreed. To my chagrin, and in violation of a written agreement, after the debate was over, Boteach refused to provide me with a copy of the video that his people had shot of the event. Luckily, I had made my own audio recording and I proceeded to post it on the internet. Upon hearing the debate, my brother, Naftali, echoing a general dissatisfaction with Boteach’s performance, exclaimed that I needed to find better opponents. I took this as a worthy challenge and the Cut Podcast was born.

The idea initially was to seek out thoughtful and intelligent people who disagreed with my opposition to circumcision in order to explore our differences. In the first post-debate episode, I had a discussion with my friend Jeff Helmreich, a UCLA graduate student in Philosophy, about a famous paper on circumcision in the bioethics literature. We discussed the merits and shortcomings of the arguments presented and I exposed Jeff to some of the latest research on the functions of the foreskin. Shortly after, the Cut Tour began and the podcast came to serve as documentation of the often lively Q&A sessions. Moreover, as the tour progressed, we started having post-screening panel discussions with experts. In Austin Texas, Janet Heimlich, author of “Breaking Their Wills,” a book about religious child abuse, joined me. At the Washington DC screening, Ryan McAllister, a Georgetown researcher and Rabbi Binyamin Biber, a Secular Humanist Rabbi, were on the panel. In Montreal, an Orthodox Rabbi came and the panel discussion evolved into a respectful debate about the religious significance of circumcision in the Jewish tradition.

In addition to these panels, I continued producing special episodes where I discussed a particular aspect of circumcision with an individual guest. In Atlanta, I recorded an episode with Aubrey Taylor about the effects of circumcision on heterosexual sex from the female perspective. I also recorded an episode with David Llewelyn, there, on circumcision and US Law. In Boston, I had a conversation with Ronald Goldman about the psychological consequences of circumcision. And in Chicago, in keeping with the original mission of the podcast, I interviewed Richard Shweder, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Chicago and is a known defender of both male and female genital cutting practices. By the end of the Tour, the Cut Podcast had grown to over 40 episodes and climbed the iTunes charts to become one of the most popular podcasts on circumcision.

I have every intention to continue producing new episodes of the Cut Podcast, albeit at a somewhat slower pace now that the tour is over. Circumcision is a deep subject and the truth of the matter is that there’s still a great deal that we don’t know about it. It is my fervent hope that the Cut Podcast will serve both as a resource and an inspiration for further work on this under-discussed and important issue.