Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective

Author: Ronald Goldman, Ph.D.

Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. By Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. Boston: Vanguard Publications, 1998. 888-445-5199. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Ronald Goldman’s second book, Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, follows on the heels of his masterpiece Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. While the earlier book provided a stunning, magisterial overview of the entire subject of circumcision, this slimmer volume focuses on a more specialized analysis of the procedure from a Jewish point of view.

Goldman again succeeds at integrating emotional, psychological, scientific, and humanistic considerations while surveying the great diversity of attitudes held toward this procedure among Jews. He reveals and meticulously documents a number of surprising facts which contravene widely held beliefs about the subject. Far from enjoying a consensus within the Jewish community, circumcision has not always been practiced by all Jews. As early as the 1840’s, leaders of the Reform movement tried to stop circumcision. In the 1860’s, a group of sixty-six Jewish physicians opposed the practice. The procedure as performed today in the United States is much more extensive than the original circumcisions, which merely removed the very tip of the foreskin. These changes and conflicts suggest that the supposed Jewish mandate for circumcision may be suspect.

Goldman discusses and questions a number of suggested benefits to Jewish males of the procedure. Although many believe circumcision necessary for Jewish survival and identity, under Jewish law, any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not. While the procedure is often suggested to promote connection with other Jews, Goldman notes that the extreme discomfort and anxiety often provoked by circumcision may actually inhibit connection. Crisply summarizing some of the highlights from his earlier book, Goldman notes that health claims are highly speculative at best, and pain research has proven the extreme trauma suffered by the infant boy. Behavioral changes have been documented to follow most circumcisions, as boys become very irritable and interruption occurs to parent-infant bonding and feeding schedules.

Goldman writes that unrecognized consequences of the procedure may include promotion of a negative attitude to male sexuality. The personal stories by circumcised men and by mothers and fathers are quite moving. Some parents came to deeply regret their decision to circumcise while others feel gratified that they reached eleventh- hour determinations not to carry out the procedure.

Goldman takes the offensive later in the book, suggestion that the Torah’s commandment against assaulting another person actually forbids circumcision. He notes that blind conformance to authority is antithetical to Jewish values, and many potential benefits of foregoing circumcision exist. An appendix contains Goldman’s response to traditionalist supporters of the procedure, which is drawn entirely from passages in the Torah.

In Goldman’s discussion of Jewish men’s views of Jewish women, I was troubled by his inability to transcend standard views of misogyny while failing to also consider possible misandry, as I was by his repetition of the big lie that men commit most domestic violence. Nevertheless, future research needs to be carried out in accordance with his insightful suggestion that many Jewish men may harbor anger toward Jewish women due to their circumcisions, for which they may subconsciously hold their mothers primarily responsible. From the infant’s perspective, Goldman notes, he is experiencing betrayal by his mother at a most vulnerable time in his life.

Goldman includes several useful appendices including two mothers’ stories, a discussion of circumcision and anti-Semitism, and sample alternative rituals in which the baby’s foreskin is not touched. Ronald Goldman has gifted us with his second tightly reasoned, impeccably documented, and heartfully written book about a procedure which should be of concern to all men and women who care about children or society, whatever your faith may be.