NEW YORK (Reuters) - In most respects, Michelle Chernikoff Anderson is a rabbi’s dream congregant. She sings in the choir and takes classes at her synagogue.
But, like an increasing number of Jews in the United States, she has decided not to circumcise her son, rejecting the traditional notion that it is a Biblically prescribed sign of the Jewish relationship with God.
“I see circumcision as a blood ritual that I can let go of,” said Anderson, who lives in Southern California.
Her position is in harmony with a wider decline in circumcision in the United States.
About 85 percent of all American boy babies were circumcised at its peak in 1965, according to a National Opinion Research Center survey.
By 2004, it had fallen to about 57 percent, reflecting the increased birth rate among Hispanics, who are less likely to circumcise their sons, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
“Circumcision’s out of the closet. It’s not a taboo subject anymore. People are talking about it. Parents are talking about it,” said Dr. Mark Reiss, a synagogue-goer in the San Francisco area and executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision.
Among those talking about it is a gaggle of young, male, Jewish commentators. This year alone, in books, online and in magazines, authors Neal Pollack, Sam Apple, Jonathan Safran Foer and Shalom Auslander have all fretted about doing to their sons what was done to them. The title of Auslander’s memoir, scheduled for publication in October, is “Foreskin’s Lament.”
Circumcision is even before the courts. In November, the Oregon Supreme Court will rule on whether a convert to Judaism can force his 12-year-old son to undergo the procedure.
Reiss, who calls himself an “intactivist,” maintains a roster of 50 officiants who conduct nonsurgical alternatives to the bris, traditionally performed on the eighth day after a boy’s birth. He says he fields as many as five queries weekly from conflicted parents.
At the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, director Ron Goldman maintains a list of 400 names of Jews who refuse to circumcise their sons.
Reiss and Goldman question circumcision’s purported health benefits, such as lower rates of penile cancer and the recent reports that it can halve men’s risk of HIV infection.
“Circumcision has always been the panacea for the disease of the decade,” Reiss said, noting that non-Jews first adopted it to reduce masturbation, thought to cause syphilis.
Also, they think any benefits are outweighed by the risks, which include shock from blood loss, antibiotic-resistant infections and even death.
Such incidents are extremely rare, said Dr. Jack Swanson of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Between two and six infant boys experience complications per thousand circumcisions, but those are usually minor bleeding or treatable infections.
Under a trained professional, the risk to the child is “infinitesimal,” said Conservative Rabbi Joel Roth.
“Jews have given their lives for circumcision more than for any other (religious obligation) and that’s why it has become so defining an act of membership,” said Roth.
Islam has no comparable movement against circumcision, said Batool Al-Toma of the New Muslims Project. Most converts undergo the procedure, although Islam waives the requirement, said University of Colorado religion professor Frederick Denny.
Michael Young, a convert to Islam, had his infant son circumcised but did not undergo the procedure himself. “I’m very squeamish and hate the thought of it,” he said.
Judaism is divided on the matter of converts. Reform Judaism does not require it, Orthodox and Conservative movements do.
Circumcision’s detractors also claim the procedure reduces sexual sensation and endurance.
“I haven’t attempted foreskin restoration surgery, but I’ve thought about it,” said Matthew Taylor, an active Bay Area Jew who resents his own circumcision and who preaches on the evils of the practice to Jewish friends .
But author Julius Lester, who became a Reform convert to Judaism in 1982 and underwent circumcision to feel Jewish, said the procedure also boosted his sex life.
“Circumcised there are far more subtle sensations, and staying power is much, much longer,” he said. “From a sexual point of view, I wish I’d gotten circumcised many years earlier.”
Anderson is torn between a desire to protect her son’s privacy and what she thinks may be a religious duty to discuss her decision not to circumcise.
“Hey, it’s my son’s penis, it’s not mine to discuss in the same way it’s not mine to cut. But at the same time, I feel like maybe I have an obligation to share.”
The writer, Helen Chernikoff, is not related to Michelle Chernikoff Anderson.