A father's dilemma - Times LIVE
Fri Mar 24 08:11:58 SAST 2017

A father's dilemma

Jake Wallis Simons | 2012-08-06 00:40:51.0
A rabbi holds his eight-day-old grandson during a circumcision ceremony in Brussels, Belgium Picture: FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS

Circumcision has for centuries been a fundamental marker of Jewish identity. The Hebrew word for circumcision is brit , which means a "covenant" between man and God.

For Jews, this is a covenant with heritage. I understand this perhaps more keenly than most. My mother is Jewish, and my father is not. I was five when my parents divorced, and after that my mother brought an increasingly observant form of Judaism into our lives.

Within a few years, we were submerged in an Orthodox way of life. There was one problem. I wasn't circumcised.

I can recall the pain of the operation, which I underwent at age eight. I remember having to sleep with a tower of milk crates on either side of me to keep the sheets off the wound. Urinating was painful. Walking was painful.

Thankfully, no lasting damage was done. Though some men are said to mourn the loss of their foreskin, it has never concerned me.

In many ways, I was lucky. Due to my age - traditionally, Jewish boys are circumcised just eight days after birth - my operation was carried out under general anaesthetic in hospital, by a Jewish doctor who had trained as a circumciser. Many Orthodox Jewish babies suffer harsher treatment. Whereas most liberal-minded Jews have the procedure done under local anaesthetic, the orthodox community remove the foreskins without pain relief.

Apologists for unanaesthetised circumcision claim that the boy will not remember it when he grows up. Can we seriously be asked to believe that taking a scalpel to a baby's genitals causes no damage? And isn't cutting off part of an infant's body without pain relief criminal?

When my son, Isaac, was born in 2009, it was our turn to confront the dilemma. Traditional circumcision was out of the question. But what about having it done under anaesthetic?

My wife and I are not religious, and we are both in touch with our non-Jewish heritage (she is half-Jewish, too). Nevertheless, I am fiercely proud of my Jewish identity. There was a powerful emotional pull towards circumcision, which I can only liken to a sort of gravity, drawing me back to my roots. It also felt important to have a son who looked like his father, and who wore the permanent mark of his heritage.Pushing in the opposite direction was the urge not to cause our boy pain. Our minds were made up by a reluctance to make the decision on Isaac's behalf.

I would like to be able to end by saying I am at peace with this decision. But I am not. After all, I have allowed this covenant to die in my hands. Yet I comfort myself with the thought that this emotional and moral dissonance is, perhaps, the price of living on the cusp of a new time. And I am proud that my wife and I have not caused Isaac any unnecessary pain. We've allowed him the freedom to decide.

In the Bible, Isaac was placed on a sacrificial altar by his father Abraham, who was under filicidal instructions from the Lord.

In the event, an angel stayed his hand; it had all been a test of faith. Had I been in Abraham's place, I would have failed the test, and I would have taken pride in that. God, hear this: when my Isaac grows into a man, I will be able to look him in the eye. - ©The Daily Telegraph

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