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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Putting Parents At Ease - More Considerations

Over the weekend, I attended a presentation/discussion in which one person mentioned her impression that bris turns some people off from Judaism. Almost as an aside she said "They think it is barbaric."

It wasn't my forum, so I kept quiet. I have a lot to say on the subject, but it's for a different place. My blog, for example.

Firstly, I don't believe the bris turns people off from Judaism. It's a big world out there. People who are unhappy with Judaism will find any excuse they want.

As far as circumcision being barbaric, that statement is a hard sell in the United States when over 60% of the newborn male population is circumcised - either routinely with a clamp (with or without a local anesthetic), in the O.R. under general anesthesia, or as part of a religious or holistic ceremony - and until relatively recently, over 90% of the newborn male population of this country was circumcised.

The American Choice

In American culture, people have all kinds of reasons for circumcising their sons. I learned about this recently when our son was born, when my wife and I were handed a pamphlet about circumcision which boiled the choices down to two: "to circumcise or not to circumcise; that is the question."

They have a number of reasons why people may opt to circumcise.
* Medical suggestions that urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and other penile illnesses (including STDs) are less common and the penis is less susceptible when circumcised.
* It is easier to clean.
* Family - father and brothers are circumcised
* Cultural - everyone else does it
* Aesthetics - You like the circumcised "look" better than not.
* And, of course, religious reasons.

Reasons not to circumcise include:
* It is healthy tissue which guards a very sensitive area of the body
* No medical benefits if the child is taught how to clean under the foreskin
* Why subject a child to such surgery, which may be unnecessary?

The "barbaric" nature of circumcision is not raised, even if people may personally feel it to be such.

Why Jews Circumcise Their Sons

While the religious reason is most obvious, the best verbal explanation I have heard of late was in the documentary "Partly Private" - a film made by a secular Israeli woman living in NY, who was researching whether or not to circumcise her as-yet-unborn son (they had circumcised his older brother, but were displeased with the experience).

When a number of her Israeli friends gathered to be a sounding board for her deliberations, one of her friends who had become observant said, "If you are deliberating circumcision because you think it is 'barbaric' - you are right. Don't circumcise. But if you have faith in God and understand that this is what God asked of the Jewish people, as this is a mark of the covenant He forged with Abraham, then this is not barbaric. This is an act of love: for your child, for your people, for your God."

He is so right. The reason we circumcise is FAITH.

But it's still BARBARIC, Right?

It really depends on your perspective.

Most medical authorities who deal strictly from a medical perspective (in other words, who do not have an agenda), will argue the benefits versus the risks, the pros versus the cons. Very few will call it a barbaric procedure.

Most people who call it barbaric have an agenda, have an obsession, and find it hard to not think about how life (read "sex") would be different if the parents had not chosen to "make the cut" on them.

And they'll usually show a picture of a red, screaming baby to show the kind of pain a baby feels when undergoing a circumcision.

Before we continue, it is important to understand that there are different kinds of circumcision procedures, and all kinds of situations that can make a baby cry and scream bloody murder.

Setting the record straight

Babies cry. They scream. They can be in all kinds of discomfort. And sometimes there is not much we can do to ease their pain.

Babies who have blood tests, shots, raw diaper rashes, or sometimes just have colic may very well be inconsolable. Would you not have your baby have the necessary blood test or innoculation just so your baby won't ever cry?

Sometimes benefits outweigh the downsides. And sometimes not.

There are some who will argue that babies nerve endings are underdeveloped and so they don't feel the circumcision.

This is a lie.

Babies absolutely feel pain. But they only feel the pain to which they are subjected - and that, only if nothing is done to numb them from the pain. Which brings us to two points worthy of consideration when considering the difference between what is known as "routine circumcision" and a bris (A circ in an O.R. is a completely different story, because once the baby is under general anasthesia, all bets of pain and discomfort are off.)


Click this line to read the article in which it appears: "A mohel does not usually use anesthetic, because his anesthetic is the speed with which he does the circumcision. "

Most routine circumcisions are done elaborately, painstakingly, with a clamp that crushes the skin in order to achieve hemostasis. Since the skin is essentially dead when it is excised, there is usually no bleeding by the time the last skin is removed. Kudos.

Meanwhile, the baby has been in excruciating pain throughout the procedure (which usually takes between 5 and 20 minutes), unless the circumciser has used a penile block (3 injections around the circumference of the penis, along the lower base of the abdomen), to numb the area during the procedure.

3 injections = 3 shots. If your kid screams during one shot, imagine THREE, even if their outcome is a numbing. The shots themselves are painful!

A good mohel is usually done with the procedure, start to finish, in between 5 and 10 seconds. That's less time than it takes to administer the injections. Yes, there is usually a little more blood at a bris (only a little), but the drawing of blood is (like it or not) a necessity for the procedure according to Jewish law. The covenant was forged over blood. (If you like movies, you can see how a covenant is forged over blood in Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood" when he swears to avenge his father's murder in the first quarter of the film - I used to have a link to youtube here, but the video was taken down.)

NUMBING [See this posting - in which I revised what I wrote below - AB, 2012]

I happen to be a fan of numbing the foreskin, but not with injections. I prefer a topical analgesic with a dose of 30% lidocaine + 70% acid mantel cream base, to be applied to the penis at least a half hour before the bris. It doesn't hurt the baby at all in its application, and it does the same thing for the small amount of time it is helpful. Most of the discomfort at the bris comes from being handled, not from the pain of the bris (proof is that the baby usually stops crying once he is no longer being touched).

And even without it, the bris speed is, as mentioned above, its own form of anesthesia.

In Conclusion

If I were not Jewish, would I circumcise my son? Knowing what I know about circumcision, I probably would. My wife would probably not, just because she would not want to subject the baby to a painful experience - even a fleeting one.

As we are Jewish, we agree that we do it because the Torah commands it of us.

I don't think it is a barbaric custom, and I think those who do it properly have a tremendous sense of satisfaction that the baby is well and that the chapter of bris is behind them.

Consider the method and you have your answer. (Clamps, injections, drawn out, hospital v home, physician, resident, mohel, surgery v bris)

And hopefully, if you call me, you'll find what you're looking for in a mohel and you'll uncover the answers to more questions through our conversations.

1 comment:

  1. I totally get this post! As a mom, I was so nervous before my son't bris. You know, the pain and all.

    Before the bris, Rabbi Billet put the numbing antidote on where the circumcision was to take place. I couldn't believe what a difference this made. While the baby did cry during the bris it was more because his diaper was being opened. Nothing more.

    And the actual circumcision part was so fast. It's really done before you (and the baby) know it.

    The specific topical anasthesia that was used is def. the way to go.


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