Tuesday, January 18, 2011

She'elot U'teshuvot Notorious # 3 - Reversing Circumcision (Ouch!)

Now the third in a series of responsa that I have written to questions submitted. And once again, you'll see why those who ask questions like this choose me to ask...

She'elah: Clint (not real name; how many Jews do YOU know named Clint?) is wondering whether circumcision is such a good thing. Specifically, he is exploring a procedure through which circumcision can be "reversed" and asked what the Jewish attitude would be. He suggests that this procedure might enhance feelings during sex.



Teshuva: This is not as far-fetched a question as one might think. Nor is it a new one. Back in the time of the Hellenists (think Maccabee revolt and the era just before as well as several centuries after), historical sources indicate that many Jews underwent a procedure through which they would appear uncircumcised. This was in response to the Greek abhorance of the having the tip of the penis exposed, as a circumcised penis would be when Jews participated in the gymnasium and athletic games with the local Greeks.

First, the basis of circumcision is quite ancient. In the Bible, Abraham is commanded by God to circumcise himself, his sons, and the males of his household. This commandment is one of the few given in the book of Bereshit / Genesis. It is not viewed as a secular medical procedure, but as berit mila, a covenant of circumcision. Interpretations of the mitzvah abound, but at the very least, it is a symbol of a covenant between God and the males of the people Israel.

There have been attempts to link the practice to health benefits. Indeed some research has noted that circumcised males are less susceptible to certain diseases (including AIDS). Still, there have been medical opinions lined up supporting routine circumcision and opposing it over the years. At the same time, while the vast majority of practicing Jews insist on circumcision (either as a ritual or as a medical operation done to align with tradition), there have been some voices of opposition to the practice.

From a traditional point of view, however, it is clear that the mitzvah of berit milah remains intact (even as the foreskin doesn't... Sorry, couldn't resist).

Now for the question of reversal. The Hellenistic Jews in ancient time appeared to have sometimes undergone a procedure called epispasm to "undo" the circumcision. Clint indicated that he was looking into a non-surgical procedure that, in my opinion, looks a little like something that might have been used to torture prisoners-of-war prior to the Geneva Convention.

In truth, there is a mitzvah to circumsize one's son (or one's self later in life, if parents have not had that done for him). Which may not mean that one has to have a circumcised penis throughout his life. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the midrash are outspoken in their criticism of those who underwent epispasm to hide or "reverse" their circumcision.

In conclusion then, my humble opinion is that, at the very least, one who chooses to undergo either a surgical procedure, or the tortorous one that Clint told me about, acts against the rabbinic disparagement towards those who did so from ancient times until today. And the method described by Clint appears to me to cause needless pain to the human body, with unproven medical (or sexual) benefits.

But I love Clint and my other peeps. Keep the questions coming!