Foreskin’s lament: Should Jewish males be circumcised?

by Brian on October 6, 2023

in Health,In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Science,Technology

I’m circumcised. So are all the men in my family. We’re Jews. That’s what we do.

At Ilai’s brit milah in 2016

But have we made a terrible mistake?

There is a growing movement around the world for “foreskin regeneration.” An online survey conducted by foreskin “intactavist” Brendon Marotta asked 10,000 circumcised men if they’d be willing to have their circumcision reversed and how much they’d be ready to pay.

Some 40% of circumcised respondents said they wanted their foreskins back. Of these, 22.6% said they would be willing to pay over $20,000 for the procedure. 

Why would men be clamoring for a procedure in such a sensitive area? 

In a word: pleasure. 

The foreskin comprises a third of the skin of the penis – that’s an awful lot of satisfaction being lopped off.

But how would we know? Since most men are circumcised as infants, we don’t have any way to compare before and after. 

Unless you’re a Russian immigrant to Israel.

Circumcision was not as de rigueur in the Former Soviet Union as it is in Israel, where brit milah is a clear Torah commandment. But Russian immigrants who want to convert to Judaism will sometimes get circumcised later in life. 

An article in Haaretz quoted an immigrant named Yuri who was already sexually active before deciding to get circumcised.

“The feeling in the sexual contact was affected, it was wrecked,” Yuri laments. “There was a great deal less sensitivity and I needed a higher level of stimulation. I was 16 and I was an idiot.”

Haaretz’s Hilo Glazer interviewed 50 immigrants who were circumcised only as adults. 

“Seventy percent of them reported that their enjoyment of sexual relations had been adversely affected,” Glazer writes. “Twenty-two percent said there had been a significant decline, 10% said it was medium, and 38% characterized it as a minor drop.”

A survey published in Israel Hayom and conducted by Rosh Yehudi, the NGO that was at the center of controversy on Yom Kippur when it tried to hold gender-segregated prayer in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, found that, while 47.8% of respondents said it was “imperative” to them that their children be circumcised, and an additional 25% said they considered it “important,” 8.4% said it was only “somewhat important” for their children to be circumcised, 11.5% said it “wasn’t important” to them, and 7.3% said they were “opposed” to circumcision.

For Jews considering non-circumcision, an organization called Bruchim promotes an alternative – the brit shalom – which focuses on the ceremony but without the cut. There’s also the website, Beyond the Bristhe 2005 book A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision by Richard Darby; Brendon Marotta’s documentary, American Circumcision; and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David’s novel, To Die in Secret, which highlights as a pivotal plot point a woman debating whether to circumcise her son.

Brit milah has not remained static over the years.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, the version of brit milah practiced today is quite different than what was originally delineated in the Bible. Rather, it is a response to the Greeks, who loathed circumcision.

To participate in Hellenistic sporting tournaments, one had to compete naked. Jews wanted to be a part of the games, too. Some Jewish athletes would systematically weigh their foreskins down with stones so they would appear still intact.

The rabbis, who were against assimilation of any kind, responded by mandating the removal of much more of the foreskin than the Torah originally intended. 

If brit milah was originally the ultimate impossible-to-fake “signal” of belonging to the Jewish tribe, circumcision later became more of a moral imperative. Maimonides wrote, for example, that the purpose of brit milah was to “reduce the pleasure of the sex act.”

The 19th century Victorian- and Edwardian-era English-speaking world concurred, believing circumcision would lessen sexual desire and, as Darby points out, lead to a reduction in masturbation. 

John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes, sadistically claimed that circumcision would make a “good punishment” for boys who play with themselves, and advocated operating without anesthesia.

Circumcision is far from pain-free, regardless of the recipient’s age or state of stupor.

Dr. Daniel Shinhar runs a clinic in Tel Aviv that performs circumcision on infants under sedation. He notes that “the pain of circumcision is equal to that of having a tooth pulled without an anesthetic.” 

On the plus side, circumcision appears to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, prostate cancer and sexually-transmitted diseases such as genital herpes, syphilis and HIV.

While the idea of more pleasure is enticing, I’m not considering reversing my own circumcision. Interested men, however, can turn to a startup called Foregen, which is running clinical trials to re-establish a fully-functioning foreskin.

Foregen creates an extra-cellular matrix – a kind of “scaffolding” made of proteins, carbohydrates, collagen, hyaluronic acid and other biological material formed from donated foreskin tissue.

Foregen then applies different growth factors “to get the tissue revascularized,” Ryan Jones, Foregen’s chief operating officer, told me. 

“If the Israel Hayom-reported data is accurate – that more than 18% of secular Israelis feel circumcision isn’t important or are outright opposed – it shows a surprising lack of support for circumcision among secular Israelis,” Rebecca Wald, executive director of Bruchim, told me. “There’s still widespread endorsement of circumcision, but this definitely indicates the tide is turning.”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call circumcision a “terrible mistake,” perhaps there’s a middle ground for the Jewish baby boys yet to be born.

Could we return to the Biblical, more minimally-invasive method of brit milah that existed before the rabbis and Greeks messed things up? Would that enable greater stimulation without turning non-circumcised males into Israeli locker room oddities? 

Or should we just not touch the whole sensitive topic?

I first wrote about foreskins for The Jerusalem Post.

“Foreskin’s Lament” is the title of a wonderful memoir by Shalom Auslander.

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