Weighing Pain of Circumcision for Baby

As Debate Rages Over Rite, Some Try To Ease Infant's Pain

Ancient Ritual: Cantor Philip L. Sherman performs a bris at a Long Island synagogue.
Courtesy of WNET
Ancient Ritual: Cantor Philip L. Sherman performs a bris at a Long Island synagogue.

By Paul Berger

Published September 10, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Isaac is cradled in his grandfather’s arms. In the space of a few minutes, the Orthodox ritual circumciser, or mohel, separates the foreskin from the head of Isaac’s penis, pulls the skin forward and inserts a metal shield that protects his penis while his foreskin is cut off. No anesthetic is used.

Meanwhile, Joseph is strapped down to a special mattress by a Reform mohel who injects an anesthetic into the base of his penis. During the following 10 minutes, the tip of his penis is covered by a bell-shaped clamp; the foreskin is sliced, pulled back over the clamp and cut off.

At such a young age, do Isaac or Joseph feel pain? And if so, how do their circumcisers feel about the pain they inflict? Are there moral issues in play here? Are some methods of circumcision more humane than others?

As Europeans and some Americans debate the acceptability of circumcision, the question of pain has surfaced as one of the key reasons opponents cite to ban this ancient religious practice. Those who perform Jewish ritual circumcision — brit milah — say they are concerned about pain, too, but have very different methods of minimizing it, depending on religious denomination.

Proponents of circumcision were given a major boost in August, when the American Academy of Pediatrics released its revised guidelines on male circumcision, stressing the medical benefits of the procedure in reducing the incidence of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

But the AAP guidelines also stressed the importance of “effective pain management,” particularly local anesthetic or anesthetic creams, neither of which is used regularly by most Orthodox mohels. Nonmedical techniques alone, the AAP guidelines said, “are insufficient to prevent procedural and postprocedural pain and are not recommended as the sole method of analgesia.”

Physicians, a number of whom practice as Reform mohels, say there is no question that infants feel pain. Reform mohel Steve Lerman, a pediatric urologist at University of California, Los Angeles, says that studies during the 1980s and ’90s showed that every pain indicator — heart rate, breathing rate, crying — is heightened in infants circumcised without anesthetic.

“There absolutely is anguish and pain that can occur from this,” Lerman said, “and any schmuck who tries to tell you they’re too young, they won’t feel it — that’s a bunch of bulls–t.”

Lerman, who performs secular circumcisions at UCLA Medical Center and ritual circumcisions in people’s homes, uses anesthetic every time. First he secures the baby into a circumstraint, a foam board with straps to hold down arms and legs (Lerman says he uses only the leg restraints). He injects Lidocaine into the base of the baby’s penis at the front and back. After about 10 minutes, when the area is numb, he fits a device called a Gomco clamp over the penis. Over the next 10 minutes, he performs the procedure.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.