A Father's Pain at Overseeing Son's Circumcision

Ancient Ritual Isn't Easy — Even for an Orthodox Man

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By Elie Jesner

Published May 07, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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I’m in the shower at 6 a.m. with a sick feeling in my gut. Today, my 8-day-old son is going to be circumcised.

This is my third round, and many people told me this time would be easier — and being an Orthodox Jew who embraces ritual in his life, you’d think it would be. But it isn’t. The first time was bad, but it all happened quite quickly so there wasn’t time for the horror to build up. I don’t remember the second one so clearly, only that it wasn’t good.

But this time I’ve felt especially close to the baby, spending the first few hours of his life alone with him while my wife was rushed into surgery for a minor emergency procedure. And my life is different now. I’m three years into my psychotherapy training, I’m more in touch with my nurturing instincts.

So it feels really alien to choose to inflict pain upon my son, to put him through the trauma of a minor procedure without anaesthetic.

Why am I doing this? What has possessed me?

God apparently told Abraham to do it, to walk before Him and be perfect.

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I don’t feel perfect. I feel far from perfect.

We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

I don’t buy that argument. Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women.

That is not a club of actions I want to be part of: I believe in moral progress, in the continuous unfolding of values, in progressive enlightenment and revelation. When we justify with reference to precedent, when we cede the authority of our own heart and conscience, that is when we begin to step into darkness; that is when we unleash all manner of regressive passions and practices upon the world.

I don’t live that way, I don’t want to live that way, I don’t ultimately believe anyone should live that way.

I’m confused.

I stand in silence during the Amidah hoping for inspiration, for some clarity or ease of mind. But the torment increases, more than ever I don’t know who I’m praying to; the source of value and truth in the world is hidden. Where a bright light normally shines there is today merely darkness and clouds. I am abandoned, adrift, cut off from the root of life.


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