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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The moment gets closer. I check to see if my wife has arrived with the baby. Perhaps she hasn’t, perhaps she’s made good on her half-joking comment that she would just run off with him and disappear. How wonderful that would be.

We wait, nervously, fellow fathers who’ve also been here before checking in with me, seeing how I’m feeling. “Kierkegaardian” is all I can respond.

Kierkegaard wrestled with the binding of Isaac, with the absurd God who demands that we abandon the ethical plane. He knew this was too much, and it hounded him. I never really got his resolution, his talk of the necessary leap into the absurd, of that being the true faith. I mean, I see that faith is often a leap, but I’m not sure it’s that kind of leap. And I get that the ethical is not always everything, that it is sometimes suspended in a clash of values. But not here, not like this.

The baby is coming into the room. “Just call it off. Stop the whole thing,” I find myself thinking. I have a vision of acting on this, of carrying it out, of sending everyone home. How would people respond? Would we have the capacity as a group to handle this, to process it?

Circumcision is the great unspoken, the great unconsidered. It’s only ever on anyone’s mind for a few days, and then, as evidence of how painful it is, it is forgotten. If it were in our face as a community regularly, repeatedly, like women’s issues or homosexuality, then I feel more objections might gather, some kind of outrage might start to brew. But it leaves us quickly, and perhaps as lone individuals, as troubled parents, we aren’t given enough room to think about it.

I don’t stop it. I can’t stop it. The baby arrives; we still haven’t named him. Would it be harder to do this if he already had a name, if we’d really come to terms with his individuality?

I hold him. I gaze at him and ask for forgiveness. What on earth am I doing here?

I put him on the chair, and the prayers begin. But I’m not letting go of him. I hold his hand; I try to be there for him, to retain the connection. If the idea is that I should renounce him, that my bond to him should weaken, I’m not having that. No way.

I noticed myself subtly withdrawing from him on the previous day, feeling slightly less close to him. That’s me defending myself, trying to ease the pain, trying to loosen the grip of horror. I’m sure I’ve done that before, but I’m now better trained to notice it.

No, this is my son, our son. We brought him into the world to care for him and love him, and we will not go back on that, we won’t abandon him or offer him up. I will stay close to him, and whatever pain he feels, I will feel.

People said I should look away. Are you kidding? I should put him through that and I shouldn’t even be strong enough to actually watch it, to witness it? That would be disgusting — cowardly, hypocritical, shameful.


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