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A Sensitive Issue

In a new documentary, the circumcision debate comes to a head

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still from 'Cut'
Still from Cut

While still the norm in the United States, circumcision is an increasingly controversial topic, the subject of fervid debate among anxious parents-to-be (and an everlasting source for gags on sitcoms). To Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, who spent his childhood in a Modern Orthodox household in Brookline, Massachusetts, and his teens in Israel, circumcision was just another in the collection of rites he grew up with—until a close look at a cousin’s bris left him startled. After dropping out of medical school to pursue filmmaking, he made circumcision the subject of his first documentary feature, Cut, and found the topic rich with religious, medical, and moral questions. The film has been shown at JCCs and colleges in Chicago and New York over the past year.

Among the people he interviewed—rabbis, doctors, parents, anti-circumcision activists, an anthropologist, a professor of ethics, his own father and brother, and even a man who reconstructed his own foreskin—several make provocative cases against circumcision, arguing that it is a human rights violation, that any medical benefits have not been satisfactorily proven, and that the procedure is agonizing and ultimately diminishes sexual pleasure. But Ungar-Sargon, now twenty-eight, makes the point viscerally as much as intellectually: there’s an excruciating close-up of the snip itself.

When did you start thinking about circumcision?

It was the first time I saw metzitza ba peh, the oral to genital suction that some Jews insist on. I was right there, and when the mohel came back up he had blood on his beard. And it was that image, really, that got me thinking about circumcision in a critical way. I was fifteen.

Do you think circumcision is a different issue for Jews and for non-Jews?

There’s so much people don’t know about the effects of circumcision and the normal physiology of the foreskin. But of course it’s different for Jews. There are different cultural and religious connotations. What’s not different are the ethical and human rights issues. I’ve heard people who’ve come out of the film say, “Well, you have to understand, Jews have a different ethical imperative because they’re in this covenant with God.” To me, that doesn’t work.

You have an ethical argument, based on secular humanist principles from the Enlightenment, that says every individual should have a right to make important decisions about his body, and you shouldn’t be imposing that on someone else. And you have the Jewish tradition, on the other hand, saying this has to be done to an eight-day-old baby. What do you do when the Jewish tradition conflicts with ethics?

Many Jews who otherwise don’t concern themselves with being actively religious circumcise their sons, like the couple that you follow in the film.

Protester Dan Strandjord, from 'Cut'
At left, anti-circumcision activist Dan Strandjord

Circumcision is so much a part of American culture right now that the vast majority of people do not even think about it. It’s so integrated that the person who delivers your child is often the person who circumcises him. And for the couple in my film, the only question was whether they’d do it with a mohel or in a hospital.

Their son’s bris is seen in closeup at the end of the film. Were you at all concerned about casting a light of barbarism onto a Jewish tradition?

If people see this and decide that they think it’s barbaric, I think that’s a legitimate conclusion. That “don’t air our dirty laundry” approach is anathema to anything I believe in. There are certain things about the way my tradition is implemented that make me ashamed every day, but I’m not ashamed of the essence of the Jewish tradition.

In the film you show a circumcised and uncircumcised penis next to each other, suggesting that what is familiar to many is, in fact, damage.

I have a close friend who refuses to see the film because we had a conversation about it once, and apparently he had some problems for a week after just thinking about the possibility that he might be damaged.

They’ve done studies about sexual preference among American women, and of course, most of them prefer circumcised. What that means, if you actually understand what a circumcised penis is, is that they find scar tissue more attractive and more sexually appealing than regular healthy tissue. What does that say about how deeply we can incorporate a practice into our culture?

What do you think about the conservative rabbi in your film who says that mystery is part of religion, that some rites aren’t comprehensible to us but we are obligated to perform them out of faith?

What’s a lot more important and a lot more interesting about the Jewish tradition is the emphasis on the human enterprise. There’s a famous story in the Gemara in which a whole beth medrash is arguing with this rabbi named Eliezer. And he’s like, “I’m going to prove to you that I’m right.” So he makes all these weird things happen—he makes a tree jump back twenty paces, and he makes a stream start flowing backward and he makes the walls start to shake. Finally he says, “God’s going to tell you now that I’m right.” And a voice comes out of Heaven and says, “Rabbi Eliezer is right.” The other rabbis say, “Sorry, the Torah’s not in Heaven.” And God laughs and says, “My children have vanquished me.” That’s the Jewish tradition. It’s not about abdicating your will to God; it’s about wrestling with these issues.

You interviewed several doctors who perform circumcisions, but none actually argued in favor of it.

I hadn’t vetted them prior to interviewing them, and I really didn’t know what they were going to say. And I specifically went to doctors who performed circumcisions because I was looking for balance. It was surprising to me too.

still from 'Cut'
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon and Dr. Julian Ungar-Sargon

Your father’s perspective on Jewish ritual seems to shift by the end of the film. He says, “I hope that my children follow their hearts’ desire, wherever it may take them, however painful it may be. The autonomy and freedom to choose is more important to me for my children than my own emotional benefit from having my family all practicing the rite.”

He surprised me in a really great way. And very shortly after I finished the film, he had his first grandson. My sister had a baby boy, and of course there was a bris, and he was a wreck. He said to me, “You know, it was your film that got me to think about what this is like from the baby’s perspective.”

My mother refused to be in the film. She’s a religious fundamentalist.

Do you envision Judaism doing away with circumcision?

I don’t have solutions. All I can do is say where I’m at and how I deal. And how I deal is with this concept that I introduce at the very end of the film, of religious disobedience. I feel most Jewish when I’m saying I’m not going to do X ritual, for this really good reason. Shalom Auslander said at the end of an interview with Terry Gross, “We finally went through with the circumcision, and I heard my son screaming from behind the hospital door, and the moment he became a Jew was the moment I felt least like one.”

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A Sensitive Issue

In a new documentary, the circumcision debate comes to a head

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