Ethics & Religion

A story of shame

Sometimes there are things we’ve done that are hard to forget, let alone forgive.

I was born in the UK to Jewish parents and raised moderately religiously in Judaism. If you think of the spectrum of religious observance as from zero to 100 per cent then my family was at about 70 per cent. I am now at zero per cent.

Recently I heard a quote: “Far better to have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

The latter part of that quote fairly accurately sums up my Jewish education. I’ve never been able to accept what I’m told at face value. Things have to make sense to me. I value rationality. In response to my various questions while growing up, the usual answers from both my father and our rabbi included: “Because I said so” or “That’s how it has been for thousands of years” or “Do you think you know better than all those prominent rabbis?”

My journey to rationalism and atheism took several decades while I worked to shake off my indoctrination. One of my main objections to Judaism’s commandments concerns brit milah, the ritual circumcision of male babies at the age of one week.

I married and fathered two beautiful daughters. It was a significant relief for me not to have fathered a son. You cannot possibly imagine the opprobrium I would have faced from the entire family had I even dared to mention the possibility of not circumcising a baby boy something like the outbreak of WWIII.

Fast forward 30-plus years. Daughter number one was married to a Jewish man, pregnant and expecting a boy. I discussed with her my thoughts about brit milah and tried to talk her out of it. Out of respect for her I will not state here her counter-arguments because: (i) this is not about her; and (ii) she might find and read this (though I probably won’t show it to her). Suffice to say I was not able to convince her, and I regret very much not having tried harder.

My first grandchild, a boy, was born and arrangements were duly made for his circumcision.

I need to go off on a tangent here to provide some background for non-Jewish readers. There is a wide spectrum of levels of observance amongst Jewish people in terms of kashrut (eating only kosher food), honouring the Shabbat (avoiding work, driving and many other things on the Sabbath) and all of the other 613 (!) commandments. There is a phrase “three-day-a-year Jews” which refers to those who observe only Rosh Hashana (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) but have given up all or most of the other observances. Some go a stage further and do not observe even these holy days, but almost without exception they will still have their baby boys circumcised. For reasons that are a mystery to me, this archaic and barbaric practice seems to be the last bastion of their Jewishness.

It frustrates me to think about this. I have used my sceptical brain to consider and analyse the Judaism I was taught and I’ve managed to escape from it. I believe I have a reasonable average level of intelligence – certainly not any exceptional intellect.

So if I can see through this commitment to male circumcision, why can’t others? Apart from the egregious infringement of human rights and bodily autonomy, it just seems so totally daft to believe that removing part of the penis of a week-old baby boy can be a good thing.

Apart from the egregious infringement of human rights and bodily autonomy, it just seems so totally daft to believe that removing part of the penis of a week-old baby boy can be a good thing.

But, back to my grandson. The brit milah is performed by a strictly orthodox Jewish man known as a mohel who has been trained and licensed to perform the procedure. The mohel is not necessarily a medical practitioner but in the case of my daughter’s son he’s a local GP. Women, including the baby’s mother, are sent into another room while the procedure takes place. A brit milah is an occasion for a party for family and friends, food and drink are provided, and there are boisterous greetings of mazal tov! (congratulations) when the deed has been done.

The role of holding the baby during the procedure (known as the sandek) is traditionally considered an honour offered to one of the grandfathers. In this case, the other grandfather was in a distant land, and I was asked to do it. It is to my enormous shame and everlasting regret that I agreed to do so.

So I sit on a chair with a pillow on my lap. The baby is placed on the pillow with his head against my belly and legs facing away from me. I am instructed to hold his legs apart with knees bent. The mohel dips his little finger first into a cup of wine and then into the baby’s mouth. With the baby’s nappy opened, the mohel extends the foreskin, places a clip over it, and makes a swift, practised cut with a scalpel.

So far, nothing unexpected I’ve seen it done at least once before. However, the next bit takes me totally by surprise. The mohel bends forward, takes the now-detached foreskin into his mouth and expels it into a tissue, before putting a dressing on the penis and fastening the nappy. At this point I am so gobsmacked that I don’t even raise any objection. Even though horrified, I just sit pathetically silent while my grandson is taken from me and handed to his mother to be fed.

That was nearly 15 years ago. For many years I was overcome with remorse and shame that I had behaved in a way so totally contrary to my beliefs. (There were reasons which I won’t state here, based on family circumstances, that I can use to rationalise and try to excuse my involvement. Also, I was aware that the decision to circumcise was not mine to make, and that it would happen with or without my involvement and with or without my presence.) But it affected me so adversely that I attended several sessions of counselling to help me to deal with it.

Counselling did help to some extent. But, to this day, I feel profoundly ashamed that I lacked the strength to resist my childhood indoctrination into religion and most likely always will. It’s impossible to describe just how much I wish there were some way to go back in time by 15 years.

I try to live a decent life, but this feels like a terrible stain I will never ever be able to eradicate.


Same daughter later divorced, and was subsequently dating another Jewish man. I had a long conversation with her about all the above. I told her that if she continues seeing him and if she has a child with him and if the child is a boy and if he is to be circumcised then I will have no part in it and will not even be present.

By that time she was more receptive to my previous arguments and beginning to see the light. This only reinforced for me that I really should have tried much harder while my grandson was still in utero. As it turns out she did not have any more children.

Later, daughter number two became pregnant and I spoke to her about this same issue. I explained that if she has a boy and intends to have him circumcised I will neither take part nor even be present. I felt the need to explain in advance in the hope that she would not feel less favourably treated than her older sister. She did indeed give birth to a boy (and later a girl), but fortunately there was no need for me to be concerned she has little or no interest in religion.

Small steps …

I have just become a member of RSA because I approve of what they stand for. I especially favour any action possible to prevent religious parents from continuing the practice of non-therapeutic circumcision of male babies.


This article was originally published in the March 2020 edition (vol. 116) of Australian Rationalist.

Photo by Blake Campbell on Unsplash


About Jeff Lerner

Jeff Lerner is a retired pharmacist, an occupation requiring precision and attention to detail, which also equips him to be somewhat pedantic about language.

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