A Jewish Perspective on Circumcision: SF Weekly Talks to Cut Director Eli Ungar-Sargon

By Ellen Huet Thu., Sep. 22 2011 at 7:30 AM
Categories: Religion
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

Eli Ungar-Sargon was raised in an Orthodox household, with rabbis in the family and a Talmudic scholar father. But Ungar-Sargon, who dropped out of medical school to pursue a film career, struggled to reconcile Jewish traditions and ethical questions, especially regarding ritual circumcision, or brit milah. 

It was Ungar-Sargon’s — who believes circumcision should be banned — own questions about the religious practice which eventually led him to make his first major documentary, Cut, in 2007. In the wake of San Francisco’s controversial initiative to ban circumcision, Bay Area intactivists and The WHOLE Network, a grassroots organization dedicated to providing information on circumcision, are sponsoring a nationwide tour of the film.

Ungar-Sargon chatted with SF Weekly about his film, which will be featured in San Francisco on October 29 at Ninth Street Independent Film Center.

This is a film you made several years ago, but you’re touring with it now. Why?

The film had a nice little life and very well received critically, but there wasn’t a lot of interest in 2007. We held screenings in a number of places, but the issue didn’t have as much traction then as it has gotten over the last year. There’s been an intense media attention being paid to circumcision largely due to the ballot initiative in San Francisco. Film festivals started approaching us and asking to show it, and the WHOLE Network was interested in doing a tour.

It seems like your film is a personal story as well, in terms of how you were raised and your personal relationship to Judaism.

The experience that got me thinking about circumcision specifically was when I was a teenager and I was given the honor of being the sandek [person who holds the baby] at someone’s bris. I remember holding the baby, the mohel said the blessing, made the cut, and he puts his head down and sucks the wound, comes back up and has blood on his beard.

I just felt there was something very wrong here; it was very disturbing to me. A few years later during medical school, I started to gain an appreciation for scientific perspective and continued my interest in circumcision by investigating some of the claimed health benefits. When I dropped out to be a filmmaker, I thought the subject was interesting and could also be a way of exploring the thing that I’d been struggling with since I was a teen: How do you come to terms with some of the more problematic elements in your religious tradition?

What are the main tenets of your film?

The basic idea is: This is a decision that should be made by an individual, not for an individual. I also accept the notion that the foreskin is not just a piece of skin; it has very important sexual functions. Therefore, the consequences of circumcising an infant are not just the pain that is inflicted on that infant, but there are lifelong sexual consequences to being circumcised.

What do you think are some of the most compelling moments of your film?

The emotional core of the film is the developing conversation that I have with my dad over the course of making the film. There’s a back-and-forth that goes on over the subject of circumcision and what it means for Jews, like what it would mean for him if I didn’t circumcise my son — and that made him very upset. There’s an evolution of our relationship over the course of the film.

In terms of memorable moments, there’s a very graphic circumcision at the end. I follow an average Jewish-American family from the end of their pregnancy to the birth of their boy and his circumcision. In my mind they’re emblematic of the average Jewish-American family — not strongly affiliated, not really practicing much, but this is important to them. The circumcision scene, about two-thirds of the way through the film, is very powerful — it’s probably seven or eight minutes. If you’ve never seen a circumcision and you’re contemplating doing this to another human being, I think you owe it to yourself to watch something like this.

What has the reception been like on the tour so far?

People familiar with the subject feel that I’ve done the subject justice. People unfamiliar with the subject all of a sudden have all these tools to talk and think about it that they didn’t before. And there are some more religious people who say, “I really appreciate your perspective, I’m still going to circumcise, but this makes me appreciate the gravity more.” I think that’s also a legitimate response.

So what advice do you have for those who recognize it’s an important issue, but still feel a religious obligation to circumcise their kids?

I have two approaches to that. The first part, is the people who aren’t particularly observant and affiliated. To those Jews, I say, this is not something you should do. If you have this done in a hospital, which is how most American-Jews circumcise their sons, you’re actually, in an ironic way, preventing that person from ever having a religious ritual. If you care about the ritual of brit milah, it’s preferable to leave a boy intact than to have him circumcised in a hospital.

When I talk to more affiliated, committed practicing Jews, I try to emphasize that, to me, being Jewish is not about blindly following God’s orders. That’s not what makes the Jewish tradition awesome to me. What does make it awesome, is that everything can be questioned. Human enterprise plays a central role in evolution of Jewish tradition. When ethical questions conflict with tradition, you can throw the Jewish tradition out, you can ignore your ethics, or you can try to push the tradition forward, which is what I’m trying to do.

Why do you support a ban on circumcision, and what does that mean to freedom of religion?

In principle, I haven’t been able to come up with a single good reason to oppose legislating against circumcision. Freedom of religion doesn’t entitle you to infringe on another person’s freedom. Your freedom of religion ends where another body begins. The state’s function is to protect its citizens, and infants are the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Whether it was strategically wise to try to pass legislation now is a separate question. If nothing else, this ballot initiative had two months of solid media attention on circumcision, and that’s a huge success, because the hardest thing is getting people to talk about it. On the other hand, the backlash was intense and the initiative was struck from the ballot.

Do you think there’s going to be a social change in the next 10 years in terms of how many families circumcise their sons?

Absolutely. I think I’m seeing it already. Film festivals, when we first made the film, didn’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole, but are now interested. People are more willing to talk openly about this. If you follow the national trends of circumcision rates, they’re going one direction, and that’s down.