Bris for Koreans

I remember when my brother, Jun, went for circumcision, when he was old enough to walk and talk. He is six years younger than me, maybe he was five and I was eleven?

Bris- also called brit milah- means covenant in Hebrew, and refers to the entire ritual of bris ceremony. Technically speaking, it would not be accurate to say that Koreans customarily do bris, but yes, Korean boys do get circumcised- much like many of American babies that get circumcised every year!


Isaac’s Circumcision,’ Regensburg Pentateuch (c. 1300)Regensburg Pentateuch


The story in Korea starts with the US military influence- at first hygiene, then words of mouth, no religious roots. I remember hearing about it growing up, and kids got them done routinely. However, older Korean men claim that they had never heard of circumcision before 1950s, which was when the US military arrived in Korea and brought circumcision with them. Interestingly enough, many of the circumcised Korean males believe that circumcision enhances their sexual experience, even make their penis larger, but of course, there is probably no scientific evidence that this is true. Many of the Korean males are circumcised in their adolescence or even in adulthood, rather than as an infant, largely initiated by peer pressure or parental guidance. Indeed, according to a study, some grandfathers were circumcised after their sons and grandsons urged to do so. Added to the peer pressure has been the `culture of public bath-houses’- most South Korean men often go to public bath-houses and uncircumcised men tend to feel embarrassed. Oh the Korean shame culture!!

Bris in Jewish community leaves less room for discussion on its scientific benefits or even for peer pressure, but rather is done as a tradition and religious observance.  According to some, circumcision is a reminder that we should be “holy” in how we use our sexuality. I have never been to a Bris (yet) but according to my fiance who obviously does not remember his own Bris, it’s got lox and bagels, so there we go. A male baby is usually circumcised on the 8th day (even if it’s shabbat) and even the most secular and non-observant Jews tend to do it. The ritual calls for the foreskin to be removed by mohel, a professional trained in circumcision. Sandek holds the baby, and it is supposed to be an honor to serve as sandek, it being oftentimes the god father/mother of the baby. When the deed is done, the father, or the parents, announces that the child has entered into Abraham’s covenant; the Mohel then announces the baby’s Hebrew name; and everyone goes and have some lox and bagels. yay!

However, lox and bagels are not enough for some others.

There are many groups now lobbying against male circumcision for any purpose, for reasons that range from insufficient proven health benefits, reduced sexual pleasure, to (unfair) comparison to practices to female genital mutilation. In 2012, discussions on the legality of child circumcision has led the German court to ban circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. The case before the court involved a four year old Muslim boy who was circumcised, but kept on bleeding. All gory details aside, the court ruled religious circumcision illegal, which led to a rare occasion of Jews and Muslims uniting to protest against the German government’s intrusion of religious freedom.Three months after the German court’s ban on religious circumcision, they ruled to allow religious circumcision as long as it was performed by a medical professional, which was a setback and a victory for the religious leaders in Europe. The tides in the US have paralleled that of Europe. In the US, the rate of circumcision is declining overall, now down to around 30%. Following a death of a toddler in Brooklyn from a rare complication from circumcision in 2011, a group of activists in California proposed a ban on circumcision within San Francisco city border. In response, the California governor, Jerry Brown, signed a bill preventing any local governments from banning circumcision.

We live at a time where many of our social and cultural rights are respected and with it comes complex nuances and clash between cultural and religious practices and individuals’ rights over their own bodies. How prevalent male circumcision is in Korea despite its dubious roots to the point where grandfathers are persuaded to be circumcised, is such a stark contrast to the heated discussions around religious, cultural practices and individual’s rights.

When I put on my logical hat, with no medical benefits, it seems circumcision is not necessary. It also makes sense that a child should have the right to decide what should be done to his body.

But tradition. identity. inertia.

I can’t justify circumcision with logic, but I’m so socialized to the idea that I’m not really opposed to it.

This is probably where I stand.








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