Independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has recently launched a groundbreaking podcast series that investigates the complexities of Jewish circumcision. The Cut Podcast draws on themes explored in the host’s 2007 documentary Cut: Slicing Though the Myths of Circumcision, but journeys far beyond the scope of that film, with absorbing interviews from diverse Jewish thinkers.
Ungar-Sargon, who was raised in a traditional Orthodox religious Jewish household, cannot seem to get the topic of male infant circumcision out of his system. Although he’s working on another film centered on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he’s also presently on an extended, multi-city tour of the Cut film. There are five more stops before his film tour concludes: Vancouver, British Columbia (Oct. 24); Portland, Oregon (Oct. 26); San Francisco (Oct. 29) and Monterey (Oct. 30), California; and Las Vegas, Nevada (Nov. 11). The Cut Podcasts incorporate material from the tour, including panel discussions that typically follow the Cut screenings.
Ungar-Sargon says The Cut Podcast came out of his experience debating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at The Manhattan Jewish Experience in New York. Boteach is author of the book Kosher Sex and host of the TLC network’s Shalom in the Home. “I decided to post my audio recording of the debate as a podcast,” Ungar-Sargon says. “To date, this is the only full record of the event. My brother, Naftali, listened to the debate and told me he thought I needed to find better opponents. I took this seriously and The Cut Podcast was born,” he says.
The guests Ungar-Sargon has chosen thus far are intriguing, and include astute Jewish thinkers with unique areas of expertise, including Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Maltreatment (Prometheus Books, 2011); and Jeffrey Helmreich, a philosophy Ph.D. at UCLA specializing in ethics, philosophy of mind, and legal philosophy. Ungar-Sargon is also looking into the religious angle, debating and discussing circumcision with rabbis.
Ungar-Sargon’s initial plan was to seek out impressive thinkers who disagreed with his take on circumcision (he’s opposed) and to explore the disagreement. In keeping with this, he’s debated scholars like cultural anthropologist and psychologist Richard A. Shweder, Ph.D. of the University of Chicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development. Shweder says: “From my point of view, as I understand the evidence, if you look a neonatal male circumcision it is indeed a failure to fully respect the autonomy and free choice of the infant. However, all that shows is that is it’s illiberal in the sense of not valuing or privileging autonomy and free choice, which is hardly the same as making a judgment that it’s unethical because the moral domain is full of all sorts of values, in addition to autonomy and free choice.” From this premise, a dialogue unfolds between Ungar-Sargon and Shweder exploring the intricacies of this issue.
However, the scope of The Cut Podcast has grown beyond Ungar-Sargon’s initial idea of high- level debate and now includes discussions with many who question the practice, like Rabbi Steven Blane. “Our faith should be about healing and joy, not about inflicting more pain. And so from my perspective I'm very interested in performing [the Jewish non-cutting welcoming ceremony] brit shalom,” Blane says. “You can do everything you do in that ceremony, except the violent part. Everything works. You can adapt a couple of brahot [blessings] and it’s beautiful....We should be joyful and not hurt little babies,” he says.
The strength of The Cut Podcast not only lies in the diversity and quality of Ungar-Sargon’s guests but also in his interview technique. Regardless of one’s stance on the circumcision question, it is difficult not to like the man. He is brilliant, disarming and asks the right questions without coming across as overbearing, either to those he is interviewing or to the listening audience. Perhaps most significant, many of Ungar-Sargon’s guests only seriously considered the circumcision question after having met him. As such, he is not merely reporting on the debate but is drawing others into it and actively shaping the dialogue.
The film Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision established Ungar-Sargon as a prominent Jewish voice challenging male infant circumcision. The Cut Podcast, combined with its host’s steadfastness in continuing to examine this complex issue, raises his status considerably. It is not an overstatement to say that Eli Ungar-Sargon has become one of the most influential figures in the modern anti-circumcision movement.