To snip or not to snip? That, apparently, is becoming a major question for some 21st-century American Jews.
I have to confess that of all the issues confronting Jews today, I never thought circumcision would be controversial. But it has become so, as a growing number of “intactivists” have raised the profile of being vocally anti-circumcision. I write today not to challenge the Jewish bona fides of those who are not circumcised, nor to condemn those who, after careful reflection, ultimately choose not to circumcise their boys. I write merely to respond to some of the primary claims made by the “intactivists” and to urge parents to make individual, informed decisions about circumcision that take into account circumcision’s deep, resonant connection with Jewish identity and peoplehood.
The biblical origins of the Jewish ritual of circumcision come from Genesis 17:
Then God said to Abraham, “You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14)
While Jews today vary in our levels of observance of the myriad mitzvot found in the Torah, the obligation to circumcise our male children has retained near-universal observance for thousands of years. Circumcision has become one of the most—if not the most—physical and cultural markers of Jewish identity. The ceremony that has been created around the process of brit milah “covenant via circumcision” ushers the young boy, and welcomes his family, into a powerful sense of community and tradition. I can attest to this personally as the father of two young boys (as well as a fantastic girl). When our sons were born, the question my wife and I had was not whether to circumcise them but how to find the “best” mohel and what kind of ceremony we wanted to construct around the act of circumcision. For us, the question of whether or not to circumcise them was a no-brainer.
So why are Alicia Silverstone and other young Jewish parents opposed to circumcision? Based on my review of many testimonials on the website beyondthebris.com, there seem to be a few recurring objections:
Informed Consent: Some anti-circumcision folks are opposed to the practice because of the lack of informed consent. According to this position, since a baby cannot consent to circumcision, we should refrain from doing so until the child comes of age and can make his own decision. My response to this is simple: part of being a parent is making decisions for one’s children based on what you think are the best interests of the child, whether or not the child consents. For example, we give babies vaccinations, which clearly hurt them, because we believe that the benefits of the vaccinations outweigh the harm. Based on the health benefits of circumcision (below), I see the consent issue of circumcision as pretty comparable.
Pain and Suffering: Many anti-circumcision advocates argue that we should stop circumcising because of the physical and psychological pain circumcision produces. Though they admit that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV from infected female partners, they claim that this should only matter in areas of the world where HIV outbreaks remain severe. In America, they argue, the pain and suffering caused by circumcision mandates that we not circumcise. Putting aside my anecdotal experience (neither I nor my sons can recall, let alone feel traumatized by, our circumcisions), in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy to state that circumcision’s positive health benefits outweigh the risks.
Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.
When it comes to making medical decisions about my children, I trust the AAP.
Many bloggers also claim that circumcision should be rejected because it reduces sexual pleasure for men. This, too, recently was debunked in a landmark study.
“[M]y thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”
My response is an unequivocal: “yes!” To assume that God made us physically and mentally perfect at birth not only belies reality, it also belies theology. If we already were perfect, what would be the point of our existence? The task of living, as I see it, it to try to improve our selves and the world around us, to partner with God rather than to expect God to take care of everything for us. Circumcision thus serves as an early reminder of our need to inject ourselves as parents into the crucial, if arduous, work of raising our children, of combining nurture with nature to guide our 8 day old boys into becoming the best men they can be.
As with all aspects of Jewish law, there are no absolutes when it comes to circumcision. In certain instances, such as where the health of the baby is at issue, circumcision should not be performed. Moreover, it is critical for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to explain the distinction between brit milah and Jewish status: a Jew is a Jew based on whether one’s mother (or, in Reform Judaism, mother or father) is a Jew, not based on whether or not one has been circumcised. The absence of circumcision should never be used to impede one’s access to Judaism.
Brit milah has been a sacred act—both of Jewish peoplehood and of the intimate connection between God and parents in raising a child—for millennia, and, God willing, will continue to be for many millennia to come.
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There has been a tremendous amount of ink spilled and keys pressed discussing the finer details of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Why has Conservative Judaism experienced such a sharp decline in the past 20 years? Why did so many Jews raised Orthodox 65 and older leave Orthodoxy (22%) while so many 30 and under remain Orthodox (83%)? Perhaps the most perplexing question: Who are the 1% of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that had a Christmas tree in their home last year?
These questions and so many more have been debated and argued about extensively in the weeks that have followed since the publication of the survey. The survey shows a Jewish community that is increasingly becoming more divided between those who affiliate and those who do not and between those who are on the liberal spectrum and those on the Orthodox spectrum. However, sometimes when examining the macro situation it is worthwhile to zoom in on the micro as the micro can be helpful in understanding the larger picture. After all, a large picture is only but a collection of many smaller pictures sitting together on the same canvas.
This week we welcomed our second son into the covenant of the Jewish people at his brit milah ceremony. It was a beautiful and joyous event that we were blessed to share with members of our synagogue community. It was also an incredible display of broad Jewish community and Jewish affiliation. In the room there were Jews who affiliated with synagogues of every denomination and Jews who affiliated with no synagogue. In contrast to the picture that is painted by surveys of the American Jewish landscape, the ceremony for our son was an example of what is happening on the ground in so many places, including our city of Denver.
Above is a picture of many of the rabbis of Denver who I have been blessed to call my friends and colleagues who joined us at the brit milah of our son, Moshe Aharon.
I present this as just one small illustration of all the cross-denominational community building and friendships that are formed throughout the contemporary American Jewish story. It is time we focused less on the results of surveys and more on the work of community collaboration and building bridges, which is at the heart of what can be an even more vibrant American Jewish story.
I’m a big fan of Julie Weiner’s blog at The Jewish Week. It’s one of those blogs that I read fairly regularly, not because I find myself agreeing with everything she writes (and I’ll admit that I, like many, tend to read people with whom I agree). Rather, I read her blog because I find that she challenges many of my borders as a rabbi in ways that are intelligently and often compellingly stated.
This week she brings our attention to a new feature at another site that provides an incredible resource to interfaith families – interfaithfamily.com. They are now hosting a parenting blog where non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids, and Jewish parents in interfaith households, are writing and reflecting on their experiences in Jewish life, family, and community.
The presence of these multi-varied families in our communities is raising new questions and challenges that rabbis must respond to. And different rabbis will respond in very different ways, based on a range of factors that include halachic frameworks, pragmatic considerations, pastoral support, educational opportunity, and sociological reality.
In this area of my professional life, I find that I am still learning. My borders, so to speak, are shifting. Some of the kinds of questions and situations I find myself challenged to consider:
- A convert to Judaism wishes to name their baby daughter after her deceased, Christian mother in a Jewish baby-naming ceremony.
- A non-Jewish parent who has lived in the Jewish community and participated actively for over 10 years wishes to recite the blessings for an aliyah at their son’s bar mitzvah.
- A parent of a bar mitzvah student who, themselves, was raised with “both.” As an adult, they have been living a Jewish life, learning Hebrew, and studying Judaism. Can they participate in the bar mitzvah as a Jewish parent?
- A young adult was raised with “both.” They have decided to affirm Judaism as their sole religious identity, and go through the process of conversion. Now they are marrying a Christian and would like a rabbi and a minister to be part of the wedding ceremony.
- A Jewish and non-Jewish parent have a newborn son. What role can the non-Jewish side of the family play in the brit milah?
- A child is being raised with “both.” The Jewish mother brings him to a rabbi, asking for a program of Jewish study and a bar mitzvah. It is currently unknown whether a subsequent ritual (baptism, first communion, etc.) may be a further part of the child’s introduction into his parents’ faith communities.
These are just a handful of the real-life scenarios that I have encountered over the years. The issues they raise from a purely halachic perspective are different. Some are, actually, relatively straightforward. Others, however, will receive very different responses from different rabbis, determined by the factors above that may be more or less dominant in the approach of the particular rabbi, perhaps also informed by a Jewish denomination’s official position on the matter.
They are the reality of living in a world where we are blessed, in the USA, to live at a time when so many non-Jews choose to support Jewish choices for their children and choose to fully participate in Jewish family and Jewish community. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with high school students in our religious school program. We were beginning a course on comparative religion and I asked them to share an experience that reflected an interfaith exchange. Several students remarked that they had friends in public school who would describe themselves as “half Jewish” or even “a quarter Jewish” (with one Jewish grandparent). My students were skeptical. Having spent years in formal, Jewish education, studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, and more, they questioned the rights of these friends to lay claim to any part of their religious identity.
While I did not deny the complexities of how individuals, let alone the organized Jewish communal world, should respond to these statements of identity, I offered my students the following food for thought. We forget easily, but it was only a few decades ago that almost no-one who wasn’t bound into the Jewish community by birth would choose to identity with us. To do so would have excluded you from full participation in many strata of American society, denied access to certain clubs, and discouraged from living in certain neighborhoods. How amazing that a teenager with a relatively tenuous connection to Judaism chooses to identify with that part of their family heritage as a badge of pride!
I recently met a young woman who has had no formal Jewish education but the matrilineal Jewish line has been preserved. But she had to go back to the burial records of her great-grandparents to prove her Jewish ancestry. Both her Jewish grandmother and her Jewish mother had married non-Jews. Having attended a Birthright Israel program, and subsequently returned to Israel for a longer visit, she is now preparing to make aliyah. What an incredibly journey!
I have no easy answers to the complexities that rabbis and Jewish institutions face in navigating the new landscapes of identity and belonging that are emerging. But what I can say is this. My perspectives have shifted as a result of the conversations I have had with those who are traveling through those landscapes. I have gained a profound respect for those whose path is not straightforward. And, increasingly, I have understood my role to facilitate entry into richer Jewish life and ask myself, in each instance, how my role as gatekeeper might alter the path of the person I encounter. The answer may not always change, but the conversation most certainly is transformed.
For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.
Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.
Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.
Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.
In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”
Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.
In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”
Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.
This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”
Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.
Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com
This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.
There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.
Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.
As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.
For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.
I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.