Contemporary Issues in Baby Ceremonies

Circumcision debates and intermarriage

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Modern questions bring new challenges to, and stimulate debates about, several facets of ceremonies for babies.

Most prominent among them, the contemporary debate about circumcision reflects religious, medical, political, and psychological questions. Until recently–except in the early period of classical Reform Judaism–circumcision of male babies in a religious context was a near-automatic act on the part of parents of a Jewish baby boy. But allegiance to traditional Jewish practice and to the notion of commandment has declined in the modern period. Consequently, Jews, like people of other faiths and cultures, are more open to questions coming from outside of a Jewish framework.

Issues with Circumcision

Among the questions that modern critics of circumcision raise are: Does circumcision diminish men’s sexual pleasure? Is circumcision psychologically traumatic? Is it medically necessary? While these questions are all relevant to the general North American practice of the circumcision of infants, some Jews entertain them even regarding the religious practice of brit milah. Some ask whether it is fair for parents to make such an important and permanent decision for their male children. Additionally, some Jewish feminists claim that the perpetuation of brit milah as a bodily covenantal sign laden with significance and the lack of a sign and ceremony of equivalent power for girls both represents and perpetuates a male bias in Judaism.

Defenders of the practice in a Jewish context take a variety of positions, including:

· Brit milah is a commandment, and its essential obligatory nature is unaffected by science, psychology, or sociology.

· Circumcision actually appears to provide some medical benefit to men and their sexual partners.

· There is no evidence that circumcision is traumatic.

· The development of a uniform, powerful covenantal ceremony for girls should supplement brit milah, rather than eliminating it in the name of parity.

· For better or worse, brit milah does represent a powerful connection to a long chain of Jewish tradition, particularly for fathers and sons of Jewish men.

· Parents make important, life-changing decisions for children all the time, including their religious identity. Doing so is inherent in good parenting.

Despite these debates, circumcision of male children–whether in the context of a brit milah, or at times simply in the hospital in a medical setting–shows few signs of waning as an expression of Jewish identity.  Even in the most assimilated families, it remains one of the most enduring traditional practices.

There have historically been a variety of rituals in different Jewish cultures for acknowledging the arrival of a Jewish baby girl, and in the past three decades a variety of ceremonies of welcome, covenant, and naming have been created. But none of them have the raw ritual power or the longevity of brit milah. It remains unclear when, if ever, a single ceremony will (or should) be agreed upon in the Jewish world–one that would provide a universal (and thus truly parallel) ritual–and whether such a ceremony would ever have a power equivalent to the ceremony for boys.

Interfaith Families

When one parent of a baby is not Jewish, there are special considerations governing the participation of the non-Jewish parent — and his or her relatives–in a ceremony for the child. As the liturgical core of a brit milah is quite brief and there are no mandatory elements for a brit bat, there are many opportunities for innovation, expansion, and involvement by a variety of individuals. Consulting with a rabbi often produces creative options. For example, while a non-Jewish father has no obligation concerning the inauguration of his son into the “covenant of our father Abraham,” often he will offer words regarding his commitment to support the Jewish identity of the child.

For more about Jewish parenting, visit our partner site, Kveller.

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