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To Cut or Not To Cut: Finding Alternatives to Circumcision

New rituals create ways to symbolically acknowledge Jews’ covenant with God without actually circumcising infants

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You wouldn’t expect that the tractate on Shabbat would be the place to discuss circumcision. You’d be wrong.

When my nephew Eli was born, there was no way on earth he was going to be circumcised. His father is not only not Jewish, but British, from a culture where circumcision is rare. And his mother—my sister-in-law Ellen, a Jew who grew up Reform in the Milwaukee suburbs—wasn’t thrilled about the notion of brit milah anyway.

“It was never important to me,” she told me. “To me, circumcision is paranormal hoo-ha. I don’t believe in God, so why would I chop off part of my child for something I don’t even believe? It’s like sacrificing a goat or something. I’m not going to kill a goat.”

It’s not the only part of Judaism she has negative feelings about. (“High Holiday services felt hypocritical, like a fashion show where no one was paying attention,” she told me. “I didn’t go to the sleepaway camp all the other Jewish kids went to; they all had this bonding thing and I felt excluded from it.”) I’ve often told Ellen how regretful I am that Jewishness to her symbolizes patriarchy and repression. I wish she’d had the exposure to feminist Judaism, to questioning and intellectual debate and full-throated communal birkat-hamazon-singing that I grew up with.

But compounding Ellen’s ambivalence is the fact that in her early 20s she married an inflexible Jewish man who wanted a kosher home but wanted to do none of the work, who flatly refused to have an egalitarian ketubah (one that promised a get, a Jewish bill of divorce) and made unilateral decisions regarding money and possessions. After Ellen married again and Eli was born, I didn’t even try to sell her on brit milah.

But my mother-in-law was in a tizzy. Unable to convince Ellen about Jewish ritual circumcision, she finally demanded, “Just have it done in the hospital! It’ll only take a second!” Ellen’s response was: “What’s the point? If it’s not done on a religious basis and there’s no medical reason to cut him, why would I do that?”

The fact that this topic is so fraught and the emotions so outsized is ironic, given the size of the bit of flesh we’re talking about. But Judaism has always been about debating mountains out of molehills.

I feel fortunate that I have two girls, so I’ve never had to ponder what I’d do if confronted by a teeny-tiny intact Jewish schmeckel. But I had baby-naming ceremonies at home for both my daughters, with rituals and prayers culled from the Reconstructionist site RitualWell. It was tremendously moving to introduce my babies to my family and friends—in particular to announce that Maxine was named after my dad, who’d died only two months before she was born. I’m sad if by forgoing brit milah, families also forgo this opportunity to symbolically welcome their baby to the Jewish community.

But some Jews have decided to skip the brit milah and instead create new rituals that welcome their babies and symbolically acknowledge the covenant (or brit) between God and the Jews that dates back to the time of Abraham. These ceremonies go by different names: Brit shalom is the most common, but a site called Circumstitions lists others, such as brit chaiim, “alternative brit,” brit ben, brit b’li milah. They all have one thing in common: None of them involve actual circumcision.

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A lot of Jews, like my mother-in-law, can’t really articulate why brit milah is important. Rabbi Joshua Ratner can. He wrote a piece for the nonprofit My Jewish Learning called “To Snip or Not To Snip: Why I Say Yes to Circumcision,” quoting Genesis 17 about God’s commandment to Abraham and affirming the value of following the mitzvah. In an interview, he told me, “Brit milah is tied into identity-making, the linking of one generation to another. It makes sure the idea of covenant is not only historical, not just something we read about, but something we act upon. It’s an individual grounding of the covenant with God as well as a tangible, visceral way to connect us to our ancestors.”

Two weeks ago, Ratner did an interview with Beyond the Bris, a Jewish site for “intactivists,” people who advocate against circumcision. I asked him why he was willing to engage with those who fervently disagree with him. “As a Conservative rabbi, I want all Jews to feel they have a home within the Jewish community,” he told me. “If someone goes to that site and has questions about the halakhic position on something before they make a decision, I thought it was good for them to read my perspective, since it wasn’t otherwise represented there. And I think we have to connect and be inclusive and work on outreach and make someone feel that regardless of the decisions you’ve made on any subject, whether that’s circumcision or intermarriage, there is always room in the Jewish community for you.” (I commended Ratner for putting himself out there and suggested he not read the comments after his interview.) (I wonder if the “never read the comments” necklace my dear editor bought me is available as a tie tack.)

To be clear, medical evidence in favor of circumcision is mixed. Three randomized controlled studies in Africa found that circumcision was associated with a lowered risk of acquiring HIV, genital warts, and type-2 herpes in adults; American studies have suggested similar results. But intactivists said that those studies were flawed and biased and that merely focusing on cleanliness and condom use would have had the same effect. A core argument for a lot of intactivists, in any case, is that parents have no right to subject babies to a procedure they are too young to consent to.

And look, even if the medical benefits were clear, that’s not what’s driving most observant Jews to follow religious law. Whenever someone tells me that the reason to keep kosher is because it’s cleaner or healthier, I roll my eyes. That may have been true back in the day, but today, between Jewish slaughterhouse scandals and the availability of free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat, this argument doesn’t cut it anymore. Argue in favor of tradition, argue for the importance of a perpetual reminder of difference from majority culture, argue “because God said so, that’s why”… but do not use the Torah to argue science.

Perhaps the inconclusive medical evidence about circumcision is why U.S. circumcision rates have been dropping for 30 years. Since 1979, the percentage of circumcised American male infants has dipped to 58.3 percent from 64.5 percent. (Changing demographics and the fact that many state governments have eliminated Medicaid coverage for the practice may also be a factor.) There’s no way to learn how many Jewish families are opting out, but Rebecca Wald, who runs Beyond the Bris, says that the number of hits and inquiries the site has gotten has risen incrementally since its founding in 2010. (The Israeli newspaper Haaretz estimates that 1 percent to 2 percent of Jewish babies born in Israel in the last decade have not been circumcised—there is an intactivist movement in Israel, too. A 2006 survey conducted by the Israeli parenting site Mamy found that the number was higher: 4.8 percent of Israeli boys weren’t circumcised, for reasons including parents’ objection to disfiguring the body—the reason cited by actress Alicia Silverstone—and not wanting to cause the baby pain.)

Actress Mayim Bialik is an attachment-parenting activist who seems to fit the profile of the non-circumcising Jewish mother … but she did circumcise her sons. And she finds herself attacked for it so often that she generally won’t discuss it. “The holistic community has made it virtually impossible to speak about … meaning there has not been any place for dialogue when speaking about it,” she told the website Evolutionary Parenting. “[It] only leads to me being called a mutilator.”

And then there are thinkers like Jay Michaelson who don’t wish to do away with brit milah entirely, but who wonder if there’s a compromise: a way to perform the mitzvah in a way that removes less flesh. (Ponder his modest proposal with your legs crossed, gentleman readers.)

I asked Wald why there’s all this new concern and anxiety about an age-old practice. “Look, Jewish people have always been concerned about their kids’ well-being,” Wald told me. “We all want to do what’s best for our kinderlach. And the evidence is growing that circumcision isn’t that.”

She continued, “Consider the anatomy of the penis. If you deprive the penis of its covering, it externalizes what should be an internal organ. Some people are uncomfortable comparing circumcision to female genital cutting, but removing the external labia, while it may be more complicated, is not entirely dissimilar to removing the foreskin; you’ve changed mucosal tissue into non-mucosal tissue. If you know this, it’s hard to defend the practice.” I wondered whether Wald, a law-school graduate, had been lambasted for her views, which still run counter to mainstream Jewish tradition. She laughed, “I’m not intermarried, I’m very secure in my Jewish identity, I’m educated about both medicine and what the Torah says—when people talk to me, it’s hard for them to dismiss me because they realize, ‘Ooh, it’s like she’s a real Jew!’ ”

Incidentally, Maimonides agreed with Wald’s opinion that brit milah has a negative impact on sexual pleasure. In “The Guide for the Perplexed,” he wrote of circumcision, “I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, and to weaken the organ of generation as far as possible, and thus cause man to be moderate. Some people believe that circumcision is to remove a defect in man’s formation; but every one can easily reply: How can products of nature be deficient so as to require external completion, especially as the use of the foreskin to that organ is evident … [?] The bodily injury caused to that organ is exactly that which is desired; it does not interrupt any vital function, nor does it destroy the power of generation. Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment.” And there is scientific evidence that circumcision decreases sexual sensitivity. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its stance on circumcision from neutral to a position that the data available are insufficient to recommend routine neonatal male circumcision.

***

At Beyond the Bris, Wald suggests alternate ways to celebrate the birth of a Jewish boy. There is no blueprint, and suggestions abound online. Some families do the ceremony on the eighth day of the baby’s life, like a conventional brit milah; some don’t. Some bring in rituals such as Kiddush, communal candle-lighting, anointing the baby, washing the baby’s feet, putting out a chair for Elijah, or doing Havdalah. Most parents share and explain their child’s name at the ceremony.

Wald and Beyond the Bris contributor Lisa Braver Moss have established a crowdfunding campaign to publish a book of original brit shalom ceremonies, along with suggestions about dealing with family members who may be quietly sticking their heads in the oven. If funded (it’s more than halfway there now), the book will come with a downloadable album of brit-shalom-compatible songs produced by Jason Paige, singer of the original Pokémon theme and former lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears.

One ceremony Wald and Moss created involves a new symbolic ritual act: the cutting of a pomegranate. “The pomegranate represents fertility and abundance,” Wald said, “and it bleeds when you cut it. Some people might want to actually cut something if they want a ritual that closely mimics a brit milah. It’s a way to acknowledge the role circumcision has played in the history of the Jewish people; it’s not just giving the baby a Hebrew name and moving on. And the pomegranate has long been a Jewish symbol.”

If you’re creating a ceremony for a boy in which the knife is used only to slice bagels, I don’t see why you need an expert present. But for many Jews, it’s not a real event unless you have a rabbi or cantor leading it. The site Circumstitions has a list of 187 officiants in the United States, Israel, and nine other countries.

One of those officiants is Elyse Wechterman, a Reconstructionist rabbi based in Massachusetts. (She also leads inclusive services for families with special needs in Rhode Island.) She calls her ceremony a brit atifah, a Covenant of Wrapping. The ritual involves wrapping the baby in a tallit, as a sign of the covenant between God and humanity—the ritual can be used with boys who aren’t being circumcised, boys who are, and girls. For Wechterman, the fact that the ritual is so broadly embracing is important. “I feel like this normalizes the conversation and welcomes the child into the Jewish people in a way that is meaningful, speaks to the needs of the parents and is reflective of the wisdom and depth of the traditions,” she told me. “For many people, the tallit is a symbol of protection, a loving embrace under the ‘Wings of Shechinah.’ I’m framing what I do in the positive: What authentic Jewish wisdom and insights can we bring to the welcoming of this child?”

For Wechterman, brit atifah lacks the defensiveness that sometimes defines brit shalom and those who advocate for it. “I’m not saying brit shalom isn’t meaningful,” she said. “But it seems more defined by what it isn’t then what it is. I am not interested in doing ‘not-circumcision’—I’m interested in welcoming the next generation of Jews into the covenant in the most meaningful ways possible, which does not necessarily have to include brit milah for boys.” (The fact that different practitioners of circumcision-free rituals have issues with other practitioners of circumcision-free rituals reminds me of the joke, “two Jews, three synagogues.”)

Wechterman enumerated some of the reasons people choose not to do brit milah: “One of the biggest impetuses is the growth of the natural childbirth movement; parents are questioning a whole bunch of previously held conceptions, for good reasons. And I think the impact of feminism can’t be understated. A core predicate of contemporary feminism is the notion of bodily integrity and physical self-determination.”

And having a ceremony, rather than simply doing nothing, can help distressed family members process. “I’ve seen grandparents who were so shocked and upset that their children weren’t circumcising, and I do a ceremony that affirms a Jewish life for their grandchild and they’re moved to tears,” Wechterman said.

She continued, “I’m not opposed to circumcision. But if I were going to stake a claim on what’s essential for Jewish people to do, I’m not sure brit milah would be it. I’d rather focus on getting people to observe Shabbat and make meaningful choices about food. Jewish continuity is more about embracing Jewish practices that enhance our lives, not this one moment of a son’s life.” The resistance to opting out of brit milah, she thinks, has manifold reasons. But one of them is that the deciders have always been men who are circumcised. “Men who are circumcised can’t imagine not doing it, just as men who aren’t circumcised can’t imagine doing it,” she pointed out. “But with significant numbers of women rabbis, things are changing.” And with more parents questioning everything from vaccines to genetically modified food to the need for organized religion, things may be changing pretty rapidly.

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To Cut or Not To Cut: Finding Alternatives to Circumcision

New rituals create ways to symbolically acknowledge Jews’ covenant with God without actually circumcising infants