Why you should care
As circumcision rates decline in the United States, some Jewish families are finding alternative religious ceremonies to celebrate their baby boys.
A brit milah is a Jewish circumcision ritual for male infants that has been celebrated for centuries. But what if the rite, commonly referred to as a bris, was replaced with a ceremony where a pomegranate was cut instead?
Jews against circumcision are trying to find alternative ways to celebrate this important Jewish tradition, sans foreskin removal. A non-circumcision ceremony called brit shalom is slowly gaining momentum in Judaism, as parents who forego circumcision navigate how to celebrate their newborn’s life with other traditions. This movement is a subset of a broader trend that has seen steep declines in circumcision rates across the United States, particularly in the California Bay Area. A group called “intactivists,” anti-circumcision activists, has been growing in number as well.
This is a new ritual act.
“Circumcision is seen as a fundamental tenet of Judaism,” explains Tablet magazine reporter Marjorie Ingall, who recently published a longform piece on circumcision and brit shalom. The idea of not circumcising a Jewish boy is fraught with controversy and passionate opinions about whether it takes away from the boy’s religious and ethnic identity.
Intactivists consider male circumcision an egregious human rights violation, comparable to female genital mutilation. Some even call for a legal ban of circumcision. They argue it dramatically decreases sexual sensitivity and can lead to medical complications. Intactivists are a secular group, but some prominent intactivists are Jewish. Known for their widespread Internet presence, intactivists have spurred criticism for their intensity.
The brit milah acknowledges the covenant between God and the Jews, and is performed on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life. Family and friends are invited to the parents’ home to witness the ritual, performed by a mohel. Secular Jews who don’t wish to conduct the religious ceremony usually have their child circumcised in a medical setting. A recently developed tradition gives baby girls a parallel religious celebration, with a naming ceremony in which a rabbi or cantor leads family and friends in prayers and blessings for the baby, and the parents explain why they chose the daughter’s name.
Brit shalom is a similar new kind of religious ceremony, a ritual that has been created and adjusted to suit what the parents want. “Judaism is such a home-based religion compared to, say, Catholicism,” says Ingall. “A lot of what you are doing is making your own rituals.”
Rebecca Wald is the founder of Jewish intactivist site Beyond the Bris, and she and Berkeley novelist/fellow intactivist Lisa Braver Moss have launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for a book on ritual alternatives to Jewish circumcision. They also provide supportive suggestions for dealing with family members who are tsk-tsking or completely bereft when they learn there will not be any snipping.
“Lisa and I have come at this project from a distinctly Jewish perspective,” writes Wald in an email. “We do not want to simply do away with the bris ritual.” All ceremonies include giving the boy a Hebrew name and welcoming him into the community with readings and blessings. They can also include washing the baby’s feet, candle lighting, or wrapping the baby in a Jewish prayer shawl. Wald and Moss have invented a new ceremony involving cutting a pomegranate. “This is a new ritual act,” writes Wald. “The pomegranate has long been a powerful Jewish symbol, representing wisdom and fertility. It also bleeds when cut.”
A recent study published on Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that the health benefits of neonatal male circumcision outweigh the risks of infection or bleeding. The study likened male circumcision to childhood vaccination, and says it reduces risks of prostate cancer, urinary tract infection and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. The American Academy of Pediatrics has flip-flopped on the matter, recently returning to a position that the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.
“It is such a joyous ceremony,” says Dr. Mark Reiss, a retired physician and an active Jew who runs a site listing rabbis and cantors willing to perform brit shalom ceremonies. Not all rabbis on the list — which spans all of the U.S. and some foreign countries — are anti-circumcision; they are just open to brit shalom. “There’s no cutting, no blood, no screaming baby, no mother cowering in the kitchen.” Reiss is fervently against circumcision, describing it as traumatic and destructive of “the most sensitive erotic tissue in the male body.”
Steven Blane, an NYC rabbi on Reiss’s list, has officiated at a handful of brit shaloms. He says usually the parents are the ones deciding not to circumcise, and often the grandparents don’t approve. “It’s very rare that people would not circumcise their children because culturally and historically we just do it. I would say it’s the most powerful Jewish ritual that we have.”
If you are going to choose one Jewish tradition, maybe it should be Shabbat.
Cut is a 2007 documentary on the science, religion and ethics of circumcision that was recently made available online. Filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon was raised an Orthodox Jew and says he isn’t advocating abolishing brit milah as a ritual, but he believes it should be postponed until the age of consent. He recounts a conversation with Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who, while he would never counsel someone to not circumcise their son, acknowledges the controversy. Lopatin noted that many Jews don’t follow traditional practices like observing Shabbat or keeping kosher. “He said, ‘If you are going to choose one Jewish tradition, maybe it should be Shabbat,’” says Ungar-Sargon. “I think that’s a wonderful perspective.”
To be clear, brit milah is still very much the norm in Jewish culture and will not soon be replaced. But anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that brit shalom, or at least the idea of not circumcising, is gaining steam. Reiss says the number of brit shalom celebrants has dramatically increased from when he first started the list 14 years ago, with 200 now available. Wald says she has been getting “exponentially more” notes and pictures of brit shalom ceremonies, along with questions from parents planning ceremonies. Ungar-Sargon says the conversation about circumcision in general has rapidly opened up since his film’s launch, and he believes the discourse is shifting.
Ingall links the rise in brit shalom interest to millenial parents’ tendency to question child-rearing dogma in general. “At this point, you can’t assume a Jewish parent will take anything at face value,” she explains.
Even if it means fighting with their own Jewish mother. Oy.