I “fell into” a rabbinic sub-career, acquiring the skills of a mohel during rabbinical school. I found myself tutoring the son of a mohel for his bar mitzvah service, and with a first career as a veterinarian as “previous experience,” I found myself in training to become a mohel. The fact that “this was not something I had always wanted to do, all of my life,” may also be part of what inspired a comment from a colleague, who said lovingly to me, “I think you’re the most anti-circumcision mohel I’ve ever known.” I hope that what she was referring to was an understanding and empathy that I possess with those who cannot understand or justify circumcision. Of this, I plead guilty as charged.
I write this article to “defend circumcision” in two parts. Part one, I will defend the practice from some of its most severe criticisms. This will be short, and for me, not too difficult. Part two? Why should we continue practicing brit milah? Ah, that’s a bit more complex, nuanced and challenging.
I reject the criticisms that infant circumcision is brutal, coercive, mutilation or cruel. I find each of these descriptions to be an exaggeration. While I believe that each has an extremely small bit of truth in it as it describes circumcision, they are mostly incendiary rhetoric, meant to exaggerate. My day can be brutal, parenting is coercive, ear-piercing is mutilation, and the High Holiday schedule is cruel (for rabbis especially). Though I parented three daughters (full transparency), my perspective of circumcision comes from 15 years of working with parents and infants as a mohel. The italicized words above simply do not describe circumcision accurately.
In addition, I do not find the claims compelling that circumcision causes severe psychological (and psycho-sexual) damage. This is not to say that I don’t believe those who claim to remember their eight-day-old brit milah or that there are not those who do feel that the removal of their foreskin has created a major negative (or positive) difference in their sexual experience. I’ve just never come across this sentiment in my journeys and conversations with circumcised males, Jewish and not, and their partners (male and female), with whom I have had the opportunity to ask these questions. This does not mean I think these feelings and experiences don’t exist, but I believe they are extremely rare.
OK, so even if it’s not that bad, why continue brit milah or circumcision at all?
Why continue ‘brit milah’?
The “need to fix it” list for the Judaism that we love (and perhaps, sometimes hate), and to which many rabbis and Jewish educators commit a lifetime of loving work, is long, sometimes overwhelming. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, particularism, violence: These are just a few of the items that Reconstructionist Jews must recognize and accept as part of our heritage and history. The understanding that Judaism has evolved — and the acceptance of the responsibility to shape that evolution — allows us to live with these negatives.
The “fix-it” list above contains very large issues, issues that sometimes feel like they pervade our heritage and texts. If we are fortunate, this does not turn us away from our heritage. But there is another list — a list of our discrete and individual customs that have become part of us, yet can have the effect of polluting the entire enterprise of Jewish living. Is brit milah or circumcision one of these rituals? I think not.
Here, I want to remind readers about the difference between infant circumcision and brit milah for two reasons.
The first reason is that I will be very careful in my use of the two terms, and an understanding and careful reading are important. Infant male circumcision is the removal of (most of) the foreskin from an infant before the age for which (medical ethics have determined that) general anesthesia is ethically necessary. Brit milah is a religious ceremony, which includes circumcision and certain timing, along with blessings that are to be recited.
The second reason for careful attention to these two terms is that while brit milah is a combination of Jewish law and custom, the practice of infant circumcision is a widely practiced custom of Jewish people. More on this below.
Jewish circumcision seems to have begun in our biblical history. Our Bible gives a very mixed message about circumcision. It was not only used to mark a covenant with God, but also used to declare military victory (an in-your-facevictory act, that would make most NFL touchdown celebrations blush, see Samuel I 18:27), and even as a strategic and sneaky ploy to make the enemy weak (see Genesis 34:18-25). Undeterred from these not-so-positive associations, the ancient rabbis of 2,000 ago decided to make circumcision one of the most important “rules” and observances (for males).
However, the eventual legalities of brit milah, constructed by these and later rabbis, are quite vague. The mitzvah, or commandment for parents (though really, for fathers) is both clear and somewhat confusing. Fathers are commanded to circumcise their sons, yet they are allowed to have someone else do it. Fathers are commanded to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life, but with plenty of leeway to circumcise later for a variety of reasons, including not only health considerations but in circumstances that might cause someone else difficulty with their observance. We are told that we should circumcise on Shabbat and then given numerous “outs,” including some absurd ideas — that we might have not been so sure when a baby was actually born, during a four to six hour period on Friday afternoon, or (worse in my feminist, anti-birth interventionist mind), that if we (doctors) had not “interfered” with God’s work and plan, who knows when that baby delivered by C-section on Shabbat would really have been born? We are told to use a mohel if possible, and then told that a woman (mohelet or otherwise), slave or child can also circumcise if need be. A search for any standard universal liturgy for brit milah will yield only two short berakhot (blessings). The remaining liturgies are quite variable from community to community. The variety of brit milah guidelines is much greater than, for instance, the variety of kashrut rules. This has rendered brit milah a mixture of a little bit of Jewish law and much more Jewish minhag, or custom.
And now, a word about brit milah.
Since I was training to be a mohel at the same time that I was studying to be a rabbi, my study of milah progressed historically as well, as I noted the ways that brit milah evolved through the rabbinic, medieval, modern or contemporary period of Judaism.
Before I performed my first brit milah, I wanted to create a liturgy that not only made sense to me, but would make sense and feel meaningful to 21st-century Jewish new parents. And Elijah the prophet became one of my main challenges. Though I believe that we Jews may have attempted to de-emphasize our references to the coming of the messiah since we began to live in a Christian society, I am fully convinced that Elijah, as a harbinger of the messianic age, was indeed placed in the brit milah liturgy and traditions for exactly this reason, as he likewise appears at Passover Seders and after Havdalah at the conclusion of Shabbat. And though I could have easily dismissed Elijah’s presence in a brit milah ceremony with a joke about Jewish parental expectations and messiahs, I felt strongly that this was an inappropriate joke, for many reasons.
What I do instead is to comment on Elijah’s biblical narratives, and how they are so often very dramatic, lacking in subtlety or quiet nuance. Likewise, I comment about brit milah. There is always drama. Everyone feels it, and the difference in the air before and after the circumcision is palpable. And this drama (yes, traumatic drama) supplies the powerful feelings that I feel around me at a brit milah. If I can succeed in neutralizing the wise-cracking uncle, who always seems to have plenty of circumcision jokes at hand, the multigenerational, deep, gratifying emotions are tremendous. Elijah’s drama is matched by the drama that a circumcision ceremony easily provides. This is a big plus for brit milah.
But enough about brit milah. Now, on to circumcision, a custom that is much more widely followed by world Jewry.
I will not pretend that the very high circumcision rate among Jewish parents represents a great commitment from these Jewish parents to Jewish custom (and certainly not to Jewish law). There other non-Jewish cultural reasons for circumcision. It is most popular in the identical socio-economic group in which most Jews reside, where 77 percent of Americans circumcise their sons. Also deciding about brit milah, it is usually a once-in-a-lifetime decision that parents have to make; Jewish mothers will have 2.3 kids, with only half of them male. The decision is most often made during one of the most hectic and emotionally overwhelming times in their parental lives. It is no wonder that they decide to “do what everyone else seems to do.” There is always comfort in that.
Which leads me to my conclusion as to why Jewish parents circumcise.
Less than 10 percent of my brit milah practice is composed of parents who have already given birth to a son. I suspect that it is only then — that they either remember, or more likely, that they are told or reminded by their parents — that they need to arrange for a brit milah, which is why and when they call me (though sometimes it is, indeed, the grandparents who call). About 85 percent of those who reach out to me are to-be parents, usually in the last trimester of their pregnancy, wondering about brit milah. After some introductory comments, I suggest that we reconnect about two weeks before a due date, with one major exception. If either parent is ambivalent about circumcision itself, I indicate that we should begin a conversation immediately. The conversation with this last small group usually ends up focusing one question: Why do other Jewish parents continue to do this?
I explain that my impression is that there are three main reasons that Jewish parents continue to have their sons circumcised. A very small group believes that it is God’s commandment, and this is compelling enough for them. Another very small group may not be sure about God, but they believe that ancient rabbinic authorities have indicated that they should circumcise their sons, and this is compelling enough for them. But the third, and overwhelmingly more numerous, group continues to have their sons circumcised because … most other Jews do.
This reasoning — doing something because everybody else does — reminds me of my mother, scolding me after I did something stupid as a child because my friends (or usually, older brother) had done the same. “And if your friend jumped off of the Empire State building, would you have done that, too?” rings in my ears (lovingly, of course). And yet, this reason is incredibly compelling. We feel like we belong to a group when we do the same as them.
I am positing here that circumcision (but not brit milah) — this tribal, primitive, outdated custom — is the most widespread Jewish custom among the world’s Jews today. If 90 percent of Jewish parents circumcise their sons (and I believe the percentage, difficult to pinpoint, is at least that high), I would challenge any of us to name another ritual custom or law that is followed by 90 percent of Jews. Certainly not following the dietary laws, not observing the Sabbath, not lighting Hanukah candles, not even attending a Passover Seder. We are the ones who “don’t eat certain things,” and we’re the ones who circumcise. But lots more of us do the second.
As Reconstructionists, we understand and value peoplehood. More and more of our fellow Jews understand that Judaism is much more than a religion based on shared rituals or theology, but rather the civilization of our people. We are a tribe. Our tribe continues to practice infant circumcision widely, with almost no risk to our health and welfare. A minority do so with a ceremony and ritual that have the potential to be a deeply moving life-cycle ritual that brings meaning to multiple generations. It seems a poor strategic decision to discourage the continuation of this deep-seated, time-tested custom. It’s ours. We should continue to own it.