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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.

***

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.”

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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