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The one rite even shrimp-eaters don’t forsake

Lynn Harris
July 13, 2006

When David and I found out that the baby I’m carrying is a girl, I had several thoughts in quick succession:

1) “Yay!”

2) “David will teach her to throw; ice hockey will be my job,”

3) “She can wear the fabulous baby clothes my grandmother made me, including the dress with the appliquéd dog that turns into a dachshund when you spread out the pleat,” and

4) “Hmm, no bris.”

(Since you asked, by the way, we are currently calling the baby Kinehora.)

And about the brit milah (“covenant of circumcision”), or lack thereof, I also had several thoughts. The first, and most fleeting, was relief. Though the brises I’d been to had never particularly freaked me out, I’d also never been the parent of the child going—if briefly and anesthetized—under the wee knife. But for another passing moment, I also felt ever so slightly sad. Believe me, this had nothing to do with actually valuing boys over girls, or a bris over a naming ceremony. (Either way, our child will be a Jew, and there will be whitefish.) But to me—beyond rationality, beyond medicine, beyond anything anyone wants to say about patriarchy and leaving out the girls, most of which will be true—there’s something visceral about a bris. Something, given that blood and knives are involved, that says, “Yep, we’re pretty serious about that covenant.” Something that makes the ceremony so paramount that it’s performed on the eighth day of life, no matter what, even if it’s Shabbat or Yom Kippur. Something that fascinated and drew me in during my years of infertility and made me think, “Someday, we’ll get to have one of these.”

To my mind, it’s precisely the primeval nature of brit milah—blood is spilled, the very body is transformed—that both attracts and repels. There are certainly those who decide against or even actively oppose the ritual (perhaps along with non-ritual medical circumcision), considering it archaic and unnecessary at best, “barbaric” at worst. But there are also liberal Jews, Jews who (grandparent lobby aside) have a true choice in the matter, Jews who eat shrimp cocktail and shop on Shabbat, Jews who intermarry, and feel that the one ritual they will not forfeit, even after initial hesitation, is brit milah.

“If my kid said he didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah, I’d say okay,” a Boston friend of mine told me recently, so pregnant with said son I could practically see him kicking across the restaurant table. She and her husband do not keep kosher or attend shul. “But it never occurred to me not to have a bris,” she says. “It’s a strange tradition, but I don’t feel like I’m in a position not to do what Jews have been doing for the past however-many-thousand years.”

“I feel like, ‘Who am I to break that chain?’,” added her husband.

Why is the bris—as opposed to the bar mitzvah, the keeping of Shabbat—the one chain some non-traditional Jews simply will not break?

Anyone looking for logical, historical, or unanimous medical reasons to perform circumcision, especially in a brit milah ceremony, complete with mohel and festive lunch, will likely come up quite short. From an anthropological standpoint, the origin of the practice itself is unknown. In the Hebrew Bible, it’s in Genesis 7:1-14 that God tells Abraham that he and every Jewish male henceforth is to be circumcised as a mark of the Covenant; God does not say why the mark of the Covenant could not involve, say, the earlobe. The American Academy of Pediatrics, after years of going back and forth, now says that routine circumcision is not necessary, but that parents—including those with relevant religious traditions—should be encouraged to make informed choices about what works best for them.

Indeed, many liberal Jewish or interfaith couples, deciding that brit milah does not appeal, are exploring alternative ceremonies, or—given the pretty hefty weight of tradition—seeking reassurance that an uncircumcised boy is still a Jew. “They’re relieved when they find someone like me who says, ‘Hey, he’s gonna be Jewish because you’re raising him Jewish’,” says Peter Schweitzer, rabbi of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, who has spoken with many such parents.

In the same way, many nontraditional Jewish parents considering circumcision are not weighing one medical study against another; they are dealing with symbols and collective meaning. Many Jews do not feel a strict sense of obligation to perform certain rituals; rather, they view the ones they do choose as an opportunity to experience Jewish meaning in their lives, to make a connection to their community and heritage. For many of them, brit milah offers that opportunity in a way intense and vivid enough to trump other concerns.

“Lisa and I weren’t so thrilled about the whole bris thing,” says my friend Liz, who describes herself as moderately observant (Kosher, somewhat shomer Shabbos). “I mean, couldn’t some other mitzvah be the first mitzvah in Aviv’s life? Giving tzedakah, for instance.”

Still, Liz and her partner knew they’d do it. “While it’s not our favorite mitzvah, this one—which used to, among other things, separate us from our neighbors and mark membership in the Jewish people in the flesh of our children—feels so formative that it seemed very hard not to do it,” she says. Liz also considered the fact that Aviv has two mothers, wondering if that might make him “suspect in some Jewish circles.” Circumcision, she thought, could help mark his Jewishness in a way that his unconventional family might not.

For some, the sheer act of circumcision—even without the public ceremony—carries weight enough. Amber Powers, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Philadelphia, didn’t feel comfortable hosting a celebration that involved even a moment of her son’s pain, or that would require her to put on her happy party face while she was focused on her child. Nor did she feel that she had to circumcise in the first place. But she felt that the “chain of tradition” was a strong incentive, along with the fact that among those around her—though a non-circumcising minority is growing—brit milah remains the norm. So, she and her partner held a private bris with a mohel at eight days, and then hosted a welcoming ceremony for Elijah the following Sunday. “I take very seriously the collective sense of meaning,” she says. “My decision about what’s meaningful and relevant is not only about what’s meaningful and relevant to me, but also about what’s meaningful and relevant for my community.”

They may keep it private, they may believe that it’s archaic, challenging, even gross, yet many Jews who perceive themselves to have a choice in the matter still do it. Why does this ritual—as opposed to others with similar “’cause Jews have always done it” appeal—still hold so much power? I’m telling you, it’s about the blood. While the rules of kashrut, by contrast, are clear, the practice itself can also appear abstract. You eat a cheeseburger or you don’t, there’s no thunder and lightning; nothing happens either way. But a bris? Blood is spilled, the child is changed forever— now that’s a ritual. “My bottom line was this: we didn’t do a circumcision, we did a brit milah,” says New Yorker Daniel Radosh. For him, it wasn’t about the procedure; it was all, and only, about the ritual. All about this ritual: its ancient, mysterious origins, even—if not especially—its ick factor. “Most important for me,” he says, “were the continuity of the tradition and the almost mystical covenant made flesh.”

It’s mystical, and it’s primal. “I want to call it primitive,” says Rabbi Schweitzer. “And bringing in the mohel is akin to bringing in a shaman or witch doctor. It’s very powerful.”

That’s how Brooklynite Larry Kanter feels, too. He held a bris for his son even though—despite being raised in a Conservative household—he does not consider himself observant. “The circumcision ritual makes no sense, especially when you try to square it with contemporary standards and reasoning. Every time I go to a bris, I feel like I might as well be painting my face, beating drums and beseeching the rain gods. But I like that that feeling. At Carlos’ bris—perhaps because of the violence of the act—I felt a connection to something deep, timeless, pre-rational. I suppose, to some extent, that’s the point of all religious observance.”

If we ever have a son, whom we will call Ptui Ptui Ptui, I am sure we will have a bris, and not just because my husband knows all the best mohels. But because the very part that will freak me out—the shedding of his blood, the marking of his flesh, the sheer primitive craziness of it all—is what will give it, for me, its essential meaning. I understand why some consider the ritual irrelevant, even barbaric; I’m glad people are getting creative and finding meaning in alternative ceremonies. But I also think that in a Hallmarky, pop-songy, skimming-of-the-surface world, a world so detached from its own primal cycles that we buy peaches in winter and invent pills designed to stop our periods, that there’s room, here and there, for a little blood, for a bit of flesh, for rituals with real, timeless teeth. That’s the appeal of the bris for me—and, it appears, for others. But I’m not saying that, along with my whitefish, I won’t need a drink.

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website