Prior to the birth of our second son, my husband and I decided to circumcise him, despite the trauma of our first son’s brit eight years earlier. Not that anything out of the ordinary had happened. It was the simple fact we had allowed a complete stranger to enter our house, gather our families for prayer, and cut a piece of skin off our 8-day-old baby’s penis. We had thought it through before the event and debated the topic with our families. But by some hidden force, we had felt compelled to do it, against our beliefs and primal instinct as parents. The entire time I had hoped that, as in the story of Isaac where an angel of the Lord stops Abraham at the last minute, one of our elders would intercede and save our son from this little act of sacrifice for which we had gathered around the dining table.
No such luck. Instead, my free-spirited mother, my scholarly father, my atheist, ex-kibbutznik in-laws, and other family suddenly began following the mohel’s recitation, as if under a spell. The power of their prayer silenced my voice. As the circumcision was about to take place, I left the scene and hid in the nursery. My aunt soon followed and hugged my shivering body through the process. Next was my son’s cry. It is one you never forget.
Back in the living room, the mohel handed my son to me and recited a verse marking his initiation into the Jewish people: “Vaikareh shmo be Israel…” (And his name in Israel would be…). I uttered his beautiful name out loud for the first time and realized that I had just betrayed him. The mohel then repeated the same verse in female form, referring to his twin sister. For a brief moment the room fell silent. I had forgotten that I had a daughter, let alone that she had a name.
I still believe we had made the right choice back then. As new parents welcoming a son into Israeli society, we were not ready to stand against social norms and bear the consequence of our transgression. In the Bible, the brit is a mark of alliance and commitment between God and the People of Israel. God states before Abraham: “I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you … I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I shall be their God … Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.” [Genesis 17: 6, 8, 10]. It is one of God’s first commands to Abraham, and the first command with which Abraham’s descendants are to begin their lives. Those who disobeyed were to be cut off from the tribe of Israel.
The great majority of secular Jews in Israel circumcise their sons while neglecting other commands of no lesser significance and consequence. Why? Why preserve the most brutal and barbaric of our traditions and prioritize it over all other commands and rites? We yielded to the power of tradition, did the brit, without answering this question.
While the memory of the brit haunted me from time to time in the years that followed, overall I was relieved that our son did not have to deal with issues of difference, that his penis did not set him apart. It was therefore only natural that eight years later we would do the same. With one small difference: We would forgo the ritual and have a surgeon perform the circumcision under local anesthesia. We viewed this medical procedure as a “middle path,” a minor transgression of the ritual protocol cherished by the religious establishment, which offered a more progressive practice and did not involve any social implications
I had already set the appointment, when my husband and children fell ill. The eighth day arrived, that upon which, God commanded, the brit was to take place. The day passed. Others followed, until three weeks later my husband suddenly asked: “Remind me, why are we doing it?” Having missed the deadline, we had the time and clarity of mind to think it through. We went over our rationale. Somehow it sounded less convincing. Our years of parenting had taught us that a minor physical difference does not set a child apart and that no single practice determines a child’s identity. The disproportionate significance that is attributed to the brit now seemed highly unjustified to us. We realized that our central motivation in circumcising was fear. But what were we so afraid of?
My husband has an uncanny ability to disappear when sensing a family drama, so I was left alone to further contemplate the matter. I called a former classmate who had not circumcised her sons. I wanted to know how much of a statement it was. “There are certain things I avoid,” she admitted, “like having my sons change into bathing suits on the beach. But, I do not see it as a statement, certainly not one that I need to defend. Once the family’s objection subsides, you forget it was ever an issue.”
It was time to raise the subject with my anything-but-conventional parents. Their consent was crucial to me. To my surprise, they did not take it well. Dismissing my arguments about the abuse of a newborn baby, about the unnecessary mutilation of his penis, and, most profoundly, about his right to choose, my dad said: “You know, Yagi, you have always had silly ideas.” My dad, who taught me one has to follow one’s moral code, whatever the price may be, could not see why I questioned this practice. Lacking a convincing argument, he turned to my aunt and uncle, both doctors, for validation. In an email, my uncle wrote to him: “Circumcision is hardly ever performed for medical indications and never, for such a reason, in the newborn period. It is carried out for religious and traditional reasons. In the Jewish tribe, it is done as a ritual sign of belonging. While circumcision has some medical benefits, they are unlikely to outweigh the risks.”
The email continued:
I think Yagi, like all caring mothers, doesn’t want to hurt her baby, particularly, as I suspect, she is ambivalent about her tribal identity. If the baby doesn’t have a brit he will look different from his father and brother and friends. In a sense, Yagi would be using her son as a vehicle for her own statement and needs to be able to deal with downstream matters.
Addressing the rite itself, he explained:
It is invariably the case that women at the brit congregate in the kitchen for mutual support as they think the process barbaric, while men are involved in the process and wince and say how glad they are that they weren’t aware of what happened. The pull of the group seems to overcome the distaste for the process. Cultures depend upon mutual support to justify often meaningless traditional acts.
It may be better to ask the question: What would my son wish me to do/have done?
And my aunt texted me: “Ultimately, I think the baby would want you to give consent now. Be brave. He will be OK. I wish I could be there to give you a hug.”
My objection had nothing to do with motherly love or ambivalence about my identity. Rather, my issue was with a tradition that expected me to compromise my beliefs and seek comfort with the women in the kitchen while my newborn was to undergo a painful surgical procedure for purely religious reasons. As secular Jews, we are taught to question all things under the sun, God included—but not the brit. In this moment, we are expected to succumb to the eternal rules of ritual.
My father was about to leave for the U.S., realizing his grandson might not be circumcised. I went to say goodbye. He was reluctant to give me a hug. My mother left us to talk, which we didn’t. She, too, was displeased, but she promised to accept whatever decision we made. More than arguments, however, there was an unusual, tense silence.
I felt a deep and unexplained sense of betrayal. It took me some time to understand what it was. As often happens with rituals, over time we attribute new meanings to the same act, telling ourselves a different story, even if we cannot quite say what this story is. In the secular world, we no longer perform the brit to validate the alliance between God and the Jewish people. We perform it to reinforce our identity in the absence of God, because the brit embodies our story as a nation. Through the brit we mark the newborn son as unequivocally belonging to a unique history of victimhood, sacrifice, persecution, survival, and heroism. It is a sign of dignity and pride, a celebration of our right to be and fight for who we are. The sacrificial dimension of the brit further signifies our national resilience, which is passed on from mother to son, when she symbolically hands her newborn to the (male-dominated) tribe on the eighth day of his life. I think this is what my father’s silence stood for. Not performing the brit is a mark of cowardice, disrespect, and betrayal.
I realized then that someone or something had to be betrayed. There was no way around it. In my distress, I wrote back to my aunt: “My son is Jewish and will grow into this tradition, as it is part of who we are. And while no one cares to what extent we celebrate our identity, his penis is a very serious matter. I do wonder about that. Neither his father nor his brother mind this difference. Should he mind, he can undergo the process later. It is his body, his choice.”
My aunt replied: “We have been discussing the subject all day. I understand that an anti-circumcision lobby is also increasing in the Jewish community now. Our generation never questioned it. I am glad your generation does … Continue to believe in yourself. Parents are too emotionally involved. Your dad will come around. You cannot make decisions to please your parents. Thank you for making me think and evaluate this matter. Love you, xx.”
With that I had finally made my decision. I was no longer alone. My dear aunt, who had once comforted me in the nursery, was again by my side. I figured that if within 24 hours she, who cherished the brit as an important aspect of our identity, could come to accept my perspective, everything would be fine. My father, as she said, came around. He always says my little one resembles him most. My father-in-law makes similar claims. And my firstborn, pure-hearted son is convinced that his little brother is the greatest gift of his life.
We are no less Jewish today than we were nine years ago, and our elder son could not possibly be more Jewish than our younger. Literary critic Susan Stewart wrote that the miniature always tends toward exaggeration. Whatever history, beliefs, emotions, and narratives the foreskin may signify, it is after all a piece of skin. With or without the brit, our story as a nation will remain what it was and morph into what it is to become.
And even by Jewish law, it is not the foreskin that defines who we are. It is our mother. As a mother, I have made two different choices and will have to explain both as my sons grow up. Yet I find there is a certain value in their difference. It signifies our freedom, as secular Jews, to question our beliefs and practices and to shape the Jewish world according to our changing view.
Yagi Morris holds a PhD in the Study of Religions from SOAS, University of London, and specializes in Japanese medieval religiosity.