In this, the first of our Ethical Jam sessions, we contend with a painful dilemma for soon-to-be parents of a baby boy. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Dr. Alyssa Gray and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield are weighing in on the matter to help the expectant couple do the right thing.
My partner and I are both active members of the Jewish community, and we recently learned we are having a baby boy. As we contemplate a brit to welcome this newborn child into the Jewish community, we feel increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of circumcising our son because of the violent nature of this ritual.
We both honor and respect Jewish tradition, but we don’t want to subject our son to a nonmedical procedure of this sort. However, we are wary of how our family, friends and colleagues will react and how this decision might affect our son as he grows older and chooses to be an active member of the Jewish community. What do you recommend we do?
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin says…
As a mother and grandmother of sons, I hear you!
There is a reason tradition had the mother of the baby sit in one room as the bris took place in another. One 18th century manuscript of Jewish women’s prayers offers a moving recitation for the woman to say as she hands her child over to be circumcised.
And yet hundreds of generations have chosen to participate in this ancient tradition that marks parents and child as indivisible members of the Jewish people.
Our bodies are our spiritual canvas. A billboard of self, of sorts. How we keep them, cover them, treat them, mind them, adorn them reveals – and reinforces – our fundamental sense of self.
In a society that increasingly molds and fashions bodies – from the decorative packaging of tattoos, piercings, Botox, face lifts, hair dyes, braces, tooth whiteners and nail wraps to the deep commitment of transgender procedures – the stories our bodies tell speak volumes.
The act of the bris itself is amazingly quick – just a fraction of a second. Yet its blessings and significance transcend a lifetime.
The fact that you and your partner have chosen to be active members of the Jewish community and are thinking so deeply and deliberately about this issue leads me to believe that your son, too, is likely to be deeply committed to his Jewish roots. In which case, as he matures, the bris you give him truly becomes a gift.
Should he grow, however, not to care about his Judaism, the bris you give him becomes inconsequential. (Though potentially medically beneficial, but since this is contested, we can ignore this for now.)
In either case, his work is done.
But if your son grows and deepens his commitment to Judaism without a bris, he will be faced with a decision to undergo a procedure much more emotionally, physically, financially fraught than the bris of an infant.
A bris is hard, it is emotional, but it is absolutely worth it.
About Rabbi Cardin
Dr. Alyssa Gray says…
All best wishes to you both as you prepare for the birth of your son. His birth is not only a happy occasion for you and your family and friends, but also an auspicious and hopeful sign for the future of the Jewish people. At issue is how precisely to welcome your son into the Jewish people. As parents, you are naturally concerned with all aspects of his well-being: psychological, social, religious, and physical. Your own active involvement in the Jewish community suggests that you hope for your son to be active as well.
An uncircumcised Jewish male may well grow up feeling that he is different from other Jewish males, and this feeling of difference could lead to decreased Jewish interest and involvement. Moreover, your son’s investment in Judaism as a religion may be compromised as he learns about covenant, only to become acutely aware that he – unlike other Jewish males – does not bear the physical sign of that covenant. Should your son eventually fall in love with a potential partner who wishes him to be circumcised, the physical trauma of an adult circumcision would far outweigh the momentary discomfort of an infant’s circumcision at the hands of a well-trained and experienced mohel.
While parents are naturally wary of causing their baby physical pain, that may not always be avoidable and may even be necessary, as in the case of vaccinations – although circumcision is of course more permanent than vaccination. Studies differ as to whether or not there are health benefits to circumcision, but there is no clear indication that circumcised males lead less fulfilled lives than the uncircumcised. For centuries, we the Jewish people have welcomed our baby boys into the covenant with a ritual circumcision. I recommend that you, too, welcome your baby boy to our people with a brit milah.
About Dr. Gray
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield says…
Mazal Tov and B’sha’ah Tovah! Whatever you decide in terms of circumcision, this is a wonderful moment and deserves celebration.
Despite being an unapologetic supporter of brit milah, I believe your concerns, shared by increasing numbers of people, demand serious attention. In fact, it is especially important for those of us who support this ritual, to be sensitive to the very real, and deeply Jewish, sensibilities which animate your reservations.
After all, who wants to cause their kid pain? Who wants to make such an irrevocable decision for their child, especially so soon after they are born? These are questions that arise, often from precisely the kind of values we celebrate as Jews and as parents!
Also, let’s be clear – whatever you decide, your child will be Jewish. Brit milah is not an initiation ceremony. It is however, the most ancient, embodied and recognized tradition we have that marks men’s participation in the community that you care so deeply about being a part of.
You are right – circumcision is a big deal. Like much of life, there is some unavoidable pain, the offer of genuine comfort, and the care and love of surrounding friends and family. And also like life, it’s a package deal in which it may be impossible to jettison the tough stuff without losing much of the power of the “good stuff.” Perhaps that is one of the lessons of brit milah.
The ambivalence you feel is proportional to the power of this ritual, and perhaps the greatest argument in favor of performing it. You appreciate the power of this act and all the ways it signals participation in the tradition you love.
My advice is that you trust your intuition regarding the power of circumcision and that you and your son experience the unique power that comes from doing it.
About Rabbi Hirschfield
Now, what do YOU say?
Our Ethical Jammers have spoken, now what about you? Have you had any second thoughts about circumcision? What would your advice be to the couple having this dilemma? Add your comments below and let us learn together and debate for the sake of heaven!
And of course, if you have a dilemma you’d like us to address in the Ethical Jam, send it to EthicalJam@timesofisrael.com
Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism of Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, which is working to create a rich pluralistic discourse on issues of vital concern to the Jewish community and to the world at large.