Taking the religion out of circumcision

Some secular Jewish parents are opting out of a fundamental ritual of Judaism

By Simon Round, February 12, 2009
A circumcision ceremony in Israel attended by the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (right). In the UK, some non-religious Jewish parents are dispensing with the services of a mohel and opting to have their sons circumcised by a medical professional

A circumcision ceremony in Israel attended by the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (right). In the UK, some non-religious Jewish parents are dispensing with the services of a mohel and opting to have their sons circumcised by a medical professional

In many parts of the world, when couples choose to have a family there is a strong preference for a boy. Not among secular Jewish couples, though. Reform rabbi Jonathan Romain has noticed the opposite preference — they nearly always hope for a girl. It is not that this section of the community has anything against baby boys, but rather that having a girl frees them from the responsibility of worrying about circumcision.

For traditional and religious families, there is no problem. When a boy is born, you call up the mohel who comes along to perform a brit milah on the baby with all due ceremony at the age of eight days.

But what about families who do not observe kashrut and do not attend synagogue? After all, circumcision is a more extreme religious practice than refraining from pork or going to shul. Overwhelmingly, Jewish couples do tend to circumcise their boys, whatever their level of their religious observance. But there is a clear trend towards taking the religion out of the event by having the procedure performed medically rather than ritually.

When Naomi and David Green (not their real names — “David” wished not to reveal the couple’s identity) had a baby boy three and a half months ago, the couple had a decision to make. Naomi explains: “My husband does not have ritual or prayer in his life and did not want a ritual circumcision. I was always very worried about how we were going to compromise. David said he would not feel comfortable having prayers or a rabbi in our home. He just doesn’t talk to God — it would feel hypocritical and alien to him. However, I think because he was circumcised himself, he was happy that our son be circumcised, so thankfully that was a given.”

But Naomi was not happy to have her son circumcised in a “meaningless” medical procedure carried out at a hospital. She also had pressure from her family, who wanted to be included. After much discussion they reached a compromise with which they were both satisfied.

“Eventually we decided to visit the surgery of a Jewish GP who was also a mohel and who said he would do the procedure for us with a local anaesthetic and a couple of stitches. It was lovely because the grandparents were there to witness it and, although the doctor was happy to perform the procedure without prayer, he did not want to do it without any reference to us being Jewish. So he said a few words about the historical and cultural significance of circumcision, which gave us all food for thought. There was no guilt. The baby screamed during the operation but I think that was more to do with the indignity of being pinned down than anything else.”

Rabbi Romain feels that, given David’s reluctance for a religious circumcision, the couple took the correct course of action.

“The first thing to say is that I am strongly in favour of the brit milah. But if the parents don’t want a religious dimension, fair enough — ultimately it is a brit milah whether or not you say some words in Hebrew or English. There are preferred methods but at the end of the days circumcision is circumcision so, yes, it does count”.

He adds: “I tend to hear couples saying: ‘Let’s hope it’s a girl’ much more than before — not that they are now anti-circumcision, but they are more nervous of having to go through with it; somehow it’s become more of a reluctant obligation than a joyous mitzvah. Why has there been this change? It’s a result of people being affected by the anti-circumcision attitudes prevalent in most baby books and ante-natal classes, combined with the ‘why-risk-it?’ nervousness engendered by the current culture of health and safety-itis. Parents feel that it might be safer if they go to the local hospital. I would say that is wrong. I would always advise parents to go to a mohel because they are the real experts. A mohel will perform the procedure two or three times a day so they really are the specialists.”

Anne-Marie Conway and her husband Danny, from North London, did not have a mohel perform a circumcision on either of their sons. Conway was adamant that she did not want a brit milah. “I never considered it because it went against my feelings of how you should treat a baby. I didn’t have any kind of religious feeling and neither did Danny. However, we did have them circumcised because I didn’t think it would be fair for them to look different from other Jewish children. It just seemed like the right thing to do because they had a circumcised father and they were Jewish. Had they not been circumcised, it could have caused them a lot of confusion and anxiety. So we found a non-Jewish specialist who had circumcised a friend’s boy at a clinic in Central London.

“I’m happy with the decision and would not do anything differently now.”

When my own son, Alex, was born, his mother and I had a similar decision to make. We are both secular Jews and we breathed a sigh of relief when our first-born turned out to be a girl. However, when Alex arrived there was little discussion. We both wanted him circumcised despite the fact that our Jewish observance was confined to lighting the candles at Chanucah and a Seder at Pesach.

So why would we want to take such an extreme step? From my point of view, it was about Alex not being different physically from me — an obvious point, but also a very powerful factor.

I also felt very strongly that Alex was a continuation of the Jewish line and, as such, it was appropriate that he be circumcised, as has every other male in his family. Had there been any doubts about the safety of the procedure or its effect on my son, I might have had second thoughts but in my mind there are as many plus sides to circumcision as there are minus ones.

We took Alex to the Portland Hospital in Central London where, under a local anaesthetic, he had a ring placed around his foreskin, cutting off the blood supply. We were told that the ring would fall off several days later and with it the foreskin — this duly happened, without any ceremony, during a nappy change.

Although Alex is undeniably circumcised, he would not be considered so by an Orthodox rabbi. To be acceptable, the circumcision has to be carried out properly by a trained mohel, such as Leslie Solomon.

He says: “The Orthodox position is very clear. It is not just a medical procedure, it needs to be carried out by a Jew according the required stages. The skin has to be cut off using a blade or something sharp.

“There is no one more qualified in this country to do a circumcision on a baby than a mohel. A busy mohel does many more circumcisions than a surgeon. There is no reason to go anywhere else. It’s better for the child. For young babies there’s no question at all.

“However, the truth is that if boys are circumcised by another method, there is little we can do about it. We cannot re-circumcise anyone who has already been circumcised so in these cases we would make a symbolic cut called a tipat dum (dropping of blood) — in effect a tiny pin prick so that the brit milah can be said to have taken place.”

Why circumcise?

Jewish boys are circumcised at eight days old as a covenant between man and God. According to Genesis, the brit milah was performed by Abraham on himself at the age of 99.

God said to Abraham: “As far as you are concerned, you must keep My covenant — you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must keep. You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.”

Last updated: 12:46pm, February 12 2009