Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is there an acceptable alternative to circumcision?


Question: My niece did not want her son circumcised and instead had a “simchat brit” ceremony performed by a Progressive rabbi. But my husband was outraged and boycotted the occasion. Now my niece will not speak to him. Was he right to take such a stand?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

I have to confess I had no idea what a simchat brit is and, after researching it on the internet, I don’t think I am any the wiser. As far as I was able to ascertain, a simchat brit is a bizarre New-Age ritual for a baby girl that involves dabbing the infant with blood from the mother’s birth discharge while chanting biblical passages and prayers.

I don’t know if your niece adapted this particular ceremony to the initiation of her son or whether it was an entirely different sort of ceremony. What I gather from your description, however, is that she chose not to circumcise her son and instead replaced this ancient Jewish rite of passage with a new-fangled service that does not involve removing the infant’s foreskin.

Let me state at the outset that denying one’s Jewish infant son a brit is symbolically a fundamental rejection of Jewish identity. So elemental is the brit to being Jewish that, along with immersion in the mikveh, it is the portal through which a gentile convert is transformed into a Jew. Equally, circumcision is the prerequisite for a Jewish male’s participation in the key ritual that in Temple times marked one’s place in the Jewish narrative; eating the paschal lamb on Passover.

Ironically, brit milah and Passover Seder are the two rituals that even the most disinterested Jews still cling to. That your niece was willing to forgo this profound act of Jewish belonging is extremely sad and your husband is right to be disturbed by it.

Should he have made an appearance at the ceremony for the sake of family harmony? I don’t see how in good conscience he could have. It is distressing enough to learn that his great-nephew was denied a brit. To expect him to attend a synthetic ceremony highlighting the absence of brit is simply unacceptable.

People are free to make their own choices in life but that does not mean that everyone else has to validate them. When you choose to trample on the most basic of Jewish sensibilities, you cannot reasonably expect a proud and sensitive Jew to participate in the occasion.

That your niece now chooses not to speak to your husband as a result of his principled stance reflects on her part either incredible naivety or deep-seated guilt. Either way, it is her problem, not your husband’s.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

By chance, I received this question while in South Africa, where there is a massive government campaign to encourage males to be circumcised so as to lessen their risk of contracting and passing on AIDS. In Johannesburg, a large billboard depicted a woman looking enticing and saying, “I prefer it condomised and circumcised. It’s safer and better.”

This is not the Jewish reason for circumcision, but it gives a different context to the negative atmosphere around circumcision in the UK, which is often associated with the words “mutilation” and “barbarism”. I suspect matters will get worse now that Female Genital Mutilation is becoming more widely condemned; circumcision will be seen also as an invasive ritual imposed on children, even though it is totally different and, if anything, beneficial.

But some Jews feel genuinely ambivalent about it because they question why the miraculous gift of life needs altering eight days later if it was so perfect in the first place. There are also those in mixed-faith marriages, whose partners object to circumcision, so they feel they cannot insist on it unilaterally.

It is striking, though, that there are other Jews who ignore countless commandments — who cheerfully eat pork and disregard Shabbat — yet who observe this particular command. It illustrates that circumcision is primarily an act of identity and transition, saying “However good or bad a Jew I am, it is still important to me to pass my Jewish heritage on to my child”. It is as much a marker for the parents as for the child. It corresponds, consciously or not, to the idea of covenant mentioned in Genesis 17.

In effect, your niece did exactly that, albeit without circumcision; far from abandoning Judaism, she made a deliberate effort to induct her son into it. Your husband may think the method was wrong, but should be big enough to respect her sincerity; for her part, she should be more forgiving, and they should put the episode behind them by her inviting him to the child’s first birthday and him accepting.

For other concerned parents, we can make the process of circumcision more reassuring by some simple changes (already the norm in Progressive circles): banning metzitzah (sucking the cut), insisting that mohelim are not only ritually trained but also medically qualified and routinely using anaesthetic cream on the penis.

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