Q My husband is not Jewish, but agreed we should bring up our children as Jews, as he knows how important it is to me. He has been great with our three-year-old daughter, celebrating festivals, sending her to a Jewish nursery and giving up eating bacon and shellfish in our home. But now we are expecting a little boy, and my husband says he's unhappy about giving him a bris. He claims it is barbaric, and he's found lots of information on the internet, which I think is antisemitic and very upsetting. We can't find a compromise. What should we do?
A Your question struck a chord because this is a dilemma my partner and I would have faced too, had our baby girl been a boy. Circumcision is so fundamental to Judaism, both religiously and culturally, that those of us brought up in it think of it as entirely normal and routine. Those who aren't Jewish, on the other hand, often regard it as unnecessary, potentially harmful and even cruel. Think objectively, and you can see why. Removing part of a tiny baby's body - from his most intimate place - for no sound medical reason, without anaesthetic, does sound barbaric. And there is, indeed, lots of literature out there about circumcisions gone wrong, and from men saying being cut has ruined their sex lives, or even arguing that it's mutilation on a par with FGM (female genital mutilation).
Of course, there is plenty of pro-circumcision fact and information out there too, which you could point him towards, to counter his arguments. For example, some experts believe being circumcised is more hygienic, prevents STIs, including the transmission of HIV and prevents penile cancer. Complications, while they do occur, are rare. You could also ask if your circumcised male relatives or friends, or those with sons who have been circumcised, would talk to your husband about this. Perhaps they could reassure him that they have no memory of the procedure and that it hasn't had any lasting negative impact on their lives. Point out that the Royal Family circumcises its male, er, members - and if it's good enough for them…
But, at heart, this disagreement isn't really about facts or logic; you're both coming from a place of emotion. You want your son circumcised because of a 'divine covenant', an ancient tradition, because it's what Jews do. He wants his son to remain intact because, whether consciously or not, he feels circumcision is an affront to his body, to his masculinity. He is aware that if it's done he will not look, or be the same, as his son and that this is, therefore, in one way, a rejection of him.
Having given up bacon and shellfish and embraced Jewish culture, your husband doubtless feels he has compromised enough. Now, he thinks, it's your turn. Unfortunately, as you've discovered, this is one situation in which there is no compromise: either you circumcise your son, or you don't and, as a result, one of you feels unhappy. But this isn't about you, or your husband - it's about your unborn son: his health, welfare and future. If I were to put my 'King Solomon' hat on, I'd probably suggest leaving this to your son to decide for himself, when he is old enough. The problem with this as a solution is that the later circumcision is performed, the more complicated and painful a procedure it is. So, while not having a bris would spare your son some pain now, and please your husband, it could mean that he has to endure a distressing surgery with weeks of recovery time, at a later date, instead. Not really a fair choice to impose on him, is it?
And there's another issue. If your husband genuinely wants your son to be brought up as Jewish and to live a Jewish life within the community, then denying him a circumcision could be a big problem. He would stand out as different and might not be accepted by his peers. Halachically, being uncircumcised should not prevent a boy from being able to have a bar mitzvah, but it's controversial, and not all communities are tolerant.
For all these reasons, my friends in mixed marriages who shared your dilemma did, ultimately, choose to circumcise. But only you and your husband can decide what's right for your son and your relationship. Please don't let this ruin your pregnancy. Take advice from your rabbi and talk to a paediatrician and a mohel too, if you think it would be helpful. Whatever you decide, rest assured that you probably won't ever have to deal with any issue more tricky in your marriage.
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