Cutting Out the Bris – New York Times

Posted By on July 25, 2017

The science around the medical benefits of circumcision in the United States is inconclusive, though the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that it can help prevent some sexually transmitted infections like H.I.V., as well as penile cancer and urinary tract infections.

I think there was a time when all American baby boys were circumcised, of all religions, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America. Now its a choice. Its a decision.

I talk to a lot of families that really struggle with this decision, said Dr. Emily Blake, a New York-based OB/GYN who is also trained as a mohel in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist traditions. She has been performing the bris ceremony since 1990. The questions parents consider range from the practical How much will it hurt? to the existential Will my son even be Jewish?

Ms. Edell, 41, who lives in Brooklyn and works as the executive director of a young feminists group called Spark Movement, is raising her son, Wilder, as a single mother. She described the decision around circumcision as easily the most challenging and stressful one she has made as a parent. (Her son is only 15 months old.) Ms. Edell grew up in an observant Jewish family; she went to a Jewish school and to Jewish summer camp.

I knew that I wanted to raise my child Jewish and in a Jewish home. And yet Im also a feminist and activist, and believe very strongly in the right to your own body, she said.

She decided not to circumcise, a choice she said her parents eventually accepted. Instead she had a gentle bris ceremony with alternative ritual objects: a pomegranate, a gold kiddush cup, and a large ceramic bowl filled with water to wash the babys feet, an ancient act of welcoming the stranger. Ms. Edell cut the pomegranate, a totem of fertility with its plentiful seeds, while her mother held Wilder.

Theres no reliable data on the percentage of American Jewish boys who are circumcised each year. But there are some indicators to suggest why circumcision may be subject to increasing debate: A Pew survey of American Jews in 2013 revealed a significant rise in secular Jews who are marrying outside the faith, and roughly a third of intermarried Jews who are raising children say they arent raising them Jewish. Only 19 percent of American Jews said that observing Jewish law was an essential part of what being Jewish means. (In contrast, 42 percent said having a good sense of humor was essential.)

Theyre inadvertent trailblazers. Theyre certainly pushing the boundary of who can be a Jew, said Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan. Rabbi Schweitzer does alternative ceremonies for people who choose not circumcise.

Of course, there havent been changes across the board. For Orthodox families, who constitute about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, the traditional bris remains immutable.

You have a boy, you have a bris, said Cantor Philip Sherman, an Orthodox mohel who estimates hes performed more than 21,000 bris ceremonies. Those who choose to opt out dont have a connection to their Jewish heritage.

They dont know how important and significant this is, he said. If they did, they wouldnt take the position theyre taking.

Even for some progressive Jews, circumcising a son and holding a bris remains a quintessential part of being a Jewish parent. Sarah-Kay Lacks, who works at JCC Manhattan and calls her family post-denominational, said her sons bris was a euphoric experience. Others speak about it similarly.

Theres a lot of vulnerability and anxiety after a birth, said Rabbi Jacobs. The bris makes it possible to ritualize that youre part of something larger, youre part of a people past, present and future.

Rabbis and public health experts interviewed said that the great majority of Jewish parents still circumcise, and opting out remains almost taboo in much of the mainstream. A number of parents did not want to speak on the record about their decision, and some rabbis who had done alternative bris ceremonies asked not to be named publicly.

Right now, there is a dont ask/dont tell policy within much of institutional Judaism when it comes to parents skipping circumcision, said Rebecca Wald, the founder of Beyond the Bris, an online community for parents who are questioning circumcision.

On forums like Beyond the Bris, in conversations and blog posts, Jewish parents argue against circumcision for both medical and social reasons. Some discuss keeping babies natural bodies intact and raise questions about preventable pain and trauma.

Others see circumcision as an outdated practice. Among liberal Jews who have sought to make other aspects of Judaism more egalitarian, the bris also raises a feminist question: why should the most sacred act of Judaism, the linking of a child to the covenant, apply only to boys?

A variety of alternative ceremonies for girls have blossomed in the Reform movement. Since its a new ritual, theres no standard practice, said Rabbi Jacobs. Some parents wash the baby girls feet as a symbol of sacred welcome; some wrap the baby in a tallit, or prayer shawl; others light a candle, in honor of the new light in the community.

Even secular Jews, who do not keep kosher or go to synagogue, can face a wrenching decision over circumcision.

A 46-year-old father who asked to be identified only as Aaron because he was discussing intimate details about his son said he was surprised by how powerfully he felt about circumcising. Raised in California by a father who was a German Jewish refugee and a feminist Jewish mother, he said he grew up standard American Reform.

For me, this wasnt about a covenant with God, because Im secular, he said. It was really about identification as a Jew, at the most visceral, embodied level.

Aarons wife, who is not Jewish and grew up in a country where circumcision was not the norm, was opposed to it. She did not want to inflict pain on her newborn baby. The decision became the hardest thing my wife and I have ever had to deal with, Aaron said.

Ultimately, eight months into his wifes pregnancy, Aaron agreed not to circumcise their son.

I didnt want it to end our marriage and tear apart our family, he said.

An earlier version of this article misstated the source of a 2014 analysis on circumcision. It was published in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings but was not conducted by the Mayo Clinic.

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Cutting Out the Bris - New York Times

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