Spiritual Authenticity and the Circumcision Decision

February 18, 2016

imagesCAAHRQWLThough the prospect of circumcising a baby boy typically causes some anxiety, Jewish parents most often to go through with it. Circumcision is a concrete symbol of the ancient Abrahamic covenant, an affirmation of membership in the tribe, and a way for the boy to “look like Dad.” Sealing the deal for many is the idea that circumcision provides health benefits throughout a child’s life.

These days, however, there are Jewish parents who consider the issue carefully—and come to a different conclusion. To them, circumcision seems unnecessary, harmful or traumatic, and they decide not to do it. The question is, do these families represent a disheartening watering-down of tradition? Or do they perhaps have something unique and precious to offer to the ongoing Jewish narrative?

My sons, now grown, are both circumcised. But I acquiesced unhappily, despite grave misgivings. My husband was in favor of circumcision, and like him, I wanted my boys to be fully accepted in Jewish life. I wanted to be fully accepted in Jewish life. In short, my compliance was calculated. It was not an expression of my spiritual beliefs or my relationship with God.

From the point of view of halacha (Jewish law), one should perform the mitzvot (commandments) even if one lacks spiritual conviction. The idea is that since spiritual belief can result from practice, one shouldn’t wait for inspiration in fulfilling a required deed.

While I respect and appreciate that concept, I’m not a halachic Jew. I believe in the central principle of progressive Judaism: we make ritual choices based on Jewish knowledge and thoughtful personal inquiry. If we leave our experience out of these decisions or go against our own ethics, we not only fail ourselves, but deprive our community of something vital to the living, breathing organism we call contemporary Judaism.

A 2011 responsum by Conservative-trained Rabbi Chaim Weiner asserts that halachically, boys who have not been circumcised are still entitled to have bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. As someone who champions the inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish life, I applaud the rabbi’s stand.

Rabbi Weiner then notes, regarding families’ choice whether to circumcise, that “it is unlikely that coercive tactics will lead to an increase in observance.” It is here that I disagree with him. I believe such tactics, from subtle pressure to overstepped emotional boundaries, have persuaded many parents to go through with circumcision.

If the Jewish community has secured greater conformity to circumcision through social pressure, I would ask: at what cost? I remember feeling I had to choose between my maternal urges (protect that infant!) and my heritage (hand him over!). My authentic self, the person who wanted to nurture and comfort my newborn babies, did not seem welcome in Judaism. I had always thought of tradition as something that makes us whole, connecting us not only with each other, but with our inner being. Here I felt disconnected from my people and from myself.

Our personal integrity, the genuineness of our connection with God, and the biological imperative to protect an infant are all sacred covenants. I’d even go so far as to suggest there’s an implicit covenant between Judaism and the individual Jew: if I value the best of Judaism, shouldn’t Judaism value the best of me?

It is because of these other covenants that circumcision strikes some parents as a breach of promise, rather than the sealing of one. And yet that painful predicament—despite its spiritual nature—is rarely part of the Jewish conversation. Too often, parents’ doubts are met with diversionary humor, dismissal, or reverential incantations about “the covenant,” as if no obligation other than the agreement between God and Abraham could be considered sacred.

Parents for whom circumcision feels like an ethical breach should be able to discuss that with clergy and get actual spiritual guidance instead of pressure to conform. Brit shalom (covenant of peace), a ceremony for non-circumcising families, should be openly offered.

The rate of routine infant circumcision has dropped steadily in the U.S. in recent decades, from 81% in 1981 to a little over 50% now. Skepticism about medical benefits, better understanding of the physiological function and erogenous nature of foreskin tissue, and ethical considerations have all played roles in the declining rate. Since these matters concern every parent, it’s not surprising that Jewish families are among those opting out of circumcision.

Meanwhile, progressive Jewish institutions are going to great lengths, and admirably so, to welcome members of our community who may not look traditionally Jewish. I would urge any rabbi wishing to respond to the diverse needs of today’s families to openly embrace “conscientious objectors” to circumcision, reassuring them that they’re still included and wanted. This is a halachically sound concept as well as one appropriate to the principles of various progressive movements of Judaism.

A Judaism that respects and celebrates spiritual authenticity, a Judaism that invites us to bring our true selves into the Jewish conversation—this is a vibrant, meaningful Judaism.


Published in Jewish Journal, July 8, 2015

Audacious Hospitality: What Synagogues Can Do Following a Rabbi’s Misconduct

February 10, 2016

imagesCAAHRQWL  Recent coverage about sexual misconduct among rabbis, specifically the Eric Siroka case, questions how well the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) balanced its responsibility toward unsuspecting communities with its loyalty to the accused rabbi. A follow-up article discussed the need to tighten disciplinary measures, and a letter from Rabbi Steve Fox, the CCAR’s chief executive, praised the bravery of women who came forward and encouraged others to follow suit.

I identify with the women in this case, having had my own experience with a rabbi’s inappropriate attention in the early 1990s. Thankfully, being married, I’d kept my distance from the rabbi. But if I’d been in another situation, as many women are, or in a different kind of marriage — well, things could have gone differently.

I understand why the spotlight is on CCAR in the Siroka case. What surprises me is that no one seems to be talking about the role of the synagogues here. If CCAR is working to improve protocol in such cases, shouldn’t congregations be doing the same?

I remember that at my synagogue, when allegations from various women surfaced and the whole house of cards came tumbling down, the board scrambled to protect the institution first, the rabbi second — and the women only a distant third. Indeed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the board marginalized those who had come forward. I wasn’t one of them, and in that environment, I wasn’t about to be. My husband and I left the synagogue (we’re now members of a wonderful congregation elsewhere).

In the Siroka case, it seems highly likely that there were key people at his various pulpits who knew of his conduct, at least after the fact, dating back 15 years. Why do the women seem to have been left alone to pick up the pieces? Where was the institutional support and follow-up, for example, for the young woman who had aspired to the rabbinate, but became completely alienated from Judaism because of her interactions with this rabbi?

And how can women be expected to bear the burden of going public when they may well be discredited or accused of having exercised bad judgment? Things have improved since the ’90s, but even in the Siroka case, there are those wanting to characterize his behavior as marital infidelity rather than a predatory abuse of power. What this implies is that the women have no basis for feeling the institution or the community has failed them.

My previous congregation certainly failed me. When it hired a new permanent senior rabbi, he was quoted in the local Jewish press as saying he felt it made sense that the women had left — that they should seek therapy and get on with their lives. A high-ranking board member said he didn’t believe anyone was having angst over the experience anymore, and that the original congregants who had come forward were no longer affiliated there. The rabbi and board member seemed proud that their community had healed so well.

In other words, the institution’s indifference and even hostility toward these inconvenient women, causing them to flee, was spun as something they’d chosen for themselves. And — how touching — the new rabbi could understand and empathize with their “decision.”

Irked by these institutional sighs of relief masquerading as community healing and compassion, I called the new rabbi to explain why I’d found his remarks offensive. But he was condescending and unkind, apparently not noticing that his nonpastoral reaction to me was nearly as inappropriate as the original injury.

I now realize the congregation could have significantly righted the ship if it had simply issued an explicit invitation to all the women who had been this rabbi’s prey to stay.

That’s right, stay. We should have gotten a clear message of inclusion from the board, remaining clergy and staff. Something like: “This appalling ethical breach happened on our watch. We feel terrible about it, and want to make it up to you. You’re an integral part of our healing as we move forward, even if you choose to stay silent. Please remain a member, and don’t pay synagogue fees until you feel better about this place — no rush. Meanwhile, we’re here for you.” It wouldn’t have cost officials anything, save a commitment not to blame the victims.

I’ve recently returned from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial conference in Orlando, Fla., where one important theme was “audacious hospitality.” What would the Jewish world look like if, in cases of a rabbi’s sexual misconduct, synagogue communities practiced audacious hospitality toward the victims of the breach?

Let’s end the pernicious convention of ostracizing the women in such unfortunate cases. If our governing bodies haven’t done enough in these situations, or if they haven’t moved fast enough, surely our congregations have an obligation to do right by the women in the meantime.


Published in Jewish Journal, December 4, 2015


Book for Non-Circumcising Families Hits Reform Judaism Conference

February 2, 2016


imagesCAAHRQWLIn November, I attended the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) 2015 Biennial conference in Orlando, Florida, where my co-author Rebecca Wald and I had a display booth in the exhibition hall. We were there to showcase Celebrating Brit Shalom, the first book written specifically for Jewish families opting out of circumcision. With the thousands of Reform rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders in attendance, we were eager, excited—and, frankly, a little anxious about how our book would be received.

It was an extraordinary experience: demanding, invigorating, exhausting—and exhilarating.

Among about a hundred vendors of quality art, jewelry, handmade synagogue furnishings, prayer shawls, Jewish books, and other Judaica, plus exhibitors for Jewish organizations and Israel travel packages, we did raise some eyebrows. But the vast majority of visitors to our booth were respectful, and even our detractors seemed to walk away a little more curious or thoughtful and a little less judgmental after talking with us.

Some were delighted about our book of ceremonies being available, and immediately appreciated our view that families deciding not to circumcise should have Jewish options. On a number of occasions, people expressed deep personal gratitude for our presence.

Quite a few rabbis had already performed brit shalom (covenant ceremonies for non-circumcising families). Several clergy members came back multiple times to talk with us because they were so enthusiastic about what we’re doing.

A few visitors to our booth didn’t realize that there are Jewish families skipping circumcision and wanted to know more about the families’ thinking. Others, unaware of the procedure’s drawbacks, couldn’t understand why anyone would opt out. We heard numerous stories about difficult brises—surprisingly, both from those who liked our booth and from those who didn’t.

Some people were confrontational, declaring that circumcision is essential; we explained that not every Jewish person feels that way, and that our book was for those seeking ritual alternatives. Some people avoided us altogether. On at least one occasion, a rabbi apparently wanted to talk with us, but sent someone else to gather information because he didn’t want to be seen at our booth.

A couple of clergy members told us they were privately against circumcision. One clergy person said she and her husband, also clergy, were both strongly opposed to circumcision—and had gone through with it in their family only for fear of professional repercussions if they didn’t.

But perhaps the biggest shocker was that we talked with two separate rabbis who had decided not to circumcise their own sons!

Meanwhile at the Biennial, the Reform movement passed a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Although circumcision is a family’s choice (rather than a matter of a person’s innate being), I think there are parallels regarding the issue of welcome and inclusion.

For example, a few rabbis indicated to us that they were fine with families’ not circumcising, but preferred a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about it. While privacy about such a decision might seem decorous, “don’t ask, don’t tell” conveys the message that there is something to be ashamed of in the decision not to circumcise. Given that the very basis of Reform Judaism is choice, a family should never be made to feel their ritual decision is shameful or “less-than.”

That’s why, besides selling the book at our booth (and giving away a number of copies), we provided a flyer outlining concrete steps that synagogues can take if they wish to send a clear message of inclusion to these families. The flyer was so popular that we kept running out and having to photocopy more.

We do have work ahead of us. Here we were with a message of inclusion, a message about the need to reach out to families that might not otherwise consider Jewish affiliation. Clergy not wanting to be seen talking with us? Rabbis not wanting to publicly acknowledge their own ambivalence about this ritual? If the leaders of our community feel this skittish, it’s little wonder that non-circumcising families aren’t sure whether they’re welcome.

A true highlight for me was getting to talk personally with the president of the URJ, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. He took the time to look over our posters and materials, bought a book, and seemed particularly interested in our photo collage of brit shalom families. As I explained to Rabbi Jacobs, the graphic designer for that poster wasn’t even able fit in all the families’ photos we had given him to work with. It appears that brit shalom is a growing trend.

I am moved by how many of the Biennial attendees appreciated our addition to the Jewish conversation. Most of all, I’m grateful to be part of a tradition that, at its heart, invites intellectual and spiritual inquiry.


At our booth. From left: Lisa Braver Moss, Rabbi Heidi Cohen, and my co-author Rebecca Wald


Published in Jewschool, 1/21/16