Posts Tagged ‘brit milah’

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Circumcision Decision

May 26, 2017

When it comes to a Jewish boy’s circumcision status, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” a reasonable policy?

That’s the question I’ll be posing at my upcoming book event on Sunday, June 11th at 11 a.m. at the East Bay Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, where I’ll be reading from Celebrating Brit Shalom, the first-ever book written specifically for Jewish families opting out of circumcision.

As my co-author Rebecca Wald and I have discovered, today’s Jewish community includes many Jewish and interfaith families who have opted out of circumcision. In fact, a few mainstream rabbis have made the same choice—under the radar, that is. Think about it: if even rabbis are afraid to “come out” about their decision, how can other such families feel truly welcomed by Jewish institutions?

How has circumcision become today’s big “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue in the Jewish world? And how would our community benefit if our institutions sent a clear message of inclusion to non-circumcising families? Come find out!


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

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