Increasingly, Jewish parents in America, Canada and Israel are skipping circumcision. Instead, they are holding alternative ceremonies sometimes called Bris Shalom or Brit B’lee Milah(covenant without cutting). Many Jews throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union stopped circumcising over 100 years ago. Already well over 130 Rabbis are performing alternative covenant ceremonies that omit the surgical circumcision. These are gaining popularity both in America and worldwide.
Circumcision is Needless Violence
As 21st century Jews, we are always working to adjust our lives and actions to the constantly expanding moral arc of human rights. A greater number of American, Canadian, Israeli, and Jews worldwide are beginning to question milah (the surgical circumcision) aspect of the brit. Is it wishful thinking to hope that Judaism in today’s age moves to a symbolic interpretation of circumcision, as it has already done for other violent commandments from the Torah? Jewish law is constantly evolving to expand human rights and ethical treatment of others. Jewish law regularly reinterprets violent decrees in metaphorical and symbolic ways, so as to avoid harming others. Increasingly forward thinking Jews are adopting peaceful covenant ceremonies that abolish the surgical circumcision in favor of a loving welcoming instead.
For over ten years, Mark Reiss, MD, an American Jewish doctor and co-founder of Doctors Opposing Circumcision has published a list of more than 130 Rabbis who will celebrate a bloodless Brit Shalom. Among the members on this list are Rabbis with intact grandsons and Rabbis who after decades of officiating at circumcisions, have come to the conclusion that they can no longer ethically continue. Many parents are also finding that their regular Rabbi or Cantor are happy to do so as well, even if they are not on this list. Jewish parents can find a Rabbi, or Cantor to lead a Brit without cutting on this Bris Shalom Celebrants List.
Here some of these Jewish parents share their experiences and thoughts on the development of new Jewish rituals and the morals and ethics that inspired them.
“We did not circumcise my son. Instead, we created a beautiful, gentle welcoming ceremony to celebrate his entry into the Jewish people and the world community. Instead of a bris milah, there was a bris blee milah – a covenant without circumcision. We reinterpreted the notion of covenant to mean the commitment that we, his parents made, publicly, to bring him up with love, respect, openness, and gentleness. Friends lit candles for him and shared blessings and poems for him, some in traditional Hebrew, others specially written for the occasion. We had music, prayers, songs, dancing, and we spoke about the meanings of his names and about our decision not to circumcise him… I say this as a Jew actively involved in both cultural and religious aspects of my community. I also say it to you directly from the Jewish tradition, specifically from the Talmudic imperative of pikuach nefesh. Pikuach nefesh means the duty to save a life in any situation in which it is imperiled, whether directly by danger or serious illness, or indirectly by a condition which is not serious but cute deteriorate. It is clear to me that circumcision of an eight-day old infant is such a condition, and one could therefore make an argument from within the tradition for outlawing circumcision. The Talmud goes on to say (Hul. 10a): “One should be more particular about matters concerning life and health than about ritual observances.” It insists (Yoma 85a and b) that even the laws of the Sabbath may – indeed must be broken to give necessary medical treatment… Let us note that keeping the Sabbath is one of the ten commandments, circumcision is not.
Jewish law is not, contrary to popular misconception, set in stone. It is an evolving process which began with the early Talmudists and continues to this day, taking into account new developments in science and understanding in the secular world.”
Jenny Goodman, A Jewish Perspective on Circumcision.
“Twenty-five years ago my husband and I did something few Jewish parents had. We held a brit shalom ceremony for our son as opposed to a brit milah… We had a friend who was a rabbi in education, but without a pulpit. It was novel for him to do a brit without mila, but he was willing to do it and risk it. There was also a rabbi in Marin County who was known to do a brit shalom. He was known as a hippie rabbi. He also was willing to do this for us. So we had two rabbis…. My son was around eight when he learned about circumcision and the fact he is intact…. I explained to him what circumcision is, and that it was novel that he was Jewish and not circumcised because we opposed it. I don’t think he minded not being circumcised. I think he was appalled that anyone would have considered cutting off part of his penis… Being intact hasn’t stopped my son from being involved with Judaism. He had a bar mitzvah and did the whole service except for Shachrit, including a dvar Torah…. He did a year of modern Hebrew at college (that is all they offered). He currently goes to Hillel or to a local synagogue every Shabbat in Ann Arbor where he is a grad student. When he’s home he is eager to go to Torah study with us on Saturday mornings at the Reform congregation. For someone his age who was not raised as an Orthodox Jew, he is very knowledgeable about Judaism and very interested… Choosing to leave our boy intact hasn’t diminished our Jewish involvement. My husband and I belong to two congregations in Palo Alto, California. We’ve belonged to the Conservative synagogue for at least 25 years and are associate members of the Reform temple where we attend Torah study. I am a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council.”
Natalie Bivas, Choosing Brit Shalom Over Brit Milah, BeyondtheBris.com, April 24, 2012.
“It’s been a (long) half month since George’s birthday, birthday party and naming ceremony. The week was a little harried, a little different than I’d imagined, but in the end everything worked out beautifully. The fog lifted in San Francisco just in time for George’s aunties to make it and in the absence of challah or a mohel, my baby got his Hebrew name just the same.
When I was researching the bris shalom, I found very few resources online for parents who, like us, were trying to welcome and name their son… We found some scripts and sat down together to craft a ceremony with only the meaningful-to-us and none of the extras or concessions. The result was a short, sweet and informal gathering with babies running around, friends and family sharing well wishes, bread and honey and — most importantly — an intact baby boy with a brand-spankin’-new Hebrew name.
Here is the script. I realize this won’t be a riveting post for most people, but my hope is that someone might stumble across it while researching for their own son’s bris shalom, and find a useful bit or support for the somewhat thankless task of naming an intact Jewish boy…”
“The Jewish opposition to circumcision was just beginning 24 years ago when my wife Yehudit and I decided to leave our newborn son intact. We were not the only Jewish parents of our generation to reject circumcision, but we were among the first.
I performed my son’s birth ceremony and it was beautiful. We called it a brit b’lee milah or “covenant without circumcision.” The gift of life came unencumbered by any cutting and joy permeated the room…
Samuel was accepted and welcomed everywhere he went, in and out of the Jewish community, and within all of the relationships we had among the different Jewish denominations, including our Orthodox Jewish friends. To my knowledge, no one ever teased Samuel while he was growing up about his being in a distinct minority as a Jew with an intact penis….
Samuel’s birth ceremony was the first that I conducted, but would not be the last. Over the past several decades, I have officiated at more than a hundred birth ceremonies for intact Jewish boys in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. The ceremony I have developed includes blessings associated with it being a joyous event (candle lighting and Shehechiyanu); honoring the parents and grandparents; and creating, along with the parents, a meaningful alternate ritual. Non-cutting ceremonies for Jewish boys are called by different names, including “brit b’lee milah” (covenant without cutting), “brit shalom” or “bris shalom” (covenant of peace), “brit ben” (covenant for a boy)…
Judaism has evolved through centuries. It is inevitable and right that parts of Judaism have changed. We who oppose infant circumcision believe further change is needed. Circumcision, despite its historic centrality, has to go. It is nothing short of child abuse. No parent or religious leader would ever choose to carry out or endorse such a heinous act if they held this point of view.”
Moshe Rothenberg, Bringing a Jewish Circumcision Alternative (Brit Shalom) to New York Metro Families, Beyondthebris.com, March 17, 2012.
“For a number of reasons—personal, social, and political, Steph and I have decided not to perform a bris milah, but instead wanted to have a welcoming ceremony—a bris shalom or bris b’li milah (a ceremony without cutting). In following this part of ancient Jewish custom, we mark the beginning of our commitment to raise him in the Jewish cultural tradition… By this ceremony your mother and I formally welcome you to our world and our family. As we name you today we undertake our traditional responsibilities as your parents to take you forward into the world as we know it, to love you, to guide you, to educate you, and to cherish you. You are whole, complete, and perfect. We promise you, before our family gathered here today in your honor, to do our very best for you each and every day hereafter.”
Lar, The Bris Shalom Ceremony.
“When you take the religion out of circumcision, and really look at what the procedure actually involves, it is easy to see why more and more people are choosing to leave their sons intact. I thank my lucky stars for the Internet and the information it provided me on circumcision (as well as a million other mommy related questions). The Internet has allowed me to question the status quo; to find out why things are the way they are. A privilege our foremothers did not have. For me, the mere thought of giving birth to my precious baby at home without any medical intervention and then cutting off a part of his body eight days later just seemed absurd. I told myself that if G-d created my son with a foreskin, then he was going to keep it.”
Stacey Greenberg, My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin, Mothering Magazine.
“I knew we weren’t the first Jewish parents to keep our child intact; what did everyone else do? The internet provided a few examples of Bris shalom ceremonies… Since our Bris shalom, I’ve run across others in the same predicament; I’ve had conversations about whether or not we made the right choice (we did), if my son is “actually Jewish” (he is), and if we would make the same choice again (we would). The only thing I would change is my own hesitation. If there’s anything the past year and a half of parenting has taught me, it’s to trust the instincts that keep my child safe and happy.… And when our son inevitably holds us accountable, as kids seem wont to do, I look forward to saying, “We thought you were already perfect, ” rather than “It seemed like the thing to do.”
Pamela, Intact and Jewish, Natural Parents Network, July 14th, 2011.
“Sorry to disappoint, but that’s the end of our story. Or at least the end of the story of Zachary’s bris. There was no circumcision on that day. We had decided not to circumcise our son. Although he enters a world filled with violence, he would enter it without violence done to him. Although he will no doubt suffer many cuts and scrapes during his life, he would not bleed by our hand… We welcomed Zachary into our family on that morning without a circumcision. We decided that we want him to live in a world without violence, so we welcomed him without violence. We decided that we want him to live in world in which he is free to experience the fullness of the pleasures of his body, so we welcomed him with all his fleshy nerves intact. And we decided that we want him to live in a world in which male entitlement is a waning memory, and in which women and men are seen–in both ritual and in reality–as full equals and partners. So we welcomed him equally, his mother and I, in the time-honored way that desert cultures have always welcomed strangers to their tents: We washed his feet.”
Michael S. Kimmel, 2001. The Kindest Un-Cut. Tikkun 16(3): 43.