Near Bris — a new challenge to circumcision, this time from Jews

Near Bris — a new challenge to circumcision, this time from Jews

When a San Francisco judge struck from the city’s November ballot a controversial measure aiming to ban circumcision of any male younger than 18, rabbis and Jewish leaders breathed a sigh of relief. The decision short-circuited a highly publicized attempt to discredit what for most Jews is an essential ritual and marker of male Jewish identity.

But despite the decision, challenges to brit mila (literally, “covenant of circumcision”) continue to percolate — including from some Jews who are looking for alternatives to circumcision within a Jewish context.

From California to New Jersey, the emerging alternative is known alternately as brit shalom (covenant of peace), brit bli mila (covenant without cutting), and brit chaim (covenant of life). Such ceremonies welcome a boy who is not circumcised or has been circumcised not by a mohel but in a hospital setting.

Such alternatives are hardly a mainstay of Jewish life in New Jersey. However, NJJN did speak with rabbis and cantors who have been asked to do such a ceremony, as well as with one brit shalom “celebrant” from West Orange.

Rhea Bolasny Seagull has been a certified brit shalom leader since the 1980s. A humanistic Jew, she has been associated with the Jewish Cultural School and Society since 1979, at one point serving as principal of its school. She trained at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan with the first group of participants.

Although not opposed to circumcision as such, she said she rejects it as part of a cultural imperative. Her own son, now 37, was circumcised in the hospital but did not have a brit mila. “A brit mila is about a religious connection to the tip of the penis; I think that’s ridiculous,” said Seagull. “And then there’s nothing comparable for girls. The whole thing is so contrary to any modern value. There was nothing in it that I could buy into.”

Although the brit shalom did not exist when her son was born, she was thrilled when it was developed. Because she understands Torah as “a collective myth and ancient legends,” she views brit mila as a kind of tribal mark that links generations together, but she cannot see it as a link to God. “Circumcision is like getting a tattoo. If all males in a group get a tattoo, okay. But it’s only males, so the females are somehow less; and tying this to some sort of duty to God is really lost on me.”

She does about two or three brit shalom ceremonies each year, most but not all in New Jersey. Since there are no prayers involved, she said, “the heart of the ceremony is the naming; that is consistent for both boys and girls. And they are really carrying forth the names of their ancestors. I talk about keeping the continuity of the Jewish people and what the Jewish values were of the people the baby is being named for and how that person exemplifies Jewish values.

“It’s about Jewish values from generation to generation, because we are not doing any Torah at a brit shalom.”

Not surprisingly most local rabbis, cantors, and mohalim reached by NJJN were adamant that they would never consider performing a brit shalom.

However, a few have been asked to do so, and a smaller number have presided over such ceremonies.

Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom, the Reform congregation in Fanwood/Scotch Plains, said that he has conducted naming ceremonies for boy babies who have been circumcised in a hospital, or if the parents didn’t want a circumcision. “I haven’t seen much increase in requests like that,” he said.

He pointed out that in this country about 80 percent of male babies are circumcised regardless of religion, but at the same time — given the multicultural nature of the society and the fact that more people are attending rituals of other religions — it could become harder for Jewish parents to explain this particular one, “where we stand around watching as it’s done.”

With adult men who are seeking conversion, Abraham invites a discussion about circumcision and the implications either way, but does not require that it be done. He pointed out that a male born to Jewish parents is still Jewish, whether or not he has been circumcised, and — if the parents opt not to have a brit mila — the question of whether to have one goes on, becoming the responsibility of the community, or, after he turns 13, of the boy, to make the decision.

Temple Sholom’s student cantor, Vicky Glikin, was facing the prospect of her second son’s brit mila. Noah Samuel Leybovich-Glikin was born Oct. 25 and was due to have his brit conducted on Nov. 2 by Dr. Emily Blake, a mohelet certified by the National Organization of American Mohalim.

Glikin said if there were an alternative, she might welcome it — if it had equal weight as a covenant and a symbol of Jewish identity. But she also knows that circumcision “is more traumatic for the mother than the baby” and was holding firm to that thought. As a Jewish professional, she added, “I have to put my money where my mouth is.”

The ritual is all the more meaningful for the family, she pointed out, because she and her husband, Vlad Leybovich, grew up in Ukraine, where most Jewish men were not circumcised because of the danger involved in being seen to be Jewish.

Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield told NJJN that when a couple asks him if they can have a naming ceremony for their child who was circumcised in the hospital — which is not unusual — he is “more than happy to accommodate them.”

What is much less common is for a family to request a naming ceremony for a boy who will remain uncircumcised. In such a case, he said, “depending on the circumstances and the reasons behind the request I might accommodate them as well. After all, the status of the child remains the same — and the responsibility to be circumcised simply falls to the boy at the age of 13 and above.

“However,” he added, “I have never been approached by a couple who wishes to have a ceremony they would call a ‘brit’ deliberately without the circumcision.”

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet in Montclair said he gets asked about once every two years. “When asked, I will do some kind of covenantal ceremony without circumcision, though I counsel in favor of traditional circumcision,” he said.

Tepperman believes that “brit mila is a powerful ritual that ties us to our tradition and peoplehood in an exceptionally moving way” and that “the best person to perform a circumcision is a mohel.”

However, he recognizes it is a personal choice for families. Some parents think the circumcision is most safely performed in a hospital setting; others, he said, “simply feel that this is not a procedure they want to do. Their son is Jewish, just uncircumcised, and I want to welcome him and their family as fully as possible into the Jewish community and a life of Jewish practice.”

“I am always eager to welcome Jews wanting to connect to Judaism,” Tepperman said. “Despite their struggle with this mitzva, the families who have approached me about this have all seemed to be affirming their covenant, not rejecting it.”

Other rabbis who have been approached about the ritual declined to be identified.

A second area rabbi performed a brit shalom once “for the sake of keruv [outreach] to an interfaith couple.” But that same rabbi, on another occasion, declined when a Jewish couple asked for a naming ceremony for their son who had already been circumcised in the hospital.

“I explained that they should invite a mohel to do hatafat dam,” a symbolic circumcision involving removing a drop of blood from the member. The rabbi explained what it was, but never called back to confirm.

A third local rabbi spoke with NJJN on condition of anonymity, worried that even answering the question would be “lose-lose.”

“If I said I would participate in such a ceremony, it would be an endorsement of the practice of ‘blood-less brises,’ which I neither endorse nor want to encourage,” said the rabbi. “If I said I did not participate, it might prevent people from calling on me when perhaps I could be helpful to them in their particular situation.”

Never been to or even heard of the ceremony? You’re not alone.

A survey of Jewish ritual circumcisers and brit shalom “celebrants” working in and around Los Angeles, for example, suggests the practice is still marginal.

Interviews with 12 of the 22 Jewish ritual circumcisers practicing in the greater Los Angeles area found that they had collectively performed approximately 1,400 traditional Jewish circumcisions in 2010.

By contrast, there are just five known “celebrants” in southern California who offer to perform the brit shalom ceremony. Of the four who could be reached for this article, two had never performed the ceremony.

According to Rosalie Gottfried, a secular humanist “madriha” (Hebrew for leader), the earliest known brit shalom ceremony was performed around 1970 by her mentor, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

In 2002, the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews issued a statement about circumcision and Jewish identity that focused much of its attention on gender parity in religious practice.

“Our profound belief in the equality of men and women requires/ensures that Jewish welcoming ceremonies are not different for infant males than for infant females,” reads an excerpt from the statement’s preamble.

“We actually take a really open and welcoming perspective that you don’t have to be circumcised in order to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Chalom of Chicago, the dean of the North American branch of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Still, Chalom and other humanistic Jews are not necessarily opposed to circumcision.

In June, Chalom contributed an entry to a Chicago Tribune religion blog titled “Circumcision Is Up to Parents.” Although “circumcision is non-consensual, irreversible, and painful,” he wrote, there were valid medical, historical, and cultural reasons for parents to choose circumcision for their sons.

“If anyone asks me, I say do it in an antiseptic setting,” Chalom said.

Others promoting alternatives to brit mila are adamantly anti-circumcision. Mark Reiss, a retired Jewish physician who is executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, turned against the practice in 1999. Reiss has gathered a list of 50 people known to perform the brit shalom ceremony. Five are prominent Jewish leaders in the anti-circumcision movement.

Ironically, some Jewish parents with concerns about brit mila have made inquiries with the person least likely to provide them with an alternative to traditional circumcision: a mohel, or Jewish ritual circumciser.

Lucy Waldman, who lives in Short Hills, is among a handful of area women trained and certified to perform britot. She said she has been asked not for a brit shalom, but for a “simple cut,” or removing just a small bit of foreskin. “I talked to the parents. We went with a traditional circumcision, and they were fine with that,” she said.

Cantor Richard Nadel of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, a certified mohel, said he was recently asked to perform a baby naming for a boy who would be circumcised in the hospital by a physician prior to the eighth day of life. “I respectfully declined,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In order to be part of the covenant one must undergo ritual circumcision.”

Added Nadel: “For parents who wish a brit ceremony and a naming without circumcision, the only answer I have is, ‘Sorry, but no.’ Circumcision is the sign of the Jewish man. Too many men were marched into the gas chambers of the Nazis because they bore the mark of circumcision. Especially in our times, this mitzva must not be forsaken.”

Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation, also a certified mohel, said he would perform a naming ceremony on the eighth day without a bris, but only if the bris could not be held for medical reasons. In that case, he said, he would “deal with the ritual at the appropriate time.”

While most area rabbis said the issue has not even ever come up for them, Rabbi Avi Friedman of Summit Jewish Community Center, who said he would not perform such a ceremony, added, “I haven’t heard about it spreading much beyond the West Coast, but I am sure that it is on the way.”

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