Dear Jewrotica #7 – Beyond the Bris

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Dear Jewrotica Feet

Rated PGDear Jewrotica,

Since the Jewish babies of today will be the Jewish husbands of tomorrow can we talk about Bris alternatives and where they fit in?

~ Mama S from Newton, MA

***

This week’s Dear Jewrotica query included a link to the following article. Staff responses to both the question and article can be found on the next page.

Brit Shalom: An Alternative Naming Ceremony
By MARK REISS, M.D.

The bris (Yiddish) or brit (Hebrew) is nothing more than a covenantal naming ceremony for baby Jewish boys. Traditionally done on the eighth day of life, the baby is given his Jewish or Hebrew name, he is ushered into the community of Judaism, and his foreskin is removed. Until relatively recently, this patrilineal ceremony was reserved for males.

Nowadays, we have similar naming ceremonies for baby girls, minus the genital cutting. In Hebrew, the term Brit Milah refers to ritual circumcision. Why not eliminate the cutting, and peacefully give baby boys a name which welcomes them into Judaism? The term Brit Shalom, “Covenant of Peace” is used to denote an alternative non-cutting naming ceremony. Other terms include Brit b’li Milah (Covenant without Cutting), Brit Chayim (Covenant of Life) and Brit Ben (Covenant for a Boy). Brit Bat being the term for a girl’s naming ceremony.

Although the topic of circumcision was once taboo, recently this subject has received an increasing amount of media attention. The ballot initiative to prohibit the circumcision of minors in San Francisco has generated a crescendo of articles in newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Chat rooms discuss circumcision daily. TV shows, YouTube videos, and even full length films are available on the subject. As a result of this exposure, information about the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on our baby boys is being made available to all. Complications from this unnecessary surgery are being publicized. People are becoming aware of the exquisitely sensitive and unique tissue of the foreskin, and how removal of this integral part of the penis robs men of a full sexual experience. Moreover, we are learning how the act of circumcising a baby is a violation of his basic human rights.

Inevitably, when the topic of circumcision comes up, Judaism comes to the fore. Jews have practiced circumcision as a ritual ceremony since ancient biblical times, and the bris has remained sacrosanct. A Jewish baby boy is born, and people ask “When is the bris?” not even considering the alternative─ blissfully leaving the baby boy’s penis intact, in its natural and normal state.

Other biblical imperatives: animal sacrifice, slavery, stoning of adulterous women, mandates against homosexuality─these have mostly fallen by the wayside. Judaism, except for the Ultra-Orthodox, has bridged the gap from ancient lore to modern day scientific enlightenment. Most Jews do not maintain kosher dietary laws, nor do they believe in laws forbidding travel or work on Shabbat. Why do they stubbornly maintain the atavistic ritual of circumcision?

In the past, circumcision was used as an identifying marker by multiple oppressors. In ancient Israel, Greek and Roman rulers banned circumcision with penalty of death. Jews were martyred for resisting these bans. During the Holocaust, baby boys were circumcised by their parents in cattle cars on the way to crematoria. Consciously or unconsciously, there is a strong sense that circumcision will prevent the annihilation of the Jewish people. Many Jews, however, are mistaken in their belief that circumcision “makes you Jewish.” In fact, according to strict Jewish law, Halacha, identity is purely matrilineal. If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, regardless of the status of your genitalia.

In the United States, where circumcision is being performed by physicians in hospitals as a “medical procedure,” many secular Jewish families have their sons circumcised in the first days of life because it is the American thing to do. These parents do not understand that this medical procedure does not fulfill Jewish law. Today, the number of hospital circumcisions is dropping, especially on the West Coast. Hopefully, these secular Jews will eventually abandon circumcision.

There is no prescribed formula or ritual liturgy at a Brit Shalom. A rabbi or lay celebrant can officiate at the ceremony but this is not required. Many families will create their own ceremony and this can be a very gratifying process. Couples invite grandparents, family members, and close friends to partake in the ceremony. Many templates and samples are available.

About ten years ago, I realized that many Jewish parents desire an “official” person to conduct their naming ceremony. To serve this need, I created a web page called Celebrants of Brit Shalom. This site lists rabbis and lay leaders willing to officiate at Brit Shalom ceremonies. In the beginning there were only a few celebrants. Today more than fifty celebrants are listed. I also maintain a non-published list of celebrants who will officiate at Brit Shalom ceremonies but do not wish their names to be publicly listed.

Most modern Jewish couples expecting a baby will discuss the issue of circumcision. Quite often the final decision is difficult and can be divisive. Although most Jews are still circumcising their baby boys, a growing minority of families are abandoning the practice. An increasing number of Jewish boys are having a Brit Shalom ceremony, rather than Brit Milah. These baby boys are being left genitally intact, getting Hebrew educations, having Bar Mitzvahs and ultimately taking their place in the Jewish community.

Mark D. Reiss, M.D. is a retired physician and classical pianist. He serves as Executive Vice President of Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC) and is the founder and administrator of Celebrants of Brit Shalom.

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Dear Jewrotica is an advice column hosted by the Jewrotica staff. We answer questions about sex, sexual health, relationships, romance and other topics as they relate to the Jewish community, culture and tradition. Confidentiality is respected, and we'll do our best to tackle your questions with knowledge, sensitivity and tact.
  • Re Ayo’s response: “There is literature out there supporting both sides” True. And there is also literature out there supporting both the denial and existence of the Holocaust. That doesn’t make one side as compelling as the other. Intactivists, as they like to call themselves, say that the health benefits derived from circumcision can be maintained if one simply cleans regularly. This doesn’t explain away all the health benefits – can one really just clean prostate cancer off? And what if water ever becomes not quite so plentifully available? Intactivists true colors are revealed when discussing circumcision in Africa where it is tied to significantly reduced rates of HIV infection – when asked if they would support it there they invariably hem and haw and change subjects. I personally have not suffered from my “non-consensual” circumcision. None of my partners have ever complained (to say the least) and as a future caring and loving parent, while I feel that circumcision is good for my son’s spirit, I also firmly believe that it is good for his body and health as well.

    Ayo also said “The circumcision debate is complicated, especially for someone like me who is able to understand, empathize with and embrace multiple perspectives.” I too am more than capable of respecting others and all I ask is that they return the favor. Ultimately it is each individual parent’s right to decide whether or not to circumcise and I would never begrudge them that right. However, I can’t help but be incensed by a notion that is the least Jewish thing EVER trying to dress itself up like it’s Jewish. You don’t want to circumcise your kid? Fine. Don’t. But don’t go making up these completely fake and inauthentic rituals to make it seem like you care about Jewish values. It’s insulting and about as Jewish as a Hanukkah Bush.

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  • Valeria Barnes

    Not your penis, not your choice. Simples!

    • Ellen

      I hear your argument, but there’s nothing simple about it. You could make the same argument about vaccines (and some people do!). There are clearly some areas where parents can and should make decisions about their children’s bodies; different people have different opinions as to what decisions fall into that category.

      • Kitty Tiger

        not quite. cutting erogenous tissue off a healthy minor is not same as a vaccine. There are babies that die weekly from circumcision, it causes permanent lasting irreversible damage to the penis owner and possibly to his sexual partners.

        • Ellen

          Vaccines sometimes have harmful side effects, too. However, most parents vaccinate anyway because the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

          • Kitty Tiger

            This discussion isn’t about vaccination. It’s not really a valid comparison at all. Circumcision causes damage in 100% of cases whether or not you believe that is beyond the point. Circumcision ALWAYS removes functional erogenous tissue. Vaccines go wrong a small percentage of the time.

            Cutting a boys penis doesn’t make him Jewish. I haven’t heard of people angry at their parents for vaccinating them, most societies condone vaccination as a disease controlling measure. Condoms are far more useful at disease control than circumcision. The hygiene arguments are laughable, the ethical argument is strongly opposed, the practice violates the Hippocratic oath there are so many factors that weight against recommending or even allowing parents to permanently alter their sons genitals for the sole purpose of the aesthetic preferences of the parents or because their imaginary friend told them to do it. I for one am glad that other Jews are standing up for the rights of their children and are refusing to participate in this ritual blood sport.

          • Ellen

            You are right in that the tradition of brit mila is predicated on A) the belief in God and the idea that He established a covenant with the Jewish people and/or B) the desire for a mark of solidarity with thousands of years’ worth of fellow Jews. You’re also right that circumcision has some physical drawbacks. However, cost-benefit analysis, most Jews decide to do a bris, which means that they think it’s worth it. The vast majority of Jewish men do not feel like they’re majorly missing out by being circumcised, and it’s not as if men are a disenfranchised group within Judaism. Nobody is keeping them down, forcing them to think a certain way, keeping them from making decisions.

          • Kitty Tiger

            What most Jewish parents think is not really the point. An adult is free to choose his own religion. Parents can send their child to Yiddish or Hebrew school to learn about their history, people and religion. Branding your religion on a child is insane.

            The point is performing an unnecessary, painful and irreversible procedure on the sexual organs of an infant. This is in fact keeping them down by not giving them access to their god given body. It is indeed stopping them from making decisions regarding their body and penis. There are so many other things in the bible and Torah that people have chosen to ignore out of convenience or out of laws that now exist in the world. We don’t stone adulterers, we no longer burn people at the stake. Circumcision needs to be relegated to the history books.

        • Proud Intact Jew

          I agree with everything Kitty Tiger says in regard to male circumcision. I am a natural intact (not circumcised) male and I must tell you that most of the sensitivity of my male anatomy is in my foreskin especially the frenulum of my foreskin which are either removed or destroyed during circumcision.

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frenulum_of_prepuce_of_penis

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreskin

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris

          http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoral_hood

          To surgically remove and or destroy the most sensitive part of the male anatomy without the circumcisee’s consent is morally wrong. If the tables were turned and infant baby girls were forced to an analogous procedure to have their clitoral foreskin (hood or prepuce) removed their would cries of horror from ever female Jew & non-Jew alike! I am not against circumcison, I am against the forced circumcision of non-consenting minor males who are under the age of 18.

          I feel that the forceful circumcision of infant males and boys is barbaric, inhumane, child abuse and should be considered a human rights violation.

          I am proud to be intact and I have the utmost respect Kitty Tiger for speaking out on this subject,

          Proud Intact Jew