Daily Hampshire Gazette (MA) - May 17, 1999

Ritual Basic to Judaism

By Ali Crolius

(MAY 17) -- The eighth day of life has always been a big one for most Jewish infants. The simple but solemn procedure of removing the foreskin -- a ceremony known as brit milah -- is carried out as family and community bear witness. Performed by a mohel -- a man (or occasionally a woman) trained in the spiritual import and physical delicacy of the act -- it is one of the most basic and enduring practices, carried out even by Jewish parents who are otherwise not religious.

There are groups that are questioning this tradition, including a new group in Israel that is calling for an end to ritual circumcision. But for the most part, parents continue to follow the ancient commandment.

Why does a tradition that no one fully understands last even in times when the medical world is acknowledging that there is no major health reason to circumcise?

"I tell parents this has everything to do with raising a Jewish family and nothing to do with a medical decision," said family practitioner Dr. Henry Simkin of Kaiser Permanente in Florence, who is also a mohel. "It is a very powerful statement of faith that brings people face to face with what it means to have a Jewish life, a relationship with God."

Simkin noted that ritual circumcision is in the category of Jewish laws known as hukkim, which cannot be grasped with the rational mind.

"It is distinctly anti-modern thinking. I'm amazed at how many people keep doing it," he said.

But having misgivings or fears is not a bad thing, assured Rabbi Philip Graubart of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton.

"It's never inappropriate to wrestle with a commandment," said Graubart. "(Circumcision) is something a Jewish family is supposed to do, but it doesn't mean they have to do it wholeheartedly right away."

Graubart pointed out that a child's Jewish identity does not hinge on the state of his foreskin.

"Circumcision doesn't create Jewishness. The baby is Jewish just by being born," said the rabbi, adding that a baby is Jewish if his mother is Jewish.

Ronald Goldman, director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, is coming out with a new book, "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective" (Vanguard) this summer. Goldman, who himself is Jewish, said he has been contacted by hundreds of Jewish parents and Jewish men who feel the practice is outmoded. Goldman pointed out that Jewish circumcision is not universal, as some Jews in South America and Europe do not perform it. Some contend that the commandment to circumcise is at odds with the Torah's prohibition against marking or altering the human body, and against causing pain to any living creature.

Childbirth educator Vicky Elson agreed that the circumcision discussion is frequently a tough one for Jewish parents.

But for Elson and her husband, Barry, who is Jewish and a physician, the decision was crystal clear: they weren't going to do it.

"Our son asked why he was different when he was 10," recalled Elson. "We said, 'We didn't want to hurt you.' He said, "OK, I can live with that,' and that was the end of it."

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