Grand Rapids Press - May 2, 1998

Circumcision No Longer Automatic in Jewish Households

By Clemete Angelo Lisi

NEW YORK - To cut or not to cut. That is the question an increasing number of Jewish parents are facing these days when it comes to circumcising their male newborns.

Circumcision, the surgical removal of the foreskin, has been a widely practiced medical procedure in this country since the late 19th century. But for many Jews, it has a deeper meaning.

Ritual circumcision, knows as bris milah, loosely translated into "covenant of the cutting," is considered a fundamental principal of Judaism dating back to Abraham's covenant with God.

Thirty years ago, roughly 25 percent of men worldwide and more than 90 percent in this country were circumcised, primarily for hygienic reasons. But beginning in 1971, some physicians argued that there is no medical reason for the procedure.

Now sentiment against circumcision appears to have crossed over into Judaism. Norm Cohen, director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) of Michigan, an anti-circumcision group, said the controversy will become more of an issue within the Jewish community as the circumcision rates continue to drop.

"Many Jewish mothers and fathers have privately recognized the painful, harmful and dangerous aspects of circumcision," Cohen said.

NOCIRC is just one of nearly a dozen anti-circumcision organizations formed over the last decade. Dr. Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, has been on the forefront of the anti-circumcision debate.

The author of two books, including "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective," Goldman said circumcision is not important to being Jewish. "Not circumcising is the choice of a minority of Jews now, but new ideas always start with a minority before they are accepted by the majority," Goldman said.

Regardless of whether he is circumcised, the child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew under Jewish law. But parents who fail to circumcise "will have turned down an opportunity to enter into the covenant properly," said Rabbi Moshe Trager, who has performed hundreds of circumcisions.

The ceremony, presided over by a mohel, a person trained in the medical and surgical techniques of circumcision, usually takes place in a synagogue. During the ceremony, the baby receives his official Hebrew name.

For parents who want a ceremony but not a circumcision, alternatives rituals are being developed. Many mohels are finding other ways of staying true to their faith, minus the cutting. Some have changed the ceremony to conform to the wishes of the parents, often just naming the baby.

Goldman said feminist influences within Judaism have contributed to the falling rate of circumcision. The formation of bris bat ceremonies, which creates a Jewish covenant for baby girls by giving them a Hebrew name, has helped eliminate the patriarchal nature of the ceremony and represents the progressive nature of Judaism.

Still, Rabbi Trager said Jews circumcise their sons regardless of their level of commitment to the religion. "On first glance it may very well be a terrible thing to do to your child," he said. "But if a person would take the time to understand the significance and the beauty of the Mitzvot (commandments), he would relate to them differently."

But Goldman says circumcision has lost its meaning as a sacred act. "It is ironic that the last practice secular Jews cling to for claiming identity is the same practice performed by American non-Jews and Muslims," Goldman said. "Who then can claim circumcision as either the source of Jewish identity or of its strength?"

 

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