Some Jews who choose not to circumcise but still want a ritual, change the ritual to omit the circumcision. They may include other ceremonial elements that are sensitive to the infant and the community. For example, something other than the infant’s body can be cut to symbolize the circumcision. An alternative ritual, sometimes referred to as a naming ceremony or “brit shalom,” may or may not be led by a rabbi. It has all the joy of the traditional ritual without the pain of the circumcision.
Some Jews may question alternative rituals, but according to Rabbi Eugene Cohen, 80 percent of American Jewish circumcisions already do not meet ritual standards1. Because the surgical procedure alone does not fulfill the religious requirement, and since many sons of Jewish parents are circumcised in a hospital by physicians, there is often no religious component to the event, and, some would say, no covenant with God. One could argue that a hospital circumcision no more fulfills the divine requirement than no circumcision. Where ritual is concerned, it is the meaning of the act and not just the act itself that is important.
In addition, the religious ritual should be performed with the “appropriate mindset.”2 But, this cannot be forced. As discussed earlier, many Jews circumcise their sons with great emotional conflict, reluctance, and regret. The alternative ritual allows for congruence of intention, attitude, action, and feeling.
The use of an alternative ritual has another advantage; it can be used for both male and female infants. The growing interest in an equivalent ceremony for girls illustrates how culturally-bound practices must change to be compatible with evolving values. Reformist observant Jews accept that each generation needs to create contemporary forms of expressing its connection to its religious tradition. Judaism, as a patriarchal religion, has been influenced by the women’s movement.
Rabbi Joel Roth attempts to defend the patriarchal practice of circumcision by stating that “by physiology women cannot be brought into the covenant of Abraham by circumcision.”3 However, circumcision ceremonies are performed on African females as well as males.4 There are various types of female genital surgery. The procedure analogous to circumcision would be to remove the clitoral hood. Physiology is not an excuse for exclusively male ritual surgery.
Rather than perform some kind of genital surgery on females, an idea that is repugnant and rejected by virtually all Jews, a ceremony without surgery for both sexes is the egalitarian solution.
Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., author of Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, is available to lead brit shalom ceremonies around the Boston area.
For more information, please contact our office.
1. Cohen, E., Guide to Ritual Circumcision and Redemption of the First-Born Son (New York: Ktav Publishers, 1984), xiii.
2. Roth, J., “The Meaning for Today,” Moment, February 1992, 43.
3. Ibid., 43.
4. Hosken, F., The Hosken Report, Lexington, MA: Women’s International Network News, 1993