The Jewish Monthly – November, 1991
By Joel Silverman
Circumcision, or brit mila, has set Jewish males apart from non-Jews since the dawn of history. In the Torah, God commands Abraham, the first Jew, to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael and all the male members of his household, saying, “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.”
Over the last 100 years, Jews in the United States have had little reason to explain, much less justify, this long-standing rite, mainly because the medical establishment has touted the benefits of circumcision since the late 1800s. In 1960, 90 percent of all males born in the United States were circumcised.
But medical and popular opinion has shifted. By 1989, the number of Americans circumcised dropped to just 58 percent, according to the annual Hospital Discharge Study of the National Center for health Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Jews have not been immune to this change. For reasons of health, conscience or intermarriage, some Jewish parents are looking at the potential circumcision of their sons in a new light.
“I resent people who think I’m less of a Jew,” says Natoli Bivacs, who, with her husband, chose not to have a bris for their son. Both are Jews and belong to a Conservative synagogue in the San Francisco area. “My friends who are critical are the same ones who eat ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Our decision came out of Jewish ethics, out of the concern for someone’s well-being, namely our son.”
The Bivacs family may represent a vast minority, but Jewish officials concede that they are addressing the issue of circumcision with increasing frequency. “Do you think I live with my head in the sand?” says Rabbi Joel Roth when asked if he is aware of the changing views on circumcision. “The key point here, though, is that medical opinions have nothing to do with circumcision for Jews. We’re not talking about medical benefits. This is not a surgical procedure for us. This is the covenant between us and God. Let’s not mix boundaries.”
Leslie Mirchin of Cambridge, Massachusetts agrees. Although she feared subjecting her newborn to the procedure, the ritual’s link with tradition exerted the decisive influence. “Everyone is nervous when it comes to having your child cut and I hoped that it wouldn’t hurt,” she admits. “The bris is a very important tradition, an important part of being a Jewish man, that has been passed on for generations and generations. It is a covenant that was made which has survived while other things haven’t.”
But Ronald Goldman is not convinced that all Jews are as idealistic as Mirchin. “I think there’s a high percentage of Jews who circumcise their sons for purely social reasons: the family pressure, the community pressure,” says Goldman, who offers a workshop titled “Circumcision: Separating Myth from Reality” in Boston, Massachusetts. “These Jews have real doubts about the reason for circumcision, but they take the easy route and just do it, although they’re not happy about it.”
The struggle over circumcision is almost as ancient as the practice itself. The abandonment of circumcision, the mark of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, traditionally has been tantamount to abandoning Judaism. The Maccabees denounced the practice of some Jews who surgically eliminated signs of circumcision so they could participate in nude, Hellenistic sports competitions. When Paul sought to spread Christianity among non-Jews – and to separate the newborn sect from its Jewish roots – he declared circumcision unnecessary. It is no wonder, then, that traditional Jews have a visceral reaction to those who reject circumcision: it has long been seen as apostasy.
Rabbi Roth, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, says that failing to circumcise a Jewish male cannot be condoned, even though Jewish law considers any child of a Jewish mother a Jew. In theory, a Jewish court could compel the father to have his son circumcised.
An uncircumcised Jewish child could be excluded from participating in ceremonies like bar mitzva. “How could you enter into this legal covenant (bar mitzva) without having obeyed the basic law of admission?” asks Rabbi Roth. “It’s like how can you expect to vote, if you don’t register? That doesn’t mean you’re not an American; it just means you’ve chosen not to participate in the system.”
As far as Rabbi Roth knows, rabbis have never made a practice of asking bar mitzva-age boys if they’ve been circumcised, but “this could happen in the future,” he says.
Jews like Bivacs – those averse to circumcision but still wishing to practice traditional Judaism – clearly face a quandary. Some might call it an impossibility. How can one hope to practice traditional Judaism and not practice this venerable tradition?
Rabbi Alien I. Freehling, who has been at the Reform University Synagogue in Westwood, California for the past 20 years, says he recently received a call from a Jewish couple asking him to preside over their version of a bris. “They wanted the ceremony without the circumcision,” he says. “I told them, ‘Forget it.’ That’s not a bris.”
Still, some Reform rabbis will preside over a “naming ceremony” for a Jewish baby and later allow that child to have a bar mitzva ceremony. Bivacs held such a ceremony which she calls a “bris shalom.” “I just hope he can have a bar mitzva,” she says.
Rabbi Benjamin Herson, who heads the Reconstructionist Jewish Center in Malibu, California, has presided over dozens of naming ceremonies sans the circumcision and says he would allow that child to have a bar mitzva ceremony: “To deny a Jewish parent’s request to name their child is, in my humble opinion, wrong. It’s by no means a usual request. It’s usually done by the few who are intellectually alert and do not take things for granted. The run-of-the-mill couple moves along and accepts tradition.”
“The Torah doesn’t explain why God asked for the removal of the foreskin as a covenant. A traditional explanation of circumcision is that God wanted man to unite a man’s body and soul to serve Him. “The [penis] is obviously the most physical part of a man, not to be Freudian,” says Rabbi Yehuda Leibovics, an Orthodox mohel in Los Angeles. “It represents man’s physical endeavors.”
The early leaders of the Reform movement waged a futile 20-year campaign to do away with the practice in the mid-19th century. Today, both the Reform and Conservative movements have established programs to train Jewish physicians in the religious aspects of brit mila. The movements sought to provide an alternative to Orthodox mohelim, many of whom would not perform a brit mila on the sons of non-Jewish mothers. “How can we do it?” asks Rabbi Leibovics. “If the mother is not Jewish, how can you be sure the child will really be raised Jewish?”
Reform mohelim will perform the ritual regardless of which parent is Jewish. Conservative mohelim will circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother only for the sake of conversion, a ceremony which varies only slightly from the standard brit mila. “I think most Conservative rabbis will permit this even if the mother isn’t Jewish as long as the promise is made to raise the child Jewish,” says Rabbi Roth. “This is still open to debate, though.”
While the roots of circumcision among Jews are clear, how did it catch on among non-Jews in the United States?
The widespread practice of circumcision can be traced to turn-of-the-century Great Britain where doctors recommended it to discourage masturbation. Their American contemporaries also promoted circumcision as a hygienic measure. However, in 1949, British pediatrician Dr. Douglas Gairdner declared circumcision medically untenable and British physicians began to discontinue the practice. Today, fewer than one percent of British men are circumcised.
In the United States, circumcision was practiced widely and without question until the 1960s. But in 1971, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated “There are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.” That view was reaffirmed by the same committee in 1975, and in 1983 both the AAP and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology agreed that circumcision was unnecessary.
As a result, the rate of circumcisions has dropped slowly to an all-time low of 58 percent in 1988. In 1989, however, the AAP backed away from its former stand, saying there are “potential medical benefits” to circumcision, including lower incidence of urinary tract infections in circumcised men. The report did affirm, though, the belief that the baby feels pain during circumcision. Still, for the first time in almost a decade, the circumcision rate rose from 1988 to 1989 by 0.8 percent.
It is anyone’s guess whether this will turn the tide on circumcision or quell the debate. “There’s no general opinion among doctors anymore,” says Dr. Fred Rosner, a physician and a leading Orthodox authority on Jewish law and medical practice. “It’s a matter of choice.”
There are no statistics on Jewish circumcision, but even those Jews opposed to it admit they are in the minority. And those like Natoli Bivacs realize they have touched on an extremely sensitive issue.
“What bothers me is that a lot of Jews aren’t thinking about the covenant with Abraham,” says Bivacs. “It’s not that they believe it or not. They just think it makes you a Jew. But I don’t see why the punishment for not keeping kosher is not the same as not wanting a circumcision. You don’t face being excluded because you eat ham.”
Rabbi Roth responds: “The problem is people like this are talking on parallel lines. They’re asking for a legitimization of their avoiding Jewish tradition. They will not get that.”
Perhaps it was Judaism’s most famous man of medicine who provided the best and most enduring advice to Jews who accept and those who question the validity of circumcision. Maimonides said, “No one . . . should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith.”