New York Magazine – May 21, 2001
With circumcision rates dropping in America, some squeamish Jews are trying out a bloodless Bris. But is it kosher?
By Gersh Kuntzman
A man holds his newborn grandson before the crowd and announces that the uncircumcised tot is “whole” and “perfect” in God’s image, says a prayer, drinks some wine, puts him down, and has brunch. The only knife involved is the one used to cut the bagels.
You call that a Bris?
It was for the kid’s mom, Elizabeth Glass, a self-described “liberal, hippie, cultural Jew.” She defied that most basic of Jewish tenets last month by hosting the cut-less “Bris Shalom.” “There’s no reason to hurt my child to prove he’s Jewish,” she says.
While there’s no hard data that Jews are turning away from it in droves, America’s world-leading circumcision rates have been dropping for two decades, thanks to doctors’ increasing ambivalence and the effects of anti-circumcision activists. Books such as Ronald Goldman’s Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Kristen and Jeffrey O’Hara’s Sex as Nature Intended It argue against it, and groups like noharmm, nocirc, and norm are getting their message out via the Internet.
“I’m busier than ever,” says Moshe Rothenberg, a “Jewish educator” who officiates at the sliceless ceremonies. He admits that three quarters of his clients are “not affiliated with a congregation,” but describes them as “very committed, secular and cultural Jews” who have concluded that circumcision is one ritual, like sacrificing a lamb, for which they no longer have a use. Or, as one 31-year-old Jewish man, who chose not to circumcise his son last year, explains it: “I thought about how I don’t go to temple or keep kosher and I began to see that my original attachment to circumcision was arbitrary.”
Anti-circumcision activist Goldman said he’s heard from “hundreds” of Jewish parents who’ve skipped circumcision. “Often, it’s when they hear a child scream at a Bris, or they read about the ‘hygiene myth,’ or they just believe their child is perfect the way he is.”
It’s not that rabbis aren’t sympathetic. “Even I get chills,” says Rabbi Yael Ridberg of the West End Synagogue. “No parents want to intentionally cause pain.”
But to the devout, Bris Shalom is an inherent contradiction that gropes for legitimacy in biblical inconsistencies or out-of-context quotes. After all, circumcision is nothing less than a commandment handed down by God himself in Genesis: “The child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised . . . shall be cut off from his people.”
“The covenant between God and Abraham involved cutting — for better or worse,” says Ridberg. “It is inscribed in your heart and in your flesh.”
But Elizabeth Glass — who doesn’t doubt her Jewishness — felt the inscription could be limited to one place: “My son’s faith will exist in his heart, just not in his genitals.”