Religion News Service – June 21, 2007

Orthodox rabbis prepare to circumcise a Jewish babyOrthodox rabbis prepare to circumcise a Jewish baby in Lawrence, N.Y., in a scene from “Cut,” an independent film by Eli Ungar-Sargon that respectfully questions the Jewish ritual of circumcision. For use with RNS-JEWS-CIRCUM, transmitted June 14, 2007. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Eli Ungar-Sargon.

CHICAGO — Laurie Evans is a proud Jewish mother of two. Her family celebrates religious holidays and lights candles on the Sabbath.

But her son is different from most Jewish teenagers: He is, as his mother refers to him, intact.

The 17-year-old has never had a Brit Milah, or bris, the ritual male circumcision considered essential to Jewish faith. Evans’ is a choice that most Jewish mothers would consider sacrilegious.

But some Jewish parents, albeit a tiny minority, are questioning whether removing a baby’s foreskin is essential to Jewish identity.

Those like Evans, whose parental instincts collide with religious conviction, are part of an increasing number of U.S. families who have chosen to forgo the procedure.

Between 2001 and 2003, the percentage of male infants circumcised in hospitals decreased from 63 percent to 56 percent — the lowest percentage recorded since 1979, according to the Child Trends DataBank, a research organization that based its analysis on National Hospital Discharge Survey data.

Evans said the decision to forgo a practice deemed a pillar of Jewish faith was difficult.

“I was really tormented by my family and cultural expectations,” she said. “But I kept thinking: Is my son’s religion in his heart and soul or his genitals?”

Circumcision for Jewish families is a religious practice, not a preventative health care measure. For thousands of years, the act has signified the covenant made between God and Abraham, who circumcised himself and all the males in his household.

“If a person goes through life without being circumcised, they’re missing out on the very basic form of Jewish identity,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation.

Lopatin said only a very small percentage of Jewish parents actively consider not getting their male infants circumcised. Forgoing the ritual, he said, would be “a violation of their basic parental responsibilities.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to know how many Jewish parents are — or are not — choosing circumcision. Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Chicago filmmaker who recently completed a film about circumcision, said Jews who question circumcision are still a “vast minority.”

“But I think it’s a lot more than people think,” he said.

Because circumcision has long been a central part of Jewish life, those who opt out of the tradition are usually excluded from the community.

Evans’ family didn’t share her beliefs and she was shunned by at least one relative, who refused to speak to her for months. Her husband was also anguished by her decision and insisted at first that the circumcision go ahead.

“My husband only came around when he saw my son being happy as he grew older,” she said.

Evans said she made the decision after being haunted by the cries of two babies whose brises she attended. “The babies were strapped down and cut,” she said. “I couldn’t be a witness to that. I had to change society, not just individuals.”

Watching a bris as a teenager sparked the same reaction in Ungar-Sargon, whose film, “Cut,” respectfully questions the ritual. Ungar-Sargon, 27, was circumcised by his Orthodox parents but said he will not allow the procedure if he has a son.

“For me, being Jewish is about knowing how to stick your head above the crowd far enough to see that this is not good, that this contradicts a vast majority of the Jewish values that I hold dear,” Ungar-Sargon said.

Evans is now the director of the New York-Hudson Valley chapter of a group called NoCirc, which raises awareness about what its members believe are the myths of circumcision.

Critics, including Evans and Ungar-Sargon, call the ritual a traumatic experience that is medically unnecessary. What’s more, they say, it’s an irreversible procedure performed on someone who has no say in the matter.

Some Jewish doctors agree, arguing there is no clear proven medical benefit to the ritual.

Ronald Goldman, a Boston psychologist and author of “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective,” said more Jews are questioning the tradition as increasing numbers of Jews voice their doubts.

“They also have more access to information because of the Internet,” said Goldman, who founded the Circumcision Resource Center. “A lot more literature is available than what used to be out there 20 years ago.”

Goldman added there is growing evidence that circumcision is not only harmful psychologically, but also sexually.

“Circumcision removes a significant portion of erogenous tissue which has various functions, including facilitating intercourse and providing erogenous stimulation,” he said.

Ungar-Sargon agrees.

“It’s clear that you’re permanently altering a sexual experience,” he said. “It’s a radical change.”

Some families that have opted not to have their sons circumcised are resorting to an alternative ceremony called Brit Shalom — meaning covenant of peace.

This ritual is a baby-naming ceremony done without removing the infant’s foreskin, explained Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago.

The Brit Shalom is similar to a traditional bris in that it welcomes the baby boy into the covenant of the Jewish community. During the ceremony, parents talk to the child, sing songs, read poetry and share wine.

Chalom is one of a few rabbis who perform this unconventional ritual. He said only a few families have embraced this option because it is controversial.

“Circumcision is so central for a lot of (Jewish families) because of the sense of father-son identification and the sense of community identity,” he said.

For her part, Evans said she has no regrets.

“I didn’t abandon my religion,” she said. “I just didn’t want to allow someone to take a knife to my son’s genitals.”

(Kevin Eckstrom contributed to this report.)