Though the prospect of circumcising a baby boy typically causes some anxiety, Jewish parents most often to go through with it. Circumcision is a concrete symbol of the ancient Abrahamic covenant, an affirmation of membership in the tribe, and a way for the boy to “look like Dad.” Sealing the deal for many is the idea that circumcision provides health benefits throughout a child’s life.
Spiritual authenticity and the circumcision decision
These days, however, there are Jewish parents who consider the issue carefully—and come to a different conclusion. To them, circumcision seems unnecessary, harmful or traumatic, and they decide not to do it. The question is, do these families represent a disheartening watering-down of tradition? Or do they perhaps have something unique and precious to offer to the ongoing Jewish narrative?
My sons, now grown, are both circumcised. But I acquiesced unhappily, despite grave misgivings. My husband was in favor of circumcision, and like him, I wanted my boys to be fully accepted in Jewish life. I wanted to be fully accepted in Jewish life. In short, my compliance was calculated. It was not an expression of my spiritual beliefs or my relationship with God.
From the point of view of halacha (Jewish law), one should perform the mitzvot (commandments) even if one lacks spiritual conviction. The idea is that since spiritual belief can result from practice, one shouldn’t wait for inspiration in fulfilling a required deed.
While I respect and appreciate that concept, I’m not a halachic Jew. I believe in the central principle of progressive Judaism: we make ritual choices based on Jewish knowledge and thoughtful personal inquiry. If we leave our experience out of these decisions or go against our own ethics, we not only fail ourselves, but deprive our community of something vital to the living, breathing organism we call contemporary Judaism.
A 2011 responsum by Conservative-trained Rabbi Chaim Weiner asserts that halachically, boys who have not been circumcised are still entitled to have bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. As someone who champions the inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish life, I applaud the rabbi’s stand.
Rabbi Weiner then notes, regarding families’ choice whether to circumcise, that “it is unlikely that coercive tactics will lead to an increase in observance.” It is here that I disagree with him. I believe such tactics, from subtle pressure to overstepped emotional boundaries, have persuaded many parents to go through with circumcision.
If the Jewish community has secured greater conformity to circumcision through social pressure, I would ask: at what cost? I remember feeling I had to choose between my maternal urges (protect that infant!) and my heritage (hand him over!). My authentic self, the person who wanted to nurture and comfort my newborn babies, did not seem welcome in Judaism. I had always thought of tradition as something that makes us whole, connecting us not only with each other, but with our inner being. Here I felt disconnected from my people and from myself.
Our personal integrity, the genuineness of our connection with God, and the biological imperative to protect an infant are all sacred covenants. I’d even go so far as to suggest there’s an implicit covenant between Judaism and the individual Jew: if I value the best of Judaism, shouldn’t Judaism value the best of me?
It is because of these other covenants that circumcision strikes some parents as a breach of promise, rather than the sealing of one. And yet that painful predicament—despite its spiritual nature—is rarely part of the Jewish conversation. Too often, parents’ doubts are met with diversionary humor, dismissal, or reverential incantations about “the covenant,” as if no obligation other than the agreement between God and Abraham could be considered sacred.
Parents for whom circumcision feels like an ethical breach should be able to discuss that with clergy and get actual spiritual guidance instead of pressure to conform. Brit shalom (covenant of peace), a ceremony for non-circumcising families, should be openly offered.
The rate of routine infant circumcision has dropped steadily in the U.S. in recent decades, from 81% in 1981 to a little over 50% now. Skepticism about medical benefits, better understanding of the physiological function and erogenous nature of foreskin tissue, and ethical considerations have all played roles in the declining rate. Since these matters concern every parent, it’s not surprising that Jewish families are among those opting out of circumcision.
Meanwhile, progressive Jewish institutions are going to great lengths, and admirably so, to welcome members of our community who may not look traditionally Jewish. I would urge any rabbi wishing to respond to the diverse needs of today’s families to openly embrace “conscientious objectors” to circumcision, reassuring them that they’re still included and wanted. This is a halachically sound concept as well as one appropriate to the principles of various progressive movements of Judaism.
A Judaism that respects and celebrates spiritual authenticity, a Judaism that invites us to bring our true selves into the Jewish conversation—this is a vibrant, meaningful Judaism.
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