Question: What is the Ideology behind Jewish Ritual Circumcision (Bris)?
Answer: Dear Cyndi,
You told me in your letter about a Jewish friend who did not have a B'rit Milah (Bris) for either of her two boys because "she didn't agree with the ideology." You ask for information you can share with your friend to "show her the other side of the coin."
There is no question that ritual circumcision is a difficult choice many Jewish parents. Some Jewish families once comforted themselves with the idea that circumcision would have medical benefits for their children. Nowadays, that belief has come into question as most doctors are neutral on the subject of circumcision.
As circumcision becomes less common in the American general population, Jewish parents must confront the choice -- perhaps as was always intended -- whether they will mark their boys as being "different" from non-Jewish boys. On the other hand, many Jewish parents are drawn positively to the distinction of having their sons "look like" their fathers and other Jewish boys.
B'rit Milah does carry an "ideology," as you put it. In Jewish tradition, circumcision serves as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Since this is a covenant that links generation to generation, it is appropriate that the mark is on a "generative" organ. From shortly after birth, Jewish boys are marked by the covenant in a way that prefigures the eventual passing of that covenant to the next generation.
The whole idea of B'rit Milah also seems to say something about the Jewish attitude toward our human bodies. Jewish tradition holds that human beings are not "perfect" as we are born. Before we can become our truest and best selves, we require spiritual discipline, growth and development that nature alone cannot provide. Circumcision can symbolize the ways in which we need to complete what nature has given us.
Is this a difficult ideology to accept? I think that many find it so. I don't apologize for it. I don't think it is meant to be "easy." B'rit Milah reinforces the message that choosing to raise a child as a Jew means making difficult choices, especially in a society that makes it so easy to ignore the wisdom of our tradition.
Some have concerns about the pain caused to the baby by circumcision. Many mohelim and mohelot (those who perform Jewish ritual circumcision) use safe and effective local anaesthesia before performing the circumcision. This is an option for those who are worried about causing their babies pain.
Others object to B'rit Milah because of its implicit sexism. Tradition holds that we enter boys into the covenant with circumcision, but do nothing for our girls. I believe that this legitimate concern is best addressed by creating new rituals for welcoming baby girls into the covenant and new understandings of the nature of the "sign of the covenant."
In my own family, my wife and I created a public covenant ritual in which we brought our daughters under the same huppah that we had used at our wedding. Some offer the explanation that girls do not require a mark of the covenant on their bodies because they already carry a sign linking them to future generations -- the eggs that baby girls have in their ovaries from birth. To me, these are appropriate responses to the sexism of rabbinic B'rit Milah, and better responses than simply rejecting it.
I don't know that there are books or courses that would convince someone to make the Jewish choice of having a B'rit Milah for his or her baby boys. It is not an intellectual choice, but a choice of the heart and spirit. Two books that I find useful are Berit Mila in the Reform Context, edited by Lewis M. Barth (Berit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, 1990), and Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, by Lawrence A. Hoffman (U. of Chicago, 1996).
With best wishes,
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser