Sisterhood Blog

Brit Milah — A Modern Jewish Mother's First Submission to Tradition

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I love Rebecca’s new post about the commitment it takes for a Jewish woman to give birth to a boy and, usually on his eighth day of life, turn him over to the (hopefully skilled) hands of a mohel.

It brought back that moment when, 15 years ago, I stood in our shul, weak winter sunlight coming through the stained glass windows, the front pews filled with our friends and family members, and suddenly felt my knees buckle as the mohel started his work on my brand-new boy.

Fortunately my mom was standing on my right and my friend Shira on my left, and they each caught one of my elbows to prop me up.

For me, it was a moment of unanticipated reckoning as a Jew.

I suddenly felt like Abraham, exposing the tenderest parts of my treasure, my first born, to a knife — all because God had required it of me.

His bris felt like the Akedah.

Rebecca is so right — it is a measure of our commitment as Jews when, in these days of assimilation and anti-circumcision campaigns, we bring our sons into the convenant, the brit.

Though I was surprised by the intensity of that moment, giving our sons a brit milah is not something we moderns do without reflection and usually at least a grain of ambivalence.

It is a commitment we approach with intention.

How many Jews do we all know who have had a baby boy and not had a brit milah for him? Either they have him circumcised in the hospital — which does not fulfill the commandment and, from what I’ve learned, is rarely as quick or skillfully done as those by a mohel — or skip it all together.

When we liberal Jews do it we do it because we are intentionally adding our son to the links of the generations of Jewish men who precede him and connecting him to Jewish tradition. We are making a statement that we are Jews, that this son is a Jew, and that we are fulfilling a mitzvah, one of God’s commandments.

We submit.

And that is something we rarely do, we modern Jewish women.

We don’t submit to our husbands. We partner with them.

We don’t submit to biological imperatives. We use birth control.

We generally don’t submit ourselves to tradition. We choose to light Shabbat candles or build a sukkah, but it is not with the bland acceptance of those who feel that there is only one way to do things. We choose to observe the parts of Jewish tradition that work for us because they add richness to our lives and, perhaps, for some of us, because it is what we think God wants of us.

We are a generation that feels empowered to make choices (and are giving our children what sometimes feel like too many choices about every little thing — but that’s for another post).

We expect to have the freedom to make choices.

Submission to this most ancient and archetypal of all Jewish rituals, the brit milah, in its non-rational power, is the ultimate expression of Jewish commitment.

Kudos to you, Rebecca, as a new Jew and an about-to-be mother, for choosing to make this commitment. You’re starting your career as a Jewish mother with one of the hardest steps. Don’t worry — everything after this is a piece of cake. (Note to the other mothers reading this: I may as well let her enjoy her last few weeks of pre-motherhood independence).

Miriam Pollack Sat. Oct 3, 2009

Dear Rebecca and Debra,

I too am a Jewish woman, mother of two boys, who dutifully arranged for their ritual circumcisions with celebration and joy. But, their screams remained embedded in my bones, and it took me many years to even begin to dare to question the colossal collision between my deepest maternal instincts and the tradition that I love.

What we, as Jewish women, are surrendering in handing over our precious newborn babies to have the most sensitive part of their bodies cut, is nothing less than our primal, and indeed, sacred instinct to protect our infants. The focus may be on the "sacrifice" of the baby, but, it is just as assuredly on the silent, often, tearful surrender of the mother. In our heart of hearts we know that a dreadful violation of this new life is occurring, even though it is normative in our culture.

You are quite right in associating this rite with akedat yitzhak. Sara is invisible and voiceless as Abraham and this male imaged god demand that this child be taken as a sacrifice. It is as if Isaac is motherless. Her authority, her bond, her absolute maternal entitlement to protect her child is totally subverted. The next thing we know about Sara in the following parasha is that she has died. She is the one who has been sacrificed, and, now a covenant is formed, a people are "birthed", not from a woman, but from a man, and male-imaged god. The akedah is not simply another story from the Tora. It is central to Jewish liturgy and faith. I believe it is the major paradigm shift in the tension between gender and power during the formative years of our people.

Sara was a woman of great honor and reputation. We know that people came from far flung regions to mourn her and that the mourning lasted for many days. We also know that the Cave of the "Patriarchs", is actually the kinship line of Sara, not of Abraham. It seems to me that when these ancient stories were written down, some 700 years after they had been lived, a decidedly patriarchal slant was given to them.

Yet, the core of Judaism reveals its strong matrilineal influence. According to halacha, as well as the Israeli supreme court, matrilineal descent still trumps circumcision. A boy who is ritually circumcised, but has an un-converted non-Jewish mother, is not a Jew.

Even though circumcision may make us recoil, we rationalize it in so many ways, spiritually, as well as, medically. I was told that the foreskin is just "an extra flap of skin" of no particular significance. Indeed, this is completely false. Only later did I learn that it contains over 20,000 nerve endings, the most sensitive nerve receptors of the penis. It comprises up to half of all penile tissue on the erect adult, protects the glans from urine and feces contamination during infancy. Furthermore, its removal externalizes the glans designed to be an internal organ analogous to the clitoris. Once externalized it loses its mucosal covering, becomes thickened and desensitized over time. By middle age many circumcised men need much thrusting during intercourse in order to achieve sufficient stimulation. This often coincides with a woman's entry into menopause which decreases her lubrication, and the combination can be a significant decrease in the pleasure bond between the couple.

The great Moses Maimonides may not have known the exact physiology of the foreskin which has come to light in the last 20 years, but he did know that circumcision had a detrimental effect on sexuality, and, indeed praised it specifically for that reason. In his famous book, The Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides wrote:

The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitementand sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him (Genesis Rabbah LXXX). In my opinion this is the strongest of reasons for circumcision.

Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1190/1963) Vol.2, Part3, Chapter 49, Page 609.

There they are, the twin fears: the fear of woman and the fear of pleasure. Circumcision is the antidote that both assuages and perpetuates these ancient terrors. This is the achievement and true function of circumcision. It achieves this by violently breaching the maternal-infant bond shortly after birth, by amputating and marking the baby’s sexual organ, by disempowering, “taming”, the mother at the height of her instinctual need to protect her infant, by bonding the baby to the men and the male-imaged G-d and by psycho-sexually wounding the manhood still asleep in the unsuspecting baby boy.

Circumcision is harmful. It is also excruciatingly painful, even with topical anesthetic. Just because trauma is below the level of conscious recall, does not mean that it is without residual traces in the neurology of the individual. Multiple studies of pain responses on circumcised babies measuring heart and respiratory rates, as well as cortisol levels, reveal an extreme degree of pain suffered by these little boys. We also know that infants who cry more and louder when vaccinated are those who have been circumcised, strongly suggesting a response similar to PTSD.

The so called medical arguments for circumcision have been promulgated as a deterrent in this country for everything from masturbation to HIV. Somehow, Europeans who do not routinely circumcise their baby boys, have not been plagued with these maladies. Indeed, the U.S. the only country in the world (aside from South Korea, thanks to our presence there) that has practiced routine circumcision for neonates for non-medical reasons, has the highest HIV rate in the West. For more information you may check out or or

The notion that we Jews will disappear if we forego circumcision is counter-intuitive. Why haven't Jewish women disappeared if cutting genitals is so essential to Jewish identity? How many thousands of adult male Jews in the U.S. are walking around with circumcised penises and are Judaically ignorant and unaffiliated? How do Jewish Israeli penises look different from Moslem penises?

If we care about transmitting the legacy of Judaism, we need to give our children a Jewish home and a Jewish education, one that honors the sanctity of maternal wisdom. Spiritualizing the cutting of genitals does not make it ethical, and, if it is not ethical, it cannot be holy. As women it is our right and our duty to name what is sacred, and it begins with the protection of our babies.


Miriam Pollack

MrBarns Mon. Feb 1, 2010

Your site was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

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