Sisterhood Blog

Taking On The Difficult Obligation of Brit Milah

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Mention circumcision in a crowd — even a virtual crowd — of liberal Jews (or liberal anything, I guess) and it never fails to spark rhetorical fire. And so, when I saw a recent post on the Park Slope Parents listserv from a woman whose daughter is pregnant and not sure about having a son circumcised, I knew it would devolve into anti-brit milah rhetoric even though the original poster made no mention of religion and, I suspect, isn’t a MOT.

Devolve it did. Some people weighed on based on their personal experience with the issue for their own issue, and soon enough a couple of responses appeared on the 3,800-plus member list from Jews who said they didn’t circumcise their sons and are glad they didn’t.

I felt that I had to respond. After all, the very first time I stood up as a Jew was in our childbirth education class, nearly 17 years ago. Our instructor was a Jewish woman married to a Christian man and, as we were having winter babies and the class met in her living room, we got to see her gaily decorated Christmas tree and nearby, an unlit Hanukkah menorah — a dead artifact rather than living ritual object.

The first woman in our class to give birth brought her new son to the last meeting. The mommy, a young Jewish woman whose boyfriend was not Jewish, proudly told the instructor “I stood up to my father and the baby didn’t have a bris.” The childbirth educator applauded her courage. Then, during the juice and crackers break, several of the soon-to-be-fathers stood around talking about the “remembered trauma” of their own circumcisions.

I love living in Brownstone Brooklyn, but please. This is the kind of stuff that gives Park Slope a bad name. Since each couple in the class had at least one Jew in it, and no one else was arguing for maintaining the tradition, I felt moved to do so.

As someone who had gone to a Protestant boarding school and not known how to respond to the upperclassman who taunted me with Holocaust “jokes,” as someone who had not known what to say to the “Jew for Jesus” neighbor who told me that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was a fulfillment of the Torah, it was a watershed moment in my own identity as a Jew to be able to speak up about positive reasons to maintain Jewish tradition.

Today I feel more confident about speaking up for what Judaism says — even about the hard-to-define stuff like submitting to the challenging and decidedly non-rational commandment of brit milah, so I posted this response to the listserv:

I’m chiming in here as someone with a different take than most posters. Some of the Jewish folks here who have not had their sons have a brit milah/bris have focused on what they’re not taking away - the foreskin.

But by not cutting off his foreskin in a brit milah, you are cutting him off from the Jewish people. Whether you believe that the Torah is the literal word of God or the sacred foundational myth of the Jewish people, it is commanded that we do it, and by not doing it, you’re making the decision for him that he will be cut off, separated from, God and the Jewish people.

You may feel like you’ll let him “do it later,” if he chooses, but it’s a far more difficult and painful thing to do as an adult.

The video someone posted here of a doctor-done circumcision was horrifying — NOTHING like a bris. In the video a baby boy was strapped on a plastic board, his limbs held down by straps and a huge apparatus put on his tiny penis. It took 13 minutes, for God’s sake! A bris takes maybe 13 seconds. Actually probably under 10 seconds. The baby is held by a loved one, it’s quick and far more humane than what this video showed.

It’s not easy, I know. My first child was a boy and those few seconds of the actual bris weren’t easy for me. But so are many things we do for our children, like making sure they get the vaccines and blood tests they need.

True, it’s easy for those of us who are educated, rational thinkers to understand why vaccines and blood tests are important, and a brit milah isn’t really possible to understand intellectually. It’s not rational. It’s a statement of belief and sense of purpose that this child is a member of the Jewish people. It’s not an easy statement to make when we’re so often ambivalent or unsure ourselves of what we believe, but it’s also important to remember that many important things in life aren’t rational, like love and acting with compassion.

I consider the fact that two cells coming together turn into a whole new person a holy mystery of the first order. Feeling commanded to have my son have a brit milah, like so much of being pregnant and parenting, was a mysterious, primal thing. And I wouldn’t have wanted to make the decision to cut him off from his people and his tradition and the long chain of Jewish generations before him. In that context, having his foreskin removed in a brit milah felt like little sacrifice after all.

That’s my 2 shekels — please don’t flame me! Thanks. -Debra (mom to a boy and two girls)

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