Activists Up Efforts To Cut Circumcision Out of Bris Ritual

By Jacob Victor

Published July 18, 2007, issue of July 20, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A few months before his son was born, Thomas Wolfe of Wheeling, W.Va., consulted the rabbi of his Reform congregation to discuss plans for the baby’s circumcision. “I had the perception that a circumcision was just an innocuous procedure, with no risk,” he later told the Forward. After the rabbi had recommended that Wolfe find a ritual circumciser, or mohel, to perform the newborn’s bris, Wolfe did a little Internet research. “It wasn’t really until that time that I became aware of all the controversies,” he said.

While the United States is one of the few industrialized countries in which a majority of newborn boys are circumcised, recent surveys show that the American circumcision rate, which was close to 90% in the 1960s, is now at only 57%. But even though the national rate has declined, circumcision remains the norm in all major Jewish denominations; most newborn Jewish boys have either a traditional brit milah or have the procedure performed at a hospital. Nevertheless, a small but vocal minority of Jewish activists have begun to question the importance, and even the morality, of circumcision. Some have even begun using alternative “bris-less” brisses to welcome their sons into the world.

The Internet is full of Web sites sponsored by circumcision opponents, who often call themselves proponents of “genital integrity” or “intactivism.” After conducting his research, Wolfe decided to forgo circumcising his son. Instead, he arranged a so-called brit shalom ceremony, a newly created ritual that celebrates birth while omitting circumcision.

His own son’s case behind him, Wolfe is now pressing for broader change. This past May, he began circulating a petition calling on Reform rabbis and congregations to reconsider a 1982 rabbinic edict affirming the centrality of circumcision in Reform Judaism. As of now, the petition has drawn about 70 signatories. But despite — or perhaps because of — their small numbers, Jewish anti-circumcision activists remain vocal in demanding that Jews change the way they view circumcision. Mark Reiss, a retired diagnostic radiologist, is executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision and a strong advocate of the brit shalom ceremony. Reiss, who is a member of a Conservative congregation in San Francisco, believes that the time has come for Jews to abandon the practice. “A lot of scholars feel that circumcision was an atavistic cultural remnant from the days when pagans sacrificed their boys to the gods,” he told the Forward. Reiss has been active in creating a database of rabbis and laypeople who will officiate at brit shalom ceremonies. There are no restrictions on the content of the ceremony, according to Reiss. Some parents simply use it as a naming ceremony, some celebrate the “intactness” of their child and some design versions all their own.

Moshe Rothenberg of Brooklyn officiates at around six or seven brit shalom ceremonies a year. He preserves many of the traditional aspects of the bris, including a blessing over wine, a festive meal and a sandak (a person close to the family designated to hold the newborn during the ceremony). Instead of a circumcision, however, Rothenberg incorporates unconventional rituals. “One time we gathered stones and cast them into water to remember all the living people in the child’s life in one bowl and all the people who aren’t there in another bowl,” Rothenberg told the Forward. “Sometimes we do a ritual involving nature, often consecrating a plant or tree on behalf of the baby.” At the brit shalom of his own son, Rothenberg retold the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming angels disguised as travelers into their home. It was these angels who told Sarah she would give birth to Isaac. After the story was told, the baby’s feet were washed. This symbolically linked him to Abraham and Sarah, who washed their guests’ feet as a sign of hospitality and respect.

Many brit shalom proponents have based their stance on medical grounds. Reiss and other anti-circumcision activists claim that there are several medical reasons to abandon the practice. These include the possible pain experienced by a child during the procedure, the risk of infection and the theory that the foreskin provides sexual sensation that circumcised men can never experience. Reiss also argues that many of the perceived benefits of circumcision are in fact spurious. “Circumcision has always been related to whatever the disease of the decade was,” he said.

For some doctors, however, recent studies showing that circumcised heterosexual African men are around half as likely as their uncircumcised counterparts to contract HIV simply back up what they have claimed all along: that circumcision is not only harmless but also beneficial. Edgar Schoen, a pediatric endocrinologist who was the chair of the 1989 American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on Circumcision, claims that there at least 10 known medical benefits provided by circumcision. For example, there is some evidence that circumcision decreases the risk of infant kidney infection early in life and helps prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Still, the official position of the 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on Circumcision is equivocal: “Existing scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn male circumcision; however, these data are not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.” Schoen argues that this decision was reached because of the influence of what he calls “anti-circ” activists. “These people are very good with the sound bites, and they get on all the talk shows and all over the Internet,” he said, adding that such activists are especially effective in convincing young liberal Jews not to circumcise their sons. “For young, trendy Jewish parents, everything has to be natural and organic. ‘Why would the foreskin be there if it wasn’t good?’ That resonates with a lot of young Jewish parents.”

Jewish critics of circumcision have not limited their arguments to the medical realm, with some contending that the central issue is one of volition. Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Chicago-based filmmaker, recently released the documentary “Cut,” an exploration of circumcision from religious, scientific and ethical perspectives. Ungar-Sargon, who was raised Orthodox but no longer identifies with a specific denomination, told the Forward that he views circumcision “as gross violation of human rights.” He said, “I think the real central ethical issue here is one of autonomy. Do we have the right to permanently alter another person’s body without their permission?”

At the end of the day, every couple has to make its own decision, said Rabbi Donni Aaron, head of program designed to train Reform mohels. But, she added, most of the parents she has encountered eventually choose to circumcise their sons, and that trend is unlikely to change any time soon. “If for thousands of years it was clear that the practice was harmful,” she said, “it would have gone away a while ago.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.