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.”