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My best friend (Jewish) married a wonderful man (non-Jewish) and they had a son. Together they decided to raise their kids Jewish, but when their son was born, didn’t circumcise him or do any kind of Jewish naming ceremony.
I’m still grappling with it. Is her son really Jewish? If they don’t do circumcision – to me one of the most basic and first Jewish acts a parent can do with their child– how will they actually create a Jewish life for him? — Concerned BFF
REBECCA LEHRER: The first thing I want to do is say that I feel you. I totally understand your first instinct. It’s tribal. You love your friend and it sounds like you love her husband, and you are generally a pretty open-minded person, but something feels wrong about this to you. What you know of Jewishness is that is starts with circumcision. That’s pretty basic, right?
In my group of friends right now there’s a baby boom, so circumcision is a hot topic. Should we do it? Is a bris a scary ritual? What can we do instead? Some are opting for a hospital circumcision but no bris. Is their kid Jewish?
But the thing is, often the conversations that lead to these decisions are complex, nuanced and very personal. Maybe her husband isn’t circumcised and they wanted the baby to have the same parts as his father. Maybe for them, being Jewish is about values and community — not a single act of Jewish tradition, like a circumcision.
My advice to you: It sounds like your hope is that this child, who you obviously care for, lives a Jewish life. The one thing that will help ensure that he does not live a Jewish life is your defining him right now as not Jewish. Instead, consider how you can support your friend and her growing family by including them in Jewish traditions and culture while still supporting the choices they make for themselves. The number one thing is to always make her husband and her child feel welcome. If you can find a way to have a conversation with your friend about your discomfort (and remember, it’s your discomfort), about how she plans to raise a Jewish family, and how you can help her do that without being judgmental, well, that’s the menschy thing to do.
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
HAROLD BERMAN: When the Reform movement began in the 1800s, many traditional practices were abandoned – from Shabbat to kashrut to the liturgy. But when it came to rejecting circumcision, one of the early Reform leaders protested, “Suicide is not Reform!”
Indeed, no mitzvah is more foundational. The Torah tells us that God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself, his progeny and his household – and for 4,000 years, Jews have followed suit. More than an expression of Jewish identity or even a commandment, it is called a brit - a covenant that represents an irrevocable bond between God and the Jewish People. Many Jews who practice nothing else are loath to walk away from brit milah. Doing so is often the last step before walking away from Judaism entirely.
You ask if your friend’s son is Jewish. As the child of a Jewish mother, he is indisputably Jewish. However, it is difficult to imagine he will grow up wanting to claim Judaism for himself. While it is theoretically possible for parents to deny their Jewish child a brit milah yet participate in other aspects of Jewish life, it is unlikely.
From your description, it appears your friend’s opting not to circumcise stems not from the usual objections of medical or psychological harm (for which there is no conclusive evidence), but rather from religious apathy. That they aren’t having a Jewish naming ceremony instead, suggests a low level of interest in Judaism, notwithstanding their stated decision to raise a Jewish child.
The real question, though, is your role. If they don’t feel compelled to take this most elemental Jewish step, you will not accomplish anything by lecturing them (unless you want to lose a friendship). Instead, you can model Jewish living positively and inspirationally. The best hope of their wanting to meaningfully embrace Judaism is to see someone else doing the same.
Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”
RUTH NEZMOFF: I will leave it to the Rabbis to give the definitive answer on whether or not your friend’s son is really Jewish. My understanding is the commandment to circumcise is binding on both the father and the child. If the father chooses not to circumcise his son, the son still has an obligation to have himself circumcised once he becomes an adult. Your friend’s son has plenty of time to fulfill this commandment. Moreover, circumcision can be postponed for health reasons. Perhaps the child has a health issue which his parents are not discussing. You do not know.
Instead of criticizing your friends, whether overtly or covertly, for not following all the commandments, try embracing the child and thanking the parents for giving the child a love of Judaism. Only then will he himself consider observing the brit milah. If all he becomes is a friend of the Jewish people who is familiar with Jewish practices, then so be it. Any attempt to convince them is overstepping your bounds as a friend and will only serve to alienate them from both you and Judaism.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Advisory Board of Interfaithfamily.com.