The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
I am a Hindu woman married to and carrying the baby of a wonderful Jewish man. We have discussed raising the child with elements of both religions, and are equally content with the arrangement, as are, somewhat miraculously, both of our parents. I just found out I am having a boy and am now contemplating circumcision. I feel as though it is the right decision, since my husband’s religion requires it and mine doesn’t specifically prohibit it. However, there is a strong cultural bias against circumcision among Hindus, due mostly to its association with Muslims, and telling my parents about this will be difficult. So, am I right to privilege religious law over cultural customs and plan to circumcise my son? Please help me understand if my instincts are correct.—Taking a pregnant pause
Explain to Them The Significance of Circumcision
JAMES PONET: Let me first say that I admire your sensitivity to your parents’ feelings, your willingness to appreciate that one may legitimately feel a bias against a custom that is honored within a community you have experienced as hostile. Might it not be helpful for your parents, if you choose to circumcise your son, to discuss with them the religious significance of circumcision in Judaism?
Jewish tradition understands circumcision as a “sign of the covenant,” between God and the Jewish people, a second such sign being the observance of Shabbat, the day of rest. Covenant — brit in Hebrew — names a relationship that, like marriage and friendship, is a form of committed love.
Circumcision then is an invitation to search for the way to express love in all our physical actions — functional, pleasurable, ethical and sexual. Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas urged us to recognize the vulnerability of the human face in the ethical summons: “Thou shalt not murder.” Circumcision invites us to recognize that we may use each and every aspect of our physical being to give expression to the hidden mystery of love.
Technically there is no religious obligation to have your son circumcised since by Jewish law he will not be born a Jew. But circumcision is the first ritual step, the second being immersion in the waters of a mikveh, by which he might some day choose to become a Jew. If you now choose circumcision, will you seek to have it performed as a public, religious event with a rabbi and / or a mohel officiating? If you do, you will discover a wide range of options today for organizing and conducting the event.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 5 grandchildren.
Their Resistance Might Go Deeper than Anti-Muslim Bias
SAMIRA MEHTA: After reading your question, I decided to consult a social worker I know who is a mother and Jewish woman raising children with Hindu heritage. She underscored what is to me the key point: it sounds as if you are comfortable with the decision to circumcise your son. She also pointed out that you need to remember the importance of boundaries. This is your child and decisions about his welfare are, in the end, yours and his father’s to make, not his grandparents’. Ultimately, it is more important that this decision feel right to you as parents than that you base it on privileging religious law over cultural custom.
That said, as a scholar of religion, I would say that the lines and distinctions between religious law and cultural custom are not always clear-cut. Think about it this way: although plenty of Orthodox Jews eschew tattoos because of religious law, plenty of liberal or secular Jews eschew them because of the history of their use during the Holocaust. This is why it should really be about what you feel comfortable with and not establishing hierarchies between religion and culture.
As for how to tell your parents about circumcision: you’re right, that might be difficult. As you may well know, Hindu discomfort with circumcision is deeper than simply the dislike or distrust of a Muslim practice. Rather, during the horrible violence of Partition, one way that rioters on either side would identify their enemies, since both groups closely resembled each other, was to check for circumcision. The wrong result could result in beatings, maiming, or death.
I am not reminding you of this history to sway your decision, but to suggest that your parents’ discomfort might be more than simple bias. This doesn’t mean you should let them pressure you, just that their objections might be rooted in an inheritance of pain. If so, I would encourage you to be patient with their reactions while calmly standing by your decision.
Samira K. Mehta, PhD, is a public fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies. She is currently working on a book entitled “Beyond Chrismukkah: Christian-Jewish Blended Families is the United States.”
This is Really About How You Envision Your Family’s Religious Life
KEREN MCGINITY: Your instincts are admirable, prioritizing Jewish religious law over an anti-Muslim cultural bias. The decision whether to circumcise your son is really about how you envision your family’s religious life. It is important to determine what exactly you and your spouse mean by “raising the child with elements of both religions.” What that would look like on a daily basis? How you would navigate points of disparity? For example, will you teach your child to worship one God as Judaism teaches or many deities as Hinduism does? Is there a middle ground to be found in the saying, “The Truth is One but different sages call it by different names?”
The question about whether to circumcise your son raises the question of whether it is truly possible to raise a child equally in two religions. While there are people who raise children as “both,” my opinion is that choosing one religious identity and mixing in cultural practices of the others is preferable to religious syncretism. When asked, “What religion are you?” a child can confidently self-identify “I am Jewish” or “I am Hindu” while also participating in cultural celebrations from both parents’ backgrounds.
Although telling your parents about your decision to circumcise your son may be challenging, it would be much harder on your son to go through life as an uncircumcised Jew. As you transition to becoming a parent, choose wisely and together with your husband give your child the strong religious identification and rich bicultural upbringing every child of intermarriage deserves.
Dr. Keren R. McGinity is an author-educator affiliated with Brandeis University. Her books include the newly released “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood” and “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America”, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com.