Taking On The Difficult Obligation of Brit Milah

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:

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Taking On The Difficult Obligation of Brit Milah

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