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Is coronavirus a reason to skip the bris?

My son and daughter had a joint bar and bat mitzvah a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic. The service took place in our temple and was broadcast on Zoom. On the bema, our rabbi stood apart from our immediate family and just a few congregation staffers were physically present. Everyone else, including grandparents, watched safely from home.

Of course, this wasn’t the way we’d planned for things to go — but it felt right. The day was so special and full of meaning that I don’t think any of us wishes it were different.

Among the range of limited choices, it felt wrong to skip or postpone this important milestone. Yet I contend one Jewish moment is better off not taking place right now. Or ever. The bris.

My husband and I are both proud Jews, but we didn’t circumcise our son. We refused to subject him to what we believe is a traumatic and hurtful practice. A few years later I started Beyond the Bris, a website that chronicles and furthers the uniquely Jewish movement to question circumcision. Yes, I am one of those kooky anti-circumcision Jews.

But I’m not alone. Despite the widely held belief that “all Jews circumcise,” the practice has always been controversial within our ranks to some degree. So much so that Jewish reformers in the 19th and 20th century sought to end the requirement, but didn’t have the votes to institute formal change. Recently a number of Jewish celebrities have made statements against circumcision, including Rosanne Barr, Sara Gilbert, Alicia Silverstone, Kyra Sedgwick and Howard Stern.

So what’s the big fuss over a “little” piece of skin?

Fact is, the foreskin isn’t so little. Everything is tiny on an infant, but babies grow. In an adult man, the foreskin comprises a full one-third of the penile shaft skin, which is roughly the size of an index card. This is highly innervated erogenous tissue. Following circumcision, the glans transforms from smooth mucosal tissue (like the inner eyelid or inner lip) into dry, keratinized skin. It’s common sense that foreskin removal impacts sexual sensitivity.

There are other compelling reasons to skip the bris. Performing a body modification on someone who can’t consent poses ethical concerns, and the potential for surgical complications (both immediate and into adulthood) is very real.

The coronavirus pandemic has led us to reevaluate how we do things, often for the better. For example, at my synagogue and many others, the shift to services being broadcast online will likely continue even after restrictions on gathering have ended. We’ve discovered that online services are a wonderful way to include people who cannot attend in person, regardless of the circumstance.

It’s my hope that the coronavirus pandemic will provide an opportunity for Jewish parents to re-think the bris. Why use medical resources that are in short supply for an elective procedure? Why stay in the hospital a minute longer than is absolutely necessary? Whether a bris takes place at home, in a synagogue, or in a medical setting — why risk having a complication that would result in trips to the doctor? And, of course, why deprive a child — and the man he will become — of sensitivity and bodily autonomy? Maybe instead of Zooming the bris during coronavirus, or asking that mohels wear masks, we can reconsider the necessity of circumcision altogether.

Rebecca Wald, a Philadelphia native, is the founder of Beyond the Bris and co-author of “Celebrating Brit Shalom,” a book of alternative bris ceremonies that can be rabbi or family led.

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