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Brit Milah — A Modern Jewish Mother’s First Submission to Tradition

I love Rebecca’s new post about the commitment it takes for a Jewish woman to give birth to a boy and, usually on his eighth day of life, turn him over to the (hopefully skilled) hands of a mohel.

It brought back that moment when, 15 years ago, I stood in our shul, weak winter sunlight coming through the stained glass windows, the front pews filled with our friends and family members, and suddenly felt my knees buckle as the mohel started his work on my brand-new boy.

Fortunately my mom was standing on my right and my friend Shira on my left, and they each caught one of my elbows to prop me up.

For me, it was a moment of unanticipated reckoning as a Jew.

I suddenly felt like Abraham, exposing the tenderest parts of my treasure, my first born, to a knife — all because God had required it of me.

His bris felt like the Akedah.

Rebecca is so right — it is a measure of our commitment as Jews when, in these days of assimilation and anti-circumcision campaigns, we bring our sons into the convenant, the brit.

Though I was surprised by the intensity of that moment, giving our sons a brit milah is not something we moderns do without reflection and usually at least a grain of ambivalence.

It is a commitment we approach with intention.

How many Jews do we all know who have had a baby boy and not had a brit milah for him? Either they have him circumcised in the hospital — which does not fulfill the commandment and, from what I’ve learned, is rarely as quick or skillfully done as those by a mohel — or skip it all together.

When we liberal Jews do it we do it because we are intentionally adding our son to the links of the generations of Jewish men who precede him and connecting him to Jewish tradition. We are making a statement that we are Jews, that this son is a Jew, and that we are fulfilling a mitzvah, one of God’s commandments.

We submit.

And that is something we rarely do, we modern Jewish women.

We don’t submit to our husbands. We partner with them.

We don’t submit to biological imperatives. We use birth control.

We generally don’t submit ourselves to tradition. We choose to light Shabbat candles or build a sukkah, but it is not with the bland acceptance of those who feel that there is only one way to do things. We choose to observe the parts of Jewish tradition that work for us because they add richness to our lives and, perhaps, for some of us, because it is what we think God wants of us.

We are a generation that feels empowered to make choices (and are giving our children what sometimes feel like too many choices about every little thing — but that’s for another post).

We expect to have the freedom to make choices.

Submission to this most ancient and archetypal of all Jewish rituals, the brit milah, in its non-rational power, is the ultimate expression of Jewish commitment.

Kudos to you, Rebecca, as a new Jew and an about-to-be mother, for choosing to make this commitment. You’re starting your career as a Jewish mother with one of the hardest steps. Don’t worry — everything after this is a piece of cake. (Note to the other mothers reading this: I may as well let her enjoy her last few weeks of pre-motherhood independence).

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