Jewish – With a Difference
Circumcision is a tenet of Judaism, but now a small minority is choosing to forgo the bris
By SHEILA ANNE FEENEY
MOSHE ROTHENBERG keeps a kosher house, attends a Conservative temple and celebrates Jewish holidays. His son, Samuel, attends a Conservative Hebrew school.
But Samuel, 9, differs from his Brooklyn friends and classmates in a minor physical way that provokes a major tsuris. Samuel never had a bris — the ritual male circumcision that is a central commandment of the Jewish faith.
The rate of circumcision has been steadily declining in the United States, from about 80% in 1965 to about 66% in 1995. While circumcision's benefits and risks are endlessly debated, critics of the procedure contend that foreskin removal is traumatic and painful for infants, medically unnecessary and useless in deflecting sexually transmitted diseases or deterring unusual sexual practices.
Male infants born to Jewish parents, however, are circumcised for religious, not medical, reasons.
The practice dates to God's command to Abraham that “every male child among you will be circumcised,” and is part of the covenant between God and Israel. The gravity of this obligation is such that even secular and nonpracticing Jews have their sons circumcised (Muslims and some Africans also practice ritual circumcision.)
Now, however, some Jewish parents, albeit a tiny minority, are starting to question — and defy — a traditional practice rooted in centuries of belief.
Ronald Goldman, a Boston psychologist and author who founded The Circumcision Resource Center in 1991, claims more than 200 Jewish-identified members. Goldman says infants can suffer a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and may suffer an interruption of maternal attachment as a result of the procedure, which is ritually performed without anesthesia.
To those who consider him an apostate, Goldman argues that it is a Jewish value not to inflict gratuitous pain, “to ask questions, and to explore the innermost feelings, values and impulses we have; to acquire knowledge and understanding.”
Goldman has also written a book. “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective,” to be published in September by Vanguard, which he hopes will “help Jews explore options, so they don't feel compelled to do this.”
Rothenberg, a Brooklyn social worker and high school guidance counselor, has helped hold a bris-sans-circumcision for more than 100 local families, “It's a welcoming ceremony, a celebration of the newborn,” that usually includes prayers, naming and — depending on parental preferences — tree-planting, singing, dancing, blessings, or donations to plant trees in Israel. A member of the Anti Circumcision Network, Rothenberg hopes to educate other parents to make decisions about their sons “on the basis of principle, not conformity.”
Rabbis in opposition
Such dissidents “are seeking to abolish one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism,” declares Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “I disapprove, and I also think their effort is futile.”
While there is an ongoing debate amongst Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders over who is truly Jewish, Schorsch predicts this is one issue on which all rabbis will agree: “You won't find a synagogue where the rabbi will endorse this kind of violation.”
As for the customized ceremonies absenting the mohel, or cutter, Schorsch predicts, “When you make your religion up as you go along, it's not going to have any staying power.”
Because the circumcision of a Jewish boy is a foregone conclusion, relatives and friends are stunned and sometimes anguished or unaccepting when parents ditch the tradition. “Our families went berserk for eight days” after Samuel's birth, but relaxed after the welcoming ceremony, relates Rothenberg.
“The pressure to conform is really, really strong. It's very hard for people to think for themselves about this,” says Gregg W.
He and his wife, a Queens couple who were reared as Conservative Jews, did not have their now-3-year-old circumcised because research convinced them, he says, that the practice was “barbaric.” He declined to have his full name used because his wife fears their family might be stigmatized The choice for his wife, said Gregg, was torturous, with empathy for her son finally winning out over her fears that she was behaving in a sacrilegious, heretical way.
Jewish parents who opt not to circumcise may attend temple, but rarely divulge their private decision with other worshipers or rabbis. While few occasions necessitate the state of a boy's genitals becoming public knowledge, families sometimes have an anxiety of being discovered or adversely judged.
Rothenberg admits his decision has had repercussions, from being shunned at a job to losing a friendship. But others, he hastens to add, have expressed their admiration that he had “the guts to put into practice what I believe.”
Samuel says he has not been teased by peers and classmates, but should that occur, his dad is ready with the talk that countless other parents have banked for such an occasion: The one that assures a kid that a difference in beliefs or appearance does not make a person inferior or bad.
While Rothenberg cites scripture that he believes supports abjuring circumcision, Schorsch says such interpretations are twistings and distortions. Rothenberg counters that it is not circumcision that glues Jews together as a people but “ethics. . . . We don't need to abuse our children to continue our faith.”
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