When my son Reuben and daughter-in-law Sadie announced that they were expecting a baby—our first grandchild—my husband and I were thrilled. A new little one in the family, and a new generation! What a joyous prospect.
A few weeks later, Reuben and Sadie shared with us that according to a routine sonogram, they were most likely having a boy.
“Please,” I begged, in silent prayer. If there’s one thing our friends have told us about being grandparents, it’s to refrain from giving advice, so I held my tongue.
Whereas most Jewish grandmothers-to-be might hope for a traditional bris, I was keeping my fingers crossed that Reuben and Sadie would decide not to circumcise the baby. Having dutifully allowed both of my boys to be circumcised, I later came to regret the decision as I learned more about the practice—and as I slowly realized how much I’d had to sublimate my honest feelings in order to comply. I’ve written many articles and two books about reasons for Jews to question circumcision. Although I knew my sons respected and supported my work on this topic, I didn’t want to make any assumptions about their own Jewish choices.
I always wanted sons, but like many Jewish mothers, I had trepidation about circumcision. I agreed to my boys’ circumcisions for various reasons: wanting them to belong Jewishly; wanting to avoid conflict with my husband; wanting to be accepted as a Jew myself, having been brought up with little Jewish education. But in retrospect, I regret not having protected my sons from what both my husband and I have come to believe is an unnecessary and arguably harmful practice.
I also feel it was the wrong decision for me from a Jewish point of view. Traditions are meant to bring us together, but this one left me feeling alone, upset, and somehow ashamed. Moreover, according to Jewish law, each commandment (of which circumcision is one) should be done with genuine spiritual intent. Spiritual intent? Nothing could have been more remote.
When our first son was born, my husband wanted a bris. I was willing to circumcise but wanted it done in the hospital by a doctor, with as little fanfare as possible. Later I came to feel that this “compromise” of mine was preposterous. We had opted out of anything Jewish, I’d cried the whole time, and we’d wound up with a result neither my husband nor I felt good about.
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The second time around, I’d done enough reading to demand that local anesthesia be used—something that wasn’t standard in those years—and I’d realized that the Jewish ceremony was important to me. We hired a Reform mohel who met us in a special room back at the hospital on day eight. But despite the Jewish content and kind support from the rabbi in attendance, I still felt what I was doing was wrong.
Why didn’t I stand up for myself and, more importantly, for my sons? That was the question that haunted me and haunts me still. After years of self-blame, I have come to understand that I was in an impossible situation and that while I felt alone, I really wasn’t alone. Many other Jewish parents have similar feelings about circumcision, and some opt-out. Circumcision within Judaism is not as monolithic as it may seem.
My goal now is to make a place for people like me in the Jewish world. I envision a Judaism that accepts, respects, and even welcomes spiritual and ritual diversity among its members—a Judaism free of such intense pressure to conform. I envision a Judaism to which circumcision objectors can bring their authentic selves.
As a way of exploring my feelings of alienation from the very ritual I had performed in order to belong, I began writing about Jewish circumcision. Initially, I immersed myself in halacha (Jewish law), looking for reasons within the law to question the practice. I was determined to articulate my arguments respectfully, and in a way that could not be dismissed as overly emotional or inflammatory. My research and writing made me feel more connected to Judaism: I began going to services, having Shabbat dinners, and preparing for an adult bat mitzvah.
I moved on to other topics as a writer, but the circumcision issue kept percolating at the back of my mind. It seemed ironic that it was through my iconoclastic research and writing that I’d come to feel more Jewish, and I began to think this would make for an interesting story. Eventually I penned The Measure of His Grief, a novel about a Berkeley physician, his Jewish identity, and the circumcision controversy. With this, I thought at last I’d hit on a project through which I could get the issue out of my system; I had the leeway to explore the many layers of the topic and bring it to life through fiction.
But it turned out I still had more to say. A few years later, I teamed up with Rebecca Wald, whose blog Beyond the Bris had become the go-to site for Jews questioning circumcision. The two of us co-wrote Celebrating Brit Shalom, the first-ever book for Jewish families seeking options other than circumcision. The book contains three original alternative bris ceremonies, in which a pomegranate or other seasonal fruit or vegetable is cut rather than the baby.
Meanwhile, changes were afoot in Jewish life. I was inspired by the efforts of progressive Jewish institutions to welcome LGBTQ Jews, interfaith families, and other potentially disenfranchised groups within Judaism. “Your authentic self is welcome here,” Jewish institutions seemed to be saying to those groups. It occurred to me: shouldn’t it be the same for families conflicted about circumcision, and for those opting out? Shouldn’t their authenticity be similarly valued? Shouldn’t they be welcomed and included without fear of lectures, judgment—or rejection?
No such outreach existed, so Rebecca and I began to conceive it ourselves. We brought in other like-minded Jewish people and formed a nonprofit, Bruchim, which advocates for the open welcome and inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish life. Bruchim provides Jewish institutions with all the information and materials they need to welcome Jews who opt out of circumcision. It offers a searchable directory that families will be able to use to find welcoming institutions. Bruchim also encourages non-circumcising Jews to engage in Jewish life.
We couldn’t be more excited about launching this organization.
Happily, my husband and I soon learned that Reuben and Sadie were choosing not to circumcise. Instead, they were planning to hold a brit shalom ceremony using our book Celebrating Brit Shalom. I feel not only relieved by their decision but deeply honored by the way in which they’ll be welcoming the baby into the ancient Abrahamic covenant and into Jewish life.
I’ll probably cry at the ceremony, but it won’t be because of despair or alienation. This time, I’ll shed tears of gratitude.
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