Pun intended. The popular press has recently reminded contemporary Jews that the continuation of brit milah (ritual circumcision), remains a challenge…and if you don’t believe me, ask any Jewish parent expecting a new son in the near future.
In the past year, legal efforts were made in both San Francisco and Germany, to ban the procedure. The parental decision to have children circumcised was characterized as coercive, and the procedure itself as brutal. In San Francisco, the ban never made it to the ballot, but in Germany the law was upheld by courts. While my take is that describing the procedure as “brutal” is a bit much, these news items remind us that brit milah is an act that parents consciously make and initiate … and this is probably good for the Jews (and everyone). Part of taking our rituals and our religious observance seriously is thinking about what we do.
Another news item is a new New York City ban on the metzitza b’peh. This practice, performed exclusively (though not widely) by ultra-Orthodox Jews, brings the mohel’s mouth into direct contact with the wound to suck out a small amount of blood. Sound like a health risk? Correct. Sadly, the prohibition came as a result of a herpes virus infection that was passed among babies and mohels. The only positive news is that the ritual has evolved for Jews outside of the ultra-Orthodox community. We no longer use flint stones for the procedure—instead, safe, acceptable procedures and competent practitioners are easily available.
The most challenging news item is, perhaps, the one that seems most benign. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced a change in its recommendations concerning infant circumcision. An earlier statement—from ten years ago—was neutral; the organization neither recommended nor recommended against the procedure. The new statement—in light of recent indications that the procedure helps in the prevention of AIDs—leans slightly more toward circumcision, saying that benefits outweigh risks.
But, not so fast, new Jewish parents. If you are raising your son in a culture and geographic area, in which the chance of contracting AIDs is as low as it is in Jewish America, then the degree to which you are “benefiting” your son’s health is very small. The overall message that I hear from the health profession, is that the health benefits for your son remain a weak reason (at best) to circumcise your son. We'll know when circumcision is strongly recommended because health insurance providers will pay for the routine procedure as a recommended health benefit.
So, where does that leave us? I think the three most popular reasons that Jewish parents decide to circumcise their sons are, in increasing order of frequency:
1. God wants us to.
2. The rabbis who developed Jewish law (halakhah) want(ed) us to.
3. Every one else (Jewish) does it
This final reason for circumcision, which is, I believe, the most popular, reminds me of my mother saying, “But if everyone else jumped off of the Empire State building, would you, too, you silly boy?” And mom had a point. Just because everybody else does something, is usually not a compelling reason to follow suit.
But, not always. Circumcision is a challenging ritual, but it has been practiced for 2000+ years by Jews worldwide, and often under the darkest, most dangerous circumstances—just to be like other Jews. This history is quite powerful, meaningful and compelling. Plenty of other cultures are attached to similar rituals, simply because everyone does it. Though brit milah has plenty of challenges, Jews still do it—not the same way we did it when we started doing it (thank God)—but because it remains a powerful and widely performed practice of the tribe.
Rabbi Kevin Bernstein practiced veterinary medicine before becoming a Reconstructionist rabbi and a certified mohel. He currently serves as school rabbi at Saligman Middle School of the Perelman Jewish Day School in Philadelphia. He is available for covenantal circumcision consultations and services at 215-896-3439.