My wife and I celebrated the bris and baby-naming of our twins last Sunday. Our boy, Adin had a brit milah or Jewish ritual circumcision performed by David Bolnick, a respected local mohel (in Hebrew, the person who performs the bris). When we first contemplated a circumcision for our elder son, Jonah, mixed emotions ran through our minds. Neither of us liked the idea of causing our son even momentary pain. As Anita Diamant says in The New Jewish Baby Book: “Every parent getting ready for a brit milah wishes, the week before, that the Jewish people had abandoned the practice. But the significance and ritual power of brit milah is not the stuff of reason, or even of language.”
While Diamant notes that the American Association of Pediatrics says that the procedure prevents “rare mechanical and inflammatory problems of the penis” I have also read independently that circumcision may create other negative health repercussions. So for us, the medical argument is a wash. Certainly if we were not Jewish we would likely not have performed a circumcision.
But we are Jewish and that makes all the difference. Brit milah is one of the most ancient provisions in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), a pact between Abraham, the first Jew and God:
Such shall be the convenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow, which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
In fact, after his circumcision Abram’s name became Abraham indicating that his life was changed in some elemental way. Brit milah was the instrument by which he became a Jew. The mark of the covenant is an elemental ritual in the Jewish tradition and male children have had such “marks” for going on 4,000 years. A Jewish boy who does not have a bris distances himself from his forbears and the tradition itself. I’m not making an argument here that circumcision somehow guarantees a boy will become an observant Jew. But it allows him the option to become whatever type of Jew (observant, secular, agnostic, atheist) he might choose to be once he develops the ability to make such a choice. In making this decision we felt that the chain of tradition trumped any other consideration. Another secondary reason is that this ritual draws together the community to celebrate, in the most visceral way, the miracle of birth and life.
We also created a brit bat ceremony for Miriam in which we blessed her and invoked the memories of those relatives for whom she is named. We followed the ceremony with a s’eudat mitzvah a meal which follows the performance of a mitzvah (commandment). Beth Young of Honey I’m Home catered a wonderful meal.
A piece of unsolicited advice to those contemplating a circumcision: I suggest you do not use a medical doctor. While this may seem counter-intuitive at first glance–doctors generally do not perform many of these procedures especially compared to the number performed by a mohel. Go with experience. A good mohel has performed many more brises than a doctor. Therefore, he is less likely to make a mistake. We used a medical doctor to perform a bris on Jonah and lived to regret it. If you live in Seattle, you can’t go wrong with David Bolnick. He worked quickly and efficiently. There was a minimum of pain (we used a light anesthetic) and Adin was essentially recovered within 24 hours.
I had an interesting and troubling discussion with Bolnick about the anti-circumcision movement (you didn’t think there wouldn’t be such a thing, did you?), which has nabbed his e mail address and phone number. They’re trying to also discover his home address so they can heckle him where he lives. Insane! Yes, I can understand people having strong beliefs about this subject. But this is an ancient religious ritual, not a surgical procedure based on vanity or whim. If you disapprove of male circumcision don’t do it for yourself or your offspring. Even tell your friends and neighbors how much you detest it. But harrassing a respected mohel (who by the way in Jewish tradition always enjoys high communal status) is an act that verges on anti-Semitism. When you attempt to prevent a Jew from fulfilling duties enjoined on them by tradition, what else should you call such behavior?
One such organization which propagates similar anti-circumcison views within the Jewish community is the Circumcision Resource Center (though I’m not accusing this group of the type of behavior I outlined above).