In support of Brit Shalom/Shelem - supplement 2



The Oregonian, July 17, 2008: A Jewish mother finds the agony of not cutting is visceral and deep
Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2007: Some Jewish parents break ranks over circumcision
Toronto Globe and Mail, May 22, 2007 : Jewish, and uncircumcised
October 3, 2005: A New Year's gift
Mothering Magazine, August 20, 2005: My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin
The Guardian, January 19, 2003: British editor boasted of being an intact Jew
Jerusalem Post, 21 November 2002: A cut above the rest


"The most Jewish decision"

The Oregonian
July 17, 2008

A Jewish mother finds the agony of not cutting is visceral and deep

The Oregonian Staff

Cara Ungar-Gutierrez grew up in New York City in a Jewish home. Her family kept kosher, attended synagogue and observed the Sabbath. Her parents taught her the value of study, inquiry and following her conscience.

When she settled in Portland in 2000, her faith came with her. She is a member of Congregation Havurah Shalom in Northwest Portland. While she doesn't keep kosher anymore, she attends Sabbath services and revels in the lively discussions of Scripture that characterize her Jewish community.

Ungar-Gutierrez, 38, is executive director of the Oregon Council for the Humanities. In 2004, she married Rafael Gutierrez, a cartographer and disc jockey. They have one child, Enzo, a boy whose birth almost three years ago prompted a life-changing decision: His mother chose not to circumcise him, which she knew threatened to tear her family apart.

Circumcision is so deeply ingrained among most Jews that parents, even if they have reservations about it, go through with it. But Jewish opponents recently have become more vocal. Jews Against Circumcision and the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center campaign against the practice. Ungar-Gutierrez is not aligned with either group. She talked to The Oregonian because other parents might benefit from her story. Her words have been edited for length and clarity.

When did you begin to think about circumcision?

I was in my sixth month. Some of our non-Jewish friends asked whether we would circumcise our son. I was offended. Here were men, who weren't Jewish, asking the question. Their perspective was that circumcision was horrible. I thought they didn't understand what circumcision means to a Jew.

But my husband said, "We have to think about this." I'm a humanities scholar, and when I calmed down, I did what I always do: I asked questions, did some research, thought about what I'd read, made some inquiries and talked to other Jewish couples. I spoke to my rabbi, who was very even-keeled about it. He said circumcision was a powerful, visceral, spiritual experience. And he said he'd support whatever decision we made.

Was his argument persuasive?

Well, I couldn't get my mind around it. If I were having a daughter, why wouldn't she want a visceral, spiritual experience?

Then I asked myself, would I really accept this practice without question? It's not something I do, especially in regards to another person's body. I had been doing so much to protect my son -- eating well, walking, doing prenatal yoga. And no matter what people told me, I could not imagine a way in which circumcision would not hurt him.

What about medical arguments?

Research suggests no medical reason to do it. Why cut off a piece of a child's body if I don't have to? I didn't believe this is what would make my son Jewish.

What will?

Celebrating Shabbat, keeping Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for "repairing the world"). Being Jewish is internal, a way of connecting to the rest of the world, to tradition and to history. It is a way of questioning as well.

What about the argument that circumcision connects generations of Jewish men to each other and to God?

I did think about the Holocaust, how people had not been able to practice circumcision -- or risked their lives to do so. That was impressive to me.

Did you consult your parents?

I called my mother, and she said she felt so strongly that she couldn't bear to talk to me about it until I'd made my decision. My brother, who has two girls, said he would do it so that his son would look like him. I didn't talk to my father.

Did your husband leave the decision up to you?

It was our decision but my struggle. Rafael didn't want to circumcise our son.

After all the research and interviews, what did you do next?

I imagined my son's bris. If he was circumcised, it would be too heart-wrenching to hear him crying, to watch him held down -- even lovingly -- to know I had allowed harm to his body for no reason that I cared about. I love my parents, who would be terribly hurt, but no one trumps my son.

If he wasn't circumcised, I imagined the pain I'd feel if we only had a welcoming ceremony. I decided I'd rather feel the pain.

How did you tell your family about your decision?

About six weeks before he was born, I wrote to all my family. I acknowledged my family's views and apologized for hurting them.

What was their reaction?

My brother called and told me that my parents weren't speaking to me. They were too upset. I called them in tears. I had made my decision, but my heart was still open.

We had a speaker phone conversation. I heard the depth of pain I was causing. I said I would think about what they'd said.

And . . .

We decided not to circumcise our son. We planned a welcoming ceremony for the eighth day, the same day as his bris milah would have been.

And were your parents there?

They would have preferred not to be in town, but I had had an emergency C-section and they came to help. On the day of the ceremony, my father left the house. We formed a circle around Enzo and my mother stood outside the circle, crying.

We wrapped Enzo in my brother's tallit (prayer shawl) because my father felt uncomfortable allowing us to use my grandfather's. My brother put his arm around me and my son -- I was crying through the whole thing. We washed Enzo's feet -- because in desert communities, that was a welcoming tradition.

How is it now, between you and your family?

Everybody loves each other. We are gentle, close, intimate. We laugh a lot. But my parents will not forgive us. They can't empathize with me, and I understand this. Rafael, who was raised Catholic and gave it up in junior high, has decided now not to convert to Judaism. We still go to synagogue, but we don't talk about it.

Did living in Portland affect your decision?

Probably. If we had lived on the East Coast, I may not have thought about circumcision that deeply.

What will you tell Enzo when he's older?

Probably the whole story. I want to model this sort of inquiry for him. My parents modeled this sort of inquiry for me.

Three years later, how do you see your decision?

I understand why Jews choose to circumcise. I ached -- physically, emotionally and spiritually. But I still know that this was the right decision. And I can't help but believe that it was the most Jewish decision I could make.

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625;


Times Online (Jewish chronicle)
September 1, 2007

The real logic of circumcision

David Aaronovitch

Years ago someone (I forget who) told me it was because of the sand; men who live in deserts are liable to get grit where it most isn't wanted and where it unfortunately doesn't turn to pearls. So the religious leaders of the desert folk - who doubled up as wise persons and doctors - transformed a rather radical way of dealing with the possibilities of sub-preputial inflammation, into a supernatural injunction. QED.

In the past few weeks there has been a smattering of brit talk. There was the claim that circumcision diminished the chances of Aids, though safe sex still seems to me to be a better and less contingent option. And there was the news about how an increasing number of Jewish men were reluctant to have their sons circumcised, possibly seeing the operation as a rather violent intrusion.

This chat just got me interested in the why of it all. Of course, to some believers God told Abraham to do it, and what more do you really need to know? But it's the anthropology and the psychology that are really fascinating here - so if you want a pretend-medical discussion of penile hygiene or (heaven forfend) a women-prefer-X debate on genital aesthetics, look for the appropriate internet site.

All right; God made his covenant with Abraham. So why, any child would ask the ineffable, might a God, creator or created, want that particular covenant? Sand was one answer, both simple and glib, but theologically unsatisfying. There are other hot places where the local religions don't demand this particular form of sacrifice, or require it later in life, and other body parts one might modify to take account of weather conditions.

Muslims are not enjoined to circumcision by the Koran. The prophets all did it (including, of course, Ibrahim/Abraham) and that provides sufficient precedent, with the operation often being carried out as part of an adulthood ceremony. But mark this, in Islam the practice is also apparently known as "tahara", or "purification". Why?

To help readers who might be as ignorant as myself, I began a determined search for the Jewish theological explanation of the brit, covering many websites in the couple of hours I had available. On one, an American mohel explained that circumcision brought together spiritual and temporal in the most obvious way by being performed "on the most physical part", thus joining the forces of body and soul in serving God.

According to this rationalisation, the physical sort of represents the spiritual, and making an alteration in one part of the physical symbolises the alteration in the spiritual. The mohel argues furthermore that this part is somehow more physical than any other part. More than your finger (see Yakuza), your earlobe, your septum (look it up), and therefore more symbolic. And it is certainly true that pagan religions are devoid of symbols representing the earlobe. Even so, this sounds like an evasion to me, or a euphemism.

So I turned to the "being Jewish" website, which offered this elaboration. "When Adam was created," it informed me, "he had no foreskin". This was because, according to the author, everything in the Garden of Eden, such as food and clothing, "was easily accessible". After the Fall, however, everything became complicated and - being Jewish implied - Adam grew a foreskin. So when God looked around for a covenant with the chosen people, presumably, he decided to make their intimate persons "easily accessible" again.

Why, however, choose a covenant which half the people couldn't fulfil? It could have been decided that all Jews, male and female, should be shaven-headed. Rabbi Simmons, from "Ask Rabbi Simmons" has a more Melanie Phillips explanation. "In Kabbalistic terms," he says, "the foreskin symbolises a barrier which prevents growth." And why is that? Because, explains the rabbi, "it is a foundation of Judaism that we are to control our animal desires and direct them into spiritual pursuits. Nowhere does a person have more potential for expressing 'barbaric' behaviour than in the sex drive."

Freud's view of castration anxiety might well suggest a boy who believes that, should he sexually misbehave, the Dark Mohel of the Night will come back for the rest. One only has to read Portnoy's Complaint, however, to know that humanity has once again thwarted the designs of the Almighty.

There is, of course, something else being suggested in all this - something which resonates with another recent debate. Men need the covenant because their rampant sexuality demands to be kept in check, while women have no such requirement. Females can help out, however, by refusing to inflame men's barbarous instincts. This is the logic of the bris and the burqa - lose one covering, gain another.

Posted by David Aaronovitch on September 1, 2007

David Aaronovitch is a regular columnist for The Times. He won the George Orwell prize for political journalism in 2001 and was the What the Papers Say Columnist of the Year for 2003.


Chicago Tribune
May 22, 2007

Some Jewish parents break ranks over circumcision

By Judy Peres
Tribune staff reporter
May 22, 2007

When Leo Grossinger was 8 days old, his parents invited their relatives and friends to a ceremony welcoming him into their midst, as Jewish families have done for thousands of years.

They recited Hebrew blessings, lit candles, shared wine and challah, a braided bread. A rabbi conferred Leo's Hebrew name, Asiel, which means "created by God." When the ceremony was over, the guests ate bagels and lox.

All in all, the event looked a lot like any other bris, or ritual circumcision. The only difference was that Leo never had to shed his diaper.

"I wanted to feel that connection with tradition," said Leo's mother, Erica Wandner. And it was important to her that the baby be given a Hebrew name in memory of Wandner's mother. But neither Wandner nor her husband, Robin Grossinger, wanted to inflict pain and trauma on their new baby for a surgical procedure doctors say is not medically necessary.

The couple, of Berkeley, Calif., are among a small but growing number of American Jews who are questioning what is arguably the most sacred rite in Judaism. Despite an often strong affiliation with the Jewish community, they believe circumcision is inconsistent with the Jewish ethical imperative not to harm another human being.

Once performed routinely on nearly all newborn males in this country, circumcision has become less common in recent decades. The rate of U.S. babies being circumcised before leaving the hospital has gone from an estimated 85 percent in 1965 to 57 percent in 2004.

But it would be difficult to overstate the significance of the practice in Jewish life, even for the non-observant. There are 613 commandments in Judaism, said Rabbi Moshe Kushner, director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, but "that single commandment [to circumcise] is equal to the other 612 combined." [according to an ancient rabbinic text]

The book of Genesis mandates that every male descendant of Abraham be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. God tells the patriarch: "This is my covenant, which you shall keep. ... Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

Many Jewish parents hold a bris in the home, where the cutting is done by a trained person called a mohel. Others have their sons circumcised in the hospital.

A Jewish boy who is not circumcised, said Kushner, "is not totally Jewish," and some rabbis would refuse to officiate at his bar mitzvah or wedding.

And yet, breaking with what some parents have begun to view as a barbaric rite is no longer unheard of.

Brielle Epstein, whose 1-year-old son, Arie, is "intact," said she knows "at least a couple of dozen practicing Jewish families" who don't circumcise.

"They're a little in hiding," she said. "But when people find out we didn't, they come out and say, 'Oh, we didn't either.' People are starting to realize it's not really that important. There are lots of biblical traditions we no longer follow, such as animal sacrifice and polygamy. Circumcision may be another one we don't all follow."

Epstein, who lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children, said she used to educate people about female genital mutilation, and "the more we thought about it, the more we made the comparison."

It's hard to know how many Jews are giving up the practice, as statistics are not broken down by religion. But an unscientific survey conducted recently by MAMY, an Israeli parenting Web site, found that 3.2 percent of Israeli Jews no longer circumcise.

In the Chicago area, only Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the northern suburbs will officiate at a non-cutting bris.

Chalom performs naming ceremonies for babies of both sexes, but in his six years as a rabbi in the Midwest, he has done only two for baby boys whose parents decided not to circumcise. "It's definitely a minority perspective," he said.

The decision may be more common in areas where routine circumcision is less common. (Nearly 80 percent of newborn boys are circumcised in the Midwest, compared with 59 percent in the South and 32 percent in the West.)

Rabbi Jay Heyman, who officiated at Leo Grossinger's alternative bris, said he does about five a year in the San Francisco Bay area.

"After officiating at [traditional bris] ceremonies for over three decades, I've concluded that it's just too painful and traumatic for me to inflict on a neonate," said Heyman. "If I doubt it's something I'd subject myself to as an adult, I'm certainly not keen on inflicting it on a baby."

But for many families, going against the grain is difficult.

"When there's a life-cycle event, people get nervous and want to know what they're supposed to do -- what's traditional," Chalom said. "That's part of the process when a baby is born. People fall back on 'we've always done it this way.' The couple may begin to question tradition, but the family reacts strongly."

Greg and Rachel Danzig decided not to circumcise the baby boy they're expecting in July. But the Ft. Lauderdale couple thought long and hard about it, fearing some relatives would feel betrayed.

"Some Jews feel this is what makes you a Jew," said Greg Danzig.

Thomas Wolfe of Wheeling, W.Va., discovered that even progressive rabbis will refuse to budge on this point. When his son, Charles, was born in March, the rabbis at his Reform synagogue would not even consider an alternative bris.

Unwilling to subject Charles to the possible complications of an irreversible surgical procedure, Wolfe and his wife decided to hold their own "baby arrival shower" at an indoor playground.

Many rabbis defend the practice of circumcision by citing its medical benefits. There is some evidence it can prevent urinary-tract infections in infancy, reduce the already-small risk of penile cancer later in life and provide some protection against sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics says the "potential benefits" don't clearly outweigh the risks, which include pain, bleeding, infection, permanent injury and reduced sensation.

"People fall back on medical benefit when 'God commanded us' isn't strong enough," said Chalom. "In the end, that's a rationalization. The reason they're doing it is it's the Jewish thing to do."

Chicago filmmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon, who was brought up in an Orthodox family, didn't think that was a good enough reason.

Ungar-Sargon recently completed a documentary, "Cut," about the conflict of values he sees in Jewish ritual circumcision: The ancient faith demands that Jews carve a sign into the flesh of their newborn males, but modern ethics holds that performing an unnecessary operation on a child too young to consent is a violation of human rights.

"I hoped to start a much-needed discussion about a practice very few people think about seriously," he said. "Through that discussion, my hope is that people will confront important issues about what it means to be Jewish."

Ungar-Sargon has great respect for Jews -- including his own father, a physician and Talmudic scholar -- who view circumcision as abusive but do it anyway because they are in a covenant with God.

But for himself, Ungar-Sargon said, being Jewish "means knowing when to be disobedient."



Mothering Magazine

My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin
By Stacey Greenberg

In the land before children, my husband and I had many a circumcision debate over dinner and drinks with friends. I always humored him as he made the comparison between circumcision and female genital mutilation, secretly knowing that I would trump his concerns with my Judaism card. He had agreed to a Jewish wedding and a Jewish household, and well, Jews circumcised their boys. End of story.

I'm not the most religious Jew ever, and my friends and husband have often wondered how I can even call myself a Jew. (Obviously they are not Jewish!) I can only say that being Jewish is just something I am, whether I attend synagogue on a regular basis or remember Shabbat or eat BBQ or whatever. I am a Jew. And there are certain things that even a reform Jew holds dear and circumcision is one of them. It symbolizes our covenant with G-d. It is what has identified us, at least those of us with penises, throughout the centuries. Circumcision is not something that a "good" Jew questions. It is a given.

Once I actually became pregnant, I assumed I was having a girl. I, like many Jewish mothers before me, wanted a girl in part because I didn't want to deal with the circumcision issue. Debating it over drinks and actually doing it are two completely different things. As my belly grew, so did my suspicion that I was having a boy. (Of course we could have found out for sure, but again I humored my husband's wish not to know until the birth.) Around 30 weeks into my pregnancy, I decided I better deal with the circumcision issue. All discussions with my husband ended in a stalemate. I decided to schedule a meeting with a rabbi so we could gang up on him.

The rabbi who married us had since retired, so I had my choice of three other rabbis: A forty-ish up-and-comer with three girls in their tweens, a female in her thirties with a one-year-old son, and a new guy I didn't know much about. I went with the female, Rabbi Cohen. I figured she could speak from personal experience and that the issues would be fresh in her mind.

Between the time I made the appointment with the rabbi and the time we were actually scheduled to go, I got an email from my friend who is a practicing midwife in California begging me to reconsider my decision. I don't know if she witnessed a recent circumcision or what, but she was adamant. I went through the Jewish rigmarole with her and she responded with a link to and specifically said to look at the information on Judaism and circumcision.

What I found shocked me. There were stories of Jews from all over the United States who had decided not to circumcise their children. Not only were they talking about it, they were making it seem ok. And most importantly, they were still accepted in the Jewish community. I couldn't believe it. For the first time, I let myself really consider not circumcising my son. I also let myself read the circumcision boards at (which are decidedly anti-circumcision). I even found a few Jewish moms there who had kept their sons intact. I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of typing.

When you take the religion out of circumcision, and really look at what the procedure actually involves, it is easy to see why more and more people are choosing to leave their sons intact. I thank my lucky stars for the Internet and the information it provided me on circumcision (as well as a million other mommy related questions). The Internet has allowed me to question the status quo; to find out why things are they way they are. A privilege our foremothers did not have. For me, the mere thought of giving birth to my precious baby at home without any medical intervention and then cutting off a part of his body eight days later just seemed absurd. I told myself that if G-d created my son with a foreskin, then he was going to keep it.

My husband was both thrilled and annoyed by my change of heart. Thrilled that I had "seen the light," but annoyed that it wasn't due to anything he had said. He was placated by the fact that I was now much more in agreement with him on the non-religious reasons to leave a child intact. However, I still felt like we should talk to the rabbi and ask that she perform a naming ceremony, not a bris, on the eighth day of our child's life, even if it was a boy.

In the reform tradition, there is a concerted effort to treat the sexes equally. At Temple Israel our prayer books are gender neutral and the prominent women in the Old Testament are mentioned just as often as the men. In the spirit of equality, reform rabbis started doing naming ceremonies for girls to welcome them into the Jewish community in the same way that a boy is welcomed into the community after he has a bris, or circumcision. I have to say that I am glad that in the quest for equality they decided circumcising girls was not the answer, but I believe that all boys and girls should remain intact upon entering the Jewish community.

Our meeting with Rabbi Cohen definitely did not go as I had expected. For some reason, armed with my newfound information, I expected her to immediately admit that circumcision was barbaric and not necessary for all Jewish boys. Instead, she told us how beautiful her son's bris was, and how quickly and easily he healed. Undeterred, I shared with her the information I had downloaded from the Internet. I also told her of our plans to have a homebirth and our desire to raise our children as "naturally" as possible. I'm pretty sure she thought we were hippie freaks, but she played along. It all came down to one sticking point: The Jewish law that states that a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish no matter what. (The law does not rely on circumcision to establish a Jewish identity because there is a caveat that states if a Jew loses a child due to complications from circumcision, future children are not required to be circumcised.) Rabbi Cohen thumbed through a few books, did an Internet search or two, and finally said, "Ok. I'll do a naming ceremony, no problem." It really was that easy. However, when I offered to speak to anyone else she might come across with similar desires, she made it clear that this wasn't something she planned to advertise or encourage.

On April 21, 2002, I gave birth to a healthy boy at home. Eight days later we rounded up every Jew we knew and had Rabbi Cohen perform a naming ceremony. We chose Shlomo Nitzan ("Peace Bud") as our son's Hebrew name and by the end of the ceremony there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Rabbi Cohen told our friends and family that she felt that Warren and I would be great parents because we cared enough about our child to research difficult issues and carefully consider everything before deciding what was best for our family. I couldn't have asked for more. Stacey Greenberg is a mother and a writer living in Memphis, TN. She is the editor of the zine "Fertile Ground." Contact her at

(If this link is broken, email me.)


A New Year's gift

Date sent: Mon, 3 Oct 2005 10:20:14 EDT
Subject: Jewish New Year gift

Dear Friends:

Tonight marks the start of the Jewish New Year. As a gift to you, I would like to share a letter I recently received from a Jewish father to his newborn son. It filled my heart with gladness and I hope it affects you the same way.

Happy New Year.



September 17, 2005

To my dear son E,

I write this letter to explain to you and my family & community why I choose not to perform a circumcision upon you. On your 8th day of life, I choose to have a Brit Shalom ceremony instead of a Brit Milah. The Brit Shalom ceremony is a ceremony acknowledging one's covenant with God without performing the ritual circumcision.

As a Jewish boy I was circumcised according to tradition when I was 8 days old, but not by my choice. I am choosing not to circumcise you my son because after studying this important issue, I can find no compelling reason to do it, and in my heart I will not do it simply because tradition dictates it.

The essence of the bris ceremony to me is that I want to make a covenant with God and you in my heart. The covenant I make with God is to commit myself to a spiritual life, to develop myself as a spiritual being, and that I will walk on this planet with a good heart. I am a Jew and I am proud of who I am. My son, I commit to raising you up as a spiritual being, and as a Jew. I will guide you to develop values of loving kindness. I will encourage you to develop as a spiritual being, and I will teach you about the importance of being considerate and respectful of all living beings. I will also encourage you to be self-reflective, and to explore the deeper meanings and mysteries of life, the hidden truths behind the veil. I believe you have come to this earth with a big mission for healing and touching others through your service.

To fulfill this covenant, I do not need to perform a circumcision and mark you as a sign of this covenant. The covenant stands with or without the sign that by tradition mandates it. The sign is a sign and not the covenant itself.

I intend to give you the opportunity to bar mitzvah when you are 13, and we will celebrate and honor the Shabbat, as well as other sacred Jewish rituals in our lives. We will learn about the power of restriction and extending help to others. We will learn about being a mench.

Let me tell you my reasoning behind making this choice. There are many practices of olden days that were sanctioned by the torah that are no longer permitted today because we are more enlightened, such as: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and slavery. Other acts that were punishable by death include fornicating if you are female (yes only the females), homosexuality, and insulting one's parents. These traditions no longer exist.

I suspect something has been misunderstood in the transmission of the circumcision ritual through the ages. I have read that in earlier times, only a sliver of the foreskin was removed. It was not completely cut as common practice until the second century CE. I do not know this for sure, but nothing is known for sure about this. Apparently the earliest versions of the Jewish bible tell the entire story of Abraham except the part about the covenant being sealed with circumcision. That comes later. There is mention that it was done for health reasons. I have heard that when the Jewish people lived in the desert long ago there was not much water, and that created a danger with regards to cleanliness. In this day and age that is not a compelling reason to circumcise you. I have also read that the circumcision is a mark upon us that marks us as different. Today in the United States, circumcision is the norm for all males, Jews and gentiles alike. Today, it is not a mark as a Jew.

I believe that the act of circumcision would be a traumatic event for you my child. I believe that it would form an early record in your body of the trauma and would color and distort your perceptions throughout your life. I have heard it said that the pain is brief and easily recovered from. I don't believe this. I believe the circumcision will be a deep trauma for you, as you are such a highly sensitive being. I believe that you would begin experiencing life through the eyes of the trauma, feeling defended and contracted, moving with fear and distrust. I do believe that experiencing trauma is a part of life, and healing through trauma is a part of how we evolve as a species. I am choosing not to voluntarily offer this trauma to you when you are so young, so vulnerable and so trusting as you form the matrix of your life. I want you to experience life in these early days as trusting and feeling protected and safe.

Traumas will come to you later and beyond my control, but I intend this to be after you have already experienced that you can trust your parents not to hurt you on purpose.

I have come into this life charged to question the deeper purpose behind what I do. I will not circumcise you my son only because it is tradition. The reasons that I have been given supporting circumcision do not move me, they do not compel me to perform this ritual. Rather my concern for your well being is much greater.

Modern medical science says that a circumcised male is more healthy than a male with an intact foreskin. Modern medical science also told us the tonsils were not important and took mine out. Now I understand the tonsils to be a very important part of my immune system, that I no longer have. The appendix is still considered a useless organ. I don't believe the creator gave us an appendix without reason. My understanding of today is that the appendix aids in finer digestion of our food. As regards to the foreskin, we have been told that it has no purpose. As I have read about the anatomy and physiology of the foreskin, actually it has many important functions. The foreskin is the most sensitive area of the penis, akin to the clitoris of a woman, and it also functions as a protective lubricating sheath for the penis.

When I examined my own penis once I began studying this issue, I found that the area where I have a scar where the foreskin was, is still the most sensitive area of my penis, yet I know that scar tissue does not have the same sensation capacity as original tissue, nor the elasticity of the original. I have wondered what I would have been like without a circumcision, and I think I would have been better off without it. I want to give you the gift of choice.

Many Jewish people today make choices about which Jewish laws and rituals they will follow or not follow. There is much discussion about these choices that we make- whether we will eat pork or not, will we keep separate dishes for dairy and meat dishes as we should not mix meat and dairy. Shall we keep kosher? Do we observe Shabbat? How closely do we follow the customs of observing all the restriction on certain holidays such as Yom Kippur. Of the many customs that are not adhered to in our times, the one that seems to be sacrosanct and unquestioned is the circumcision. Why is this ritual so primary to the Jewish identity?

I forgo pork, I do not mix meat and cheese, I celebrate and honor Shabbat as a very special holiday each week where we light the candles and acknowledge our connection with spirit as a family. I especially revel in the New Year of Rosh Hashanah as a time of inner reflection, and I embrace the restrictions on Yom Kippur and the insights I gain through this process of fasting, forgiving and letting go of the past. At the time of Passover, I am fascinated by the meaning and relevancy of the story as it applies to my life today. I celebrate my spirituality in these ways and share them with my family. I declare that I identify myself proudly as a Jew and yet I am choosing to not circumcise you, my son. I will look into my heart and follow my gut.

A passage I read by Ronald Goldman resonated with me, "A central purpose of Judaism is tikkun olam, repairing the world. Much of the pain in the world is a result of repeating old harmful patterns of behaviors. By breaking a chain of pain, forgoing circumcision contributes to our healing. As we heal from this pain, we will be better able to heal others and reach our ethical and spiritual potential."

So my son, you can choose for yourself to be circumcised when you come of age if it is important to you. And yes, it will be much more physically painful at 13 to be circumcised, and it is a much longer recovery period than it would be as an infant, but I believe the psychological damage done to you at 8 days old would be much worse than the physical pain endured at 13, when it may be done by your choice.

With love, your father, G.


Globe and Mail (Toronto)
May 22, 2007

Jewish, and uncircumcised

It's no longer just a medical debate. A small but growing number of Jewish parents are questioning why they should circumcise their sons – and are deciding to reject a fundamental tenet of their faith

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
May 22, 2007 at 3:21 AM EDT
Toronto — Growing up in Victoria, Alana Moon went to Jewish school, attended synagogue most Saturdays and celebrated the Sabbath.

But when her son, Amani, was born, Ms. Moon couldn't rationalize the idea of making her newborn go through elective surgery. She refused to have him circumcised – and joined a small but growing number of Jews who are rejecting an ancient, fundamental tenet of their faith.

In recent decades, circumcision rates have plummeted in hospitals across Canada, largely because of the medical consensus that the practice doesn't have the health benefits once believed. Increasingly vocal members of the anti-circumcision lobby, who say the process is unnecessary and barbaric, have also played a role.

Now, a Jewish wing has joined their ranks, including a small number of scholars and rabbis, support groups and websites. They point out that a circumcised penis isn't required to make someone Jewish, even according to Orthodox law. An alternative bris ceremony, minus the surgery, is gaining ground among Jews opposed to circumcision.

A small pocket of Jewish boys are now growing up with their foreskins intact – a trend many Jews find troubling. Parents who make the radical choice not to circumcise face such huge social and familial pressure, many refuse to talk about it or tell their friends.

“There's that whole thing, are you loyal to the faith? Are you loyal to the tribe?” says a Toronto mother who, like many contacted for this story, asked to remain anonymous.

For more than 3,000 years, eight-day-old Jewish boys have been circumcised in brit milah ceremonies (also known as a bris). The practice, according to Jewish law, symbolizes their connection to God. Opting out plays into a broader concern: that the Judaic religion is disappearing because of the rise in interfaith marriages and assimilation into North American culture.

“Circumcision is important for Jews not just of the past, but of the future,” says Aubie Diamond, a Toronto family doctor and mohel (a Jewish person trained to perform ritual circumcisions) for the past 25 years. “Without it, I think we would eventually disappear. It's a tie that binds, literally, worldwide.”

Pressure from family and the Jewish community to circumcise can be immense, says Eva Goldfinger, a Toronto humanistic rabbi, part of a progressive strain of Judaism that claims 50,000 members worldwide.

Parents fear that their uncircumcised sons will be outed, so to speak, at camp or in the school locker room – and then shunned or ridiculed.

Ms. Goldfinger says more couples have sought out her counselling in recent years over whether or not to circumcise their sons.

“Some people are just investigating the idea of it,” she says. “Some feel strongly about it. Then, they tell their parents and their parents have a hissy fit.”

Like many Jewish parents, Ms. Moon's mother, Sharon Kobrinsky, hoped to see her grandson circumcised – in her case, for health reasons. But she didn't try to dissuade her daughter, who had already made the unconventional decision to give birth to her two children at home.

“My daughter is a really strong-minded individual,” says Ms. Kobrinsky, a Jewish leader in Victoria.

Her grandson, Amani, is now 7. “I think he's going to thank me when he's older,” Ms. Moon says.

Others are more conflicted when making their decision. The Toronto mother who requested anonymity and said the issue is often framed as one of loyalty to the tribe says that when she was pregnant she and her non-Jewish husband consulted five rabbis, two mohels, a family therapist and many books in an attempt to decide whether to circumcise.

She says she was raised as a reform Jew and felt torn between her faith and her gut, which told her not to circumcise her son, now 3.

“It was an alienating experience, definitely, as a Jew,” she says.

In the end she chose not to, basing her decision on medical evidence.

That made her part of a larger Canadian trend. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, almost every Canadian boy was circumcised for the perceived health and hygiene benefits. Since then, those health benefits have been mostly debunked and the pendulum has swung the other way.

In the past 10 years, the rate of circumcision performed on boys born in Canadian hospitals has dropped to 6.7 per cent from 14 per cent, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Routine circumcisions are now discouraged by both the Canadian Paediatric Society and its U.S. equivalent, the American Academy of Pediatrics, because they say it's not medically necessary.

Both organizations have maintained that position despite major studies released earlier this year showing that circumcision lowers the risk of HIV infection.

This medical debate influences Jewish couples with newborn sons, says Jacob Langer, head of pediatric general surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, who also performs 30 circumcisions annually as a mohel. “When faith and belief and ritual collide with modern medicine and popular thought, you always end up with these ripples.”

One of the main objections to circumcision – pain – has played a role in the rise of an alternative ceremony (even though most circumcisions today are performed using anesthetic). Brit shalom is practised among Jews primarily in the United States. It allows parents to give their sons children their Hebrew name – an important part of the traditional bris – but without the snip.

Each year, Ms. Goldfinger performs a similar ceremony for about a dozen families, most in the Greater Toronto Area.

“The belief among Jews that all Jews are circumcised has been shattered,” says Ronald Goldman, the executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, an anti-circumcision lobby group in Boston.

Mr. Goldman says that in the past decade, more than 400 U.S. parents have called his organization to say they've opted out of the procedure.

Still, the vast majority of Jewish boys will continue to be circumcised at bris ceremonies, as their male relatives have been for thousands of years.

“Once in a blue moon, someone's in the back going ‘this is barbaric,'” Dr. Diamond says. “It's so rare.”

The Guardian
January 19, 2003

British editor boasted of being an intact Jew

Stewart Steven, who has died aged 68, enjoyed a colourful and controversial journalistic career as the editor of the Mail on Sunday for 10 years and the London Evening Standard for three more. ...

Born in Hamburg, Steven was brought to Britain when his Jewish parents fled Nazi Germany. He liked to boast years later that he was a rare example of an uncircumcised Jew, explaining that many Jews born in the late 1930s were given a dispensation by rabbis not to be circumcised. One evening in a pub off Fleet Street he was challenged to prove the fact, so he took a Daily Mail reporter, Tim Miles, to the lavatory. A minute later, with a beaming Steven behind him, Miles emerged with raised thumbs to an outburst of cheering.

[What is striking about this story - apart from the teddibly British manner of his testing; an American would have probably flopped it out on the barstool - is that once left intact, there is no suggestion that Steven needed to be circumcised later, after any possible threat was ended. This underlines the fact that nobody needs to be circumcised to be a Jew, and gives force to the argument of some Jews that the Holocaust marked an end of Jews' need to be marked with a sign of their religion.]


Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2002 (16 Kislev 5763)

A cut above the rest


A small but growing number of Israelis are vociferously opposed to circumcision while the majority of the population, from secular through to Orthodox, believe the brit-mila ceremony is an essential element of Jewish culture and religion

Udi weighed his choices carefully. On the one hand, he could inflict what he considered irreparable damage and suffering on his newborn son. On the other, he could inflict enduring shame and pain on his father. He could sever a small flap of skin from his baby's penis; or he could sever his relationship with his parent.

"It was [either] hurting my father or hurting my child," the Tel Aviv-based hi-tech worker recalls. "I decided my father could live with this. My child I'm not willing to harm."

So Udi did what a marginal but increasing number of Israelis are doing: He opted not to circumcise his son.

On the eighth day after his grandson's birth, Udi's father rang to ask if his grandson had been circumcised and if his son understood the consequences of his choice. Udi replied that he did. His parents didn't phone him for the next two years.

"I expected them [my parents] to shun me and I was willing to pay that price."

The excommunication lasted until the birth of another child, this time a girl. Cajoled by family, Udi's parents took the opportunity just a few months ago to break their silence and visit their new granddaughter.

Now, Udi says, "My father even shakes my hand. But there is a wall between us. He won't hug me as he used to."

Though Udi's father is secular like himself, Udi understood his grief: "His son, the one he raised, crossed the line and did something unthinkable, and he was so ashamed. I really felt for him."

The experience, says Udi's wife Ronit, who asked that the family's last name not be used, was the worst among the 200 couples who form the support group she started two and a half years ago for parents who choose not to perform a brit mila. After the initial shock and anger, most parents generally accept their children's decision. But that doesn't mean it's easy to withstand the societal pressure to circumcise - as almost all Israeli parents of boys do perform the ceremony - which is largely what prompted Ronit to form Kahal, or Parents' Group for Whole Children.

The pressure to conform propels droves of parents who would otherwise reject the ritual to go through with it, according to Rani Kasher of Rosh Pina. He produces a Hebrew-language publication, Af-Mila (which can mean both "No circumcision" and "Say nothing"), for parents who are considering skipping the snipping.

He began the periodical because most of the initial information he found on the subject was in English and not readily available in Hebrew. Countries such as the US have well-established anti-circumcision movements in which Jews often play prominent roles.
Kasher says, "I don't see any reason why I should cut my son's genitals. There is no reason and I don't think I have the right, even as a parent, to cut a normal part of his body just because other people do it."

Cultural pressure persuaded Hanoch Ben-Yami, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, to circumcise his son after his birth three years ago even though he had previously attacked the practice in the Hebrew press.
His wife, he explains, worried about how society would treat him. But it turns out a neighborhood kindergarten had three uncircumcised boys last year and two now.

"Nothing of the sort would have been imaginable five or 10 years ago, so we can see things have really changed," he says.
Kasher thinks that's only just the beginning, even though right now his movement is a fringe one. He foresees a time when the practice will be relegated to history books. "Eventually I think religious people, too, will stop doing it. But it will take years."

But perhaps not in Europe. If certain members of the Swedish parliament get their way, theirs will become the first country to outlaw the procedure. A bill introduced in the nation's Riksdag last month would forbid circumcision on any boy under the age of 15 except in cases of medical necessity.

"Hopefully they will succeed and they will be the first nation in the world to recognize circumcision for what it is - a crime," enthuses Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin, who leads the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation.

He hopes other European countries will follow Sweden's lead, even though, he says, "You don't have to outlaw circumcision because it's already illegal to cut any organ from a minor if they don't want or need it done."

Rabbi Philip Spectre, who leads the Conservative Great Synagogue in Stockholm, thinks differently. "Changing the law and making it impossible to circumcise our children at eight days old is an infringement of religious rights."

He has organized an effort to counter the proposal, since he says the Jewish community was "blind-sided" by a law passed last summer requiring anesthetics and a medical professional accompanying the brit-mila surgery.

"A law like that does not bode well for the ability of Jews to practice ritual freely in Europe," says Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a practicing mohel, of the proposal. He points out that few people in Sweden perform circumcisions except those who do so for religious reasons - Jews and Muslims.

Spectre stresses that he doesn't see anti-Semitism as the main motivation for the proposed bill.

"There's a very strong feeling in Sweden that the Swedish people and government should be at the forefront of [protecting] rights, especially children's rights," he says. The law passed after a local Muslim boy died from complications from medication administered in connection with a circumcision.

"It might also be coming from a not-so-elegant reason - that in Sweden, the newcomers, the immigrants are viewed with suspicion," Spectre adds.

"These things often do have anti-Semitic elements involved," says Michael Meyer, a visiting professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "This is happening in Sweden at a time that there is a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, which is often anti-Semitic."

But even the hint of anti-Semitic reasons for the bill's proposal angers Zoossmann-Diskin.

"They cry anti-Semitism and this is the end of the discussion," he says. "It allows them not to deal with the issue of mutilation and the right to have an intact body."

The issue, according to opponents of circumcision, includes the moral ramifications of cutting one's child and the psychological impacts stemming from the trauma. They claim that the level of discomfort experienced by the child increases his later response to pain and hurts the bond between the baby and his mother. They also maintain that circumcision diminishes sexual pleasure and that there is no medical reason to remove the foreskin.

But Dr. Orly Prat, who heads the urology services at Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital, recommends the procedure on medical grounds - though he advocates using a mohel rather than a doctor to perform the operation since mohels specialize in only one kind of surgery.

Prat points to lower rates of penile cancer, urinary infections, and communication of sexually transmitted diseases - notably HIV - in circumcised men.

He dismisses suggestions of reduced sexual sensation or lasting psychological damage from the pain. He says that in the course of a year, he usually sees only one case in which an infant requires serious medical attention because of mistakes made during circumcision.

Americans - who unlike Europeans routinely practice non-religious circumcision - perform the operation on approximately 60 percent of the male population, down from nearly 90 percent a generation or two ago.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine circumcision but in 1995 noted there are some medical benefits and that it's legitimate for parents to take religious and cultural traditions into account when deciding on the procedure.

Meyer, also a professor at the Reform Hebrew Union College, says the arguments boil down to one bottom line: "Over many, many centuries, boys have undergone this ritual, this operation, and there has not in fact been serious damage to them."

Spectre disputes the contention that brit mila causes lasting psychological harm, quipping, "Jewish women are just as neurotic as Jewish men."

And Sacks acknowledges that medical justification for circumcision is scant - but that it's not the point.

"I do not at all suggest that it's healthier to be circumcised," he says. "But the claims of brit mila being barbaric, the claims of being unaesthetic, the claims of pain are all secondary, even if they were true. The bottom line is that it's a mitzva."

Noting the medical arguments on both sides, Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber of Jerusalem says, either way, "There's something very powerful about making a physical statement about the covenant that every man has with God."

In that covenant, according to Chapter 17 of Genesis, God promises to make Abraham's people many and mighty and demands that Abraham and his offspring do the following: "You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days."

Farber explains that the religious concept behind the act is that "a covenant of the flesh is symbolic of a covenant of the heart ... By cutting, it really demonstrates that there are two sides to a covenant." The dual aspects signify that responsibility goes both ways, and that man must take an active role in the world around him.

"It is a way in which man perfects the body. Man perfects what God has given," he says. "Man can't sit aside and wait for God to do everything."

He adds that it's also an act of cultural significance. "I'm making a statement of dedication toward my ancestors," Farber explains. "It's a very profound statement that I bind myself to that ancestral tradition, and that's what being part of tradition is all about. I'm not just bonding myself to a ritual that my contemporaries and peers think is important."

Ronit, co-founder of Kahal, gives a different rationale for the ritual's staying power even among secular Jews who have abandoned other trappings of tradition: "Everything else is gone. Shabbat is gone. Kashrut is gone. So they hold onto this thing, because it's easy to hold onto... You only have to do it once, and you do it to someone else. It's like paying a bill to someone. Once you've paid, you're free to go."

But Emma Youval, a Jerusalemite whose firstborn son was circumcised last year, says it was precisely the sense of connection Farber describes that struck her during the ceremony.

"From a cultural point of view, I felt that I was reaching back through the generations to biblical history and connecting with the forefathers and -mothers.

"Each mother all the way back through history had had to hand over her child to someone who was going to cut it, to mutilate it basically, and you had to have this faith," says Youval.

She admits that "it was scary," but says she never considered not performing the ritual, "which in the end means: 'That's it. He's a member of the community and he can never deny it and the community can never deny it.'"

That identification explains its nearly universal appeal, according to Meyer. "There's a tremendous symbolic significance to brit mila and I think people recognize that not only in Israel but in the Diaspora as well," he says. "This is recognized as a mark of distinction of being a Jew."

Those opposed to circumcision, though, maintain the opposite.

"It's not something unique to Jews. Muslims circumcise their sons. In the States more than half the population is circumcised," says Ben-Yami. "It's not something that distinguishes a Jew from a non-Jew."

Cultures throughout the ancient Middle East - including those of Egypt and Syria - practiced the custom. Today Muslims also circumcise, though often at a later age than Jews.

But Farber says that does not detract from the ritual.

"This is a great example of a tradition we actually share with the Arabs," he says. "Maybe this is an opportunity for bonding instead of hatred... It can be the basis of shared dialogue."

And indeed, the Swedish Jewish community has begun to work with the local Muslim population to combat the anti-circumcision bill.

"We are cooperating with the Muslims in order to form a united front," Spectre explains, noting the communities have begun to share information and coordinate their efforts.

Spectre has set up a Web site and devised an action plan which includes lobbying the government and soliciting help from world Jewry.

Willy Sallomon of Kfar Saba, who used to be the chairman of the Jewish community in Stockholm and spends part of each year in Sweden, praised Spectre's efforts, but says the bill has little chance of becoming law. He explains that the private bill was initiated by two parliament members and would need to pass through a series of committees before being recommended to the government. At that point, the government would be able to choose whether to submit it for binding approval.

Sallomon doubts that will happen, given that the circumcision law passed last year stipulates the practice be reviewed in four years, not one. In addition, bill sponsors Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin and Inger Rene come from the conservative Moderate Party, currently in opposition to the ruling Social Democrats.

Though many Israeli circumcision critics think such a legal prohibition is untenable in this country, four years ago Zoossmann-Diskin's group attempted to do exactly that. His association unsuccessfully petitioned the High Court of Justice, claiming that circumcision is in contravention of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.

Zoossmann-Diskin has no sons and therefore hasn't had to make a decision regarding brit mila as a parent.

"I'm talking as a victim," he explains.

His anti-circumcision feelings were sparked by witnessing a relative's circumcision in 1981.

"I decided after this event that I'm not going to attend any more of these atrocious ceremonies."

But to Jason Kurtz, a student at the Otniel hesder yeshiva, watching a brit is a positive experience. He notes that after the baby cries, he is put in the arms of a loving parent - an act of symbolic meaning and actual reassurance.

"When you get hurt, you have your community around you to support you and care for you."

He rejects the idea that the ritual victimizes those who undergo it.

"I'm here. I've lived through a brit mila, so I don't feel traumatized by it. I'd feel really robbed if I hadn't had it.

"It's one of the strongest identity marks of being a Jew. If you talk about being Jewish, that's one of the things that's synonymous with who we are as a people and our relationship with God," he explains. "I want to be a Jew. I'm really proud to be Jewish and I don't want that taken away from me."

Udi says his opposition to circumcision doesn't stem from shame or disinterest in being Jewish.

"I'm a proud part of Judaism... I'm proud enough to be part of the tribe without cutting a part of my child's penis."

He and Ronit consider themselves secular but still celebrate some Jewish holidays and teach their children the fundamentals of the religion. Ronit stresses that their stance is not anti-religious.

"I'm not against Judaism. We love the [Jewish] things we do."

For Kurtz, though, the decision not to circumcise connotes a rejection of Jewish identity.

"It's a statement that being Jewish is not important in your life or who you are," he says. "I think it's outrageous. I think it's spitting in the face of the Jewish people. That's pretty harsh, but that's what it feels like."

Circumcision "is an essential part of being Jewish," Kurtz adds, noting that Jews were killed by the Romans for violating laws prohibiting the practice.

Ben-Yami counters that "Jewish identity can survive without circumcision, in fact, even better without it because more and more non-religious Jews have an aversion [to the religion] because of some of the things it contains, like circumcision Judaism has enough content in it to survive without circumcision."

"It's something that came into Judaism from other religions and other tribal [customs] and it will pass from Judaism [too]," Udi says.

Kasher of Af-Mila agrees. Though he acknowledges that his opinions are minority ones, he points to growing interest in his publication and awareness of the subject in the media, as well as the quick increase from four founding families in Kahal to its current size.

"It's going to vanish by itself, from the people," he says.

Kurtz, however, says the tradition is here to stay. He says that people throughout history have expected Judaism to die out but it hasn't.

"There's a reason why it hasn't happened and these rituals are part of the reason. When you think about what happened to the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years, it's a miracle that we're here now, and there's no rational way that people from 2,000 years ago to 100 years ago would believe that the Jewish people would be a nation in this place."

The assumption that circumcision will gradually disappear is flawed, he says. "It seems to be neglecting the obvious power of our own history."

Fulfilling the commandment - According to Norm Cohen, the Michigan director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), the ritual of circumcision boils down to one thing: "It's really about, 'When I go to the Jewish community center and I put on a swimming suit, will I look like the other men?' What does that have to do with God? What does that have to do with the covenant?"

His answer - nothing - prompted him to create an alternative to the brit mila, one in which the "painful, harmful, and dangerous" aspects of removing the foreskin have nothing to do with welcoming a child into the Jewish community.

His "brit shalom" ceremony takes its textual direction from the verse in Leviticus, "And the Lord said, 'You shall not make cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you.' "

After declaring that "the covenant between God and the Jewish people will continue after the symbolic token, circumcision, is abandoned," the ceremony continues with familiar prayers and customs - such as blessing a glass of wine and prominently featuring a sandak (someone who holds the baby during the event) - performed with a twist that emphasizes the baby's perfect form, sans circumcision.

Brit shalom, also called an alternative brit, brit b'li mila (covenant without cutting) or brit haim (covenant of life), is practiced among Jews - primarily in America - who oppose circumcising their children, or who think that since the traditional practice only welcomes males into the covenant, it's sexist.

Benjamin Biber, a Washington-based rabbi of the Humanistic Judaism movement, routinely performs such alternative baby-namings. The circumcision ceremony "privileges the male and [makes] the male child the one of special religious interest for the culture. We are equal, so we just do baby-naming ceremonies that view male and female children as equal, just as male and female adults are equal," he says.

The movement, which began in Detroit in 1969, claims 50,000 members worldwide, including in Israel. It aims to "create a meaningful Jewish lifestyle free from supernatural authority and imposed tradition," according to its Web site.

"Because our movement is humanistic, we don't believe in a covenant between humanity and a deity. We believe in a covenant between human beings," Biber explains.

In April, the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews issued a statement on circumcision stating that "circumcision is not required for Jewish identity."

The leadership's statement continues, "We support parents making informed decisions whether or not to circumcise their sons. We affirm their right to choose, and we accept and respect their choice. Naming and welcoming ceremonies should be egalitarian. We recommend separating circumcision from welcoming ceremonies."

Biber says he personally opposes circumcision and won't preside over a naming ceremony done in connection with the procedure. "I'm a naturalist so I believe that the human body is quite functional on its own, and cutting bits off is not a good idea."

In Israel, the movement doesn't have the same formal structures and community orientation. Its leaders focus on providing education in Jewish history, culture, and traditions in way that's accessible to secular people. They teach religious ritual only as a part of Jewish experience, not for personal practice, and like their American colleagues believe the decision to circumcise should be left with the parents.

Ya'acov Malkin, who founded and serves as the academic director of MEITAR, the College of Judaism as Culture, says of circumcision: "I don't regard it as a religious act at all... if it's medically not necessary, it's not necessary."

He circumcised his own son 50 years ago "because of habit, because it was a custom, it is a custom of the Jews."

He says that he was raised a "free Jew" by his family of atheists before moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1934, when he was seven.

This upbringing, and his recognition that a large number of secular Israelis grow up without a way to interact positively with their culture, having been alienated by a strictly observant lifestyle, encouraged him to change the situation.

His college teaches classes on classical Jewish texts as well as modern ones, such as works by Amos Oz, Franz Kafka, and Martin Buber.

To the suggestion that Free Judaism is Judaism without God, he replies: "It does include God of course, because God is one of the most important literary heroes in all the Jewish literature, in all literature."

A group of 35 American Jews that claims members from secular to Orthodox tries to find ways of reconciling Judaism to a circumcision-free life. The organization, Jews Against Circumcision, was started, as founder Gillian Flato of California puts it, because information against the practice "must come from within."

Brought up Conservative and now a Reform Jew, Flato says that what makes you Jewish is whether your mother is Jewish, not whether you are circumcised.

Besides, "There's a lot of contradiction in Halacha," Flato says. "Part of Halacha says you cannot harm another person. But ripping off the foreskin is harming another person."

Flato goes further in her challenge of traditional Jewish precept when she points out that in the discussion of the covenant in Genesis, God tells Abraham "I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you," in return for Abraham's circumcising of his sons and slaves.

She says that Jews only comprise one half of one percent of the world's population, that kings of the Jews have been few in number, and that "we don't have a land of our own because we've been fighting the Palestinians forever and there's all kinds of turmoil there."

She concludes, "Some would argue that God's not fulfilled his part of the covenant, so why should we fulfill our part by continuing to mutilate our sons' penises?"

A snip at a time - Andrew Sacks's work has taken him to the sandy white beaches of Greece, the fast-paced streets of Hong Kong, and the cracked dirt roads of Uganda. Is his the jet-setting life of a travel writer? A corporate magnate? A spy? No. It's that of a professional mohel from Israel.

He explains that populations throughout southern and Eastern Europe need someone to help perform circumcisions on newborns and carry out conversion ceremonies, while expats living in East Asia have no local ritual circumciser. And in Uganda, 200 members of the Abayudaya tribe wanted to undergo brit mila to halachicly sanctify the Jewish life they've led for nearly a century.

Sacks arrived in their small village last winter full of skepticism about the Jewish pretensions of the community.

"Everybody thinks they're part of the lost tribes these days," he says.

According to the community, the tribe has been living as Jews ever since their leader Semei Kakungulu introduced them to the religion in 1919 after reading the Old Testament. When Sacks saw that they kept Jewish customs including immersing in a mikve and practicing circumcision, his doubts vanished.

Since the males had already had their foreskins removed - though not, as Halacha requires, by a Jew - he merely performed a symbolic brit mila. The men formed a long line leading from a small hut perched on a mud floor in which Sacks and the village's roaming chickens waited. One by one the local men went in and out, receiving a small nick along the scar of their circumcision accompanied by the necessary blessings.

Not all of the cultural surprises Sacks has experienced in his 20 years as a mohel have taken place outside the country.

At an Israeli brit, a woman at the ceremony asked Sacks if she could have the foreskin to swallow because she had heard the legend that doing so helps a barren woman conceive. He told her that a sip of the wine blessed during the circumcision would be as effective, so she drank the liquid instead.

Sacks says he generally buries the removed skins in his geranium garden, since the tradition is to inter them like any other part of the body. Some Diaspora mohels use a tin with Israeli soil inside so that the foreskin can be "buried in Israel."

The 3,000 circumcisions that Sacks estimates he's performed have ranged from ceremonies on secular kibbutzim (in which he often has to mumble the prayers to himself because the parents don't want to observe the rite's religious aspects) to flashy affairs-cum-discos in suburbs to hospital operations for new immigrants.

In one case he performed a circumcision on a 76-year-old Russian who had just made aliya.

"He had a smile on his face the whole time he underwent the circumcision."

The emotions of those experiencing the brit mila - parents and children - are not always so positive. There's even a debate among the Ashkenazim about whether to say the Sheheheyanu prayer that's recited at all happy occasions.

"Is a brit a happy occasion or not because there's pain for the child?" Sacks asks.

The answer differs within Israel, where the blessing is said, and without, where it's not.

SACKS RELATES that though women are more visibly affected by the event than men - often crying or leaving the room - he's only seen men faint. Usually it's an uncle or cousin, says Sacks. He has never seen a father pass out although one became sweaty, fell over, and cut his head on a piece of furniture, "but never went unconscious."

While that happened, Sacks kept to the task at hand. "I'm very focused on what I'm doing," he says. "If there's a sonic boom, or, as often happens, a cellphone rings, it doesn't faze me."

Unlike the rabbi played by Ben Stiller in Keeping the Faith, Sacks has never himself fainted at a brit mila, but he does admit that he was sweating and his knees were shaking the first time he performed the operation. He trained for a year and a half before he commandeered the knife on his own, first observing and then assisting before being left in charge.

Learning to be a ritual circumciser is quite difficult, he says, because most mohels don't want to teach anyone for fear of their disciples homing in on their business. He only received instruction because he lived in Pennsylvania at the time and his teacher knew he would make aliya soon.

In Israel, he says, mohels will typically only teach non-Israelis out of the same fear of competition. .

The profession here is traditionally passed down from father to son, with few outsiders being allowed to learn the skill. Additional barriers are presented to anyone not Orthodox, says Sacks, himself a Conservative rabbi.

Those on the receiving end can also face hurdles, particularly new immigrants without the resources to afford the surgery - a much more costly affair if done on an adult because it necessitates a hospital visit and attending physician.

Sacks works with an organization called Keren Habrit dedicated to defraying the cost of circumcision for anyone who faces financial difficulty, save those who request the procedure for cosmetic reasons.

But in affluent communities such as the small group of expatriate Jews who live in Hong Kong, parents are often willing to pay exorbitant amounts for a brit mila - upwards of the $1,600 the plane ticket from Israel costs. Because the ceremony needs to be performed by a Jew and there's no one trained in the procedure there, families will fly Sacks in to carry out the circumcision.

"There's clearly a greater emotional attachment to [brit mila] than any other mitzva," Sacks says. "No one spends that kind of money on a succa. For that amount of money you could have a really nice succa."

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