A Ritual That Can Cut Both Ways

Found In: Covenant & Naming Rituals

Tags: circumcision

The concept of circumcision is both a deeply powerful ritual practice and a profoundly troubling remnant of a different time. 

A few years ago, when we were expecting our first child, we resisted the temptation to learn the child’s sex; we enjoyed the mystery and excitement of not knowing.  We spent hours dreaming about what life would be like with a child in our lives: we imagined the miracle of seeing little baby hands, hearing giggles, snuggling and watching our baby grow up.  Yet, by choosing not to know the sex of our child, we also tempered these dreams with the reality that we could not know the truth of our child until our child was actually brought into the world.  We could have hopes, and we could imagine who our child would be to us, but what mattered most was that he or she would simply be the person he or she was meant to be--a true image of God. 

So when the big day came and our son was born, we wanted to do everything we could to ensure that he would grow into himself instead of into an image of what we thought he should be.  My wife and I are devout feminists, and we believe very strongly in both egalitarian ritual and the fluidity of gender and gender identities.  We are also people who will go against established practices or break with societal values if we believe that they cause more suffering or pain than is necessary.  We would never want to do something to our son that would force him to take on a certain identity, or cause him pain—even if doing so was part of the established tradition.

Yet here we were with a baby–a genetically male baby–and we had only eight days to make a very important decision.  As a rabbi and as a Reconstructionist Jew, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of tradition and ritual as ways of holding community together and tying individuals to their heritage and to God.  The concept of circumcision is both a deeply powerful ritual practice and a profoundly troubling remnant of a different time.  Nevertheless, my wife and I were not willing to simply throw out the idea of circumcision as an archaic or outdated practice; we felt called to look deeply into the tradition and to explore the contemporary conversation dealing with the practice. 

In the end we decided to circumcise both of our sons–not because we felt fully comfortable with the ritual–but because of what we had realized about the Jewish identity which the ritual inscribed on them.  What we knew for sure was that we were raising our children in a strong Jewish household, one filled with a love of Jewish life and learning, and one which would likely lead to a strong Jewish identity and identification with the Jewish people.

We could continue to have the endless conversations, and to make lists of pros and cons, but, in the end, circumcising our sons was about making it as easy and meaningful as possible for them to grow up connected to their Jewish heritage and to their identities as Jewish boys.  I may not remember the experience of my bris, but I do feel that the physical mark which it left is a powerful and personal connection to Jewish tradition and faith.  I am proud of what a circumcision symbolizes, even with its problems.  But it is not the only connection, and it in no way makes us better or closer to God than those without it. 

If anything, I believe that raising our sons as liberal, feminist, activist Jews with the most traditional of Jewish marks on their bodies, will only make them live the values with which we are raising them more strongly.  I hope my sons will be deeply connected with men in the Jewish past, yet will also be able to break away from the traditional images of power and privilege which may be symbolized by the bris.  They will have the choice and the opportunity to stand with pride and say that they identify as men in some of the same ways our forefathers did, but that this maleness is based on the deepest kind of equality, compassion, sensitivity—all the best that an evolved Judaism has to offer. 

Of course this is not a perfect vision, and there is a chance that our sons will not choose to see Judaism or their bodies in this way.  Yet if I trust the power of Jewish tradition and identity–and my ability as a parent to pass on my values to my children–then to not do this ancient ritual would be taking away many more opportunities for connection than it would create.  We gave our son a bris.  It was not an easy choice, but it is one that I will always be proud of.

Rabbi Boris Dolin is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Israel Center for Jewish Life in Eugene, Oregon.