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Cutting and Covenant: How I Decided Whether Or Not To Circumcise My Sons

The thought of saying Hebrew prayers over the cutting of a baby’s flesh seemed truly barbaric to me. I wondered, “If mothers had the power to design Judaism, would circumcision have played such a central role?” 

When I birthed my first son, less than six months after graduating from rabbinical school, I felt extreme ambivalence about cutting his beautiful body. I knew that our ancestors had enacted this ritual for thousands of years; that it was a ritual sanctified in tradition and embedded in the hearts of Jews through the ages; and that Jewish men had died because of their marked bodies.

Jewish tradition and ritual were compelling to me—I had just spent six years, drawn by the power and beauty of Jewish ethics and community, preparing to be a Jewish leader. In addition to feeling obligated to preserve the heritage and maintain unity of the Jewish people, I took seriously my role in helping to develop the future of Judaism. I had pledged not just to be the inheritor of a tradition, but also to actively shape its future. Should circumcision be a core part of the Jewish future?

The thought of saying Hebrew prayers over the cutting of a baby’s flesh seemed truly barbaric to me. I wondered, “If mothers had the power to design Judaism, would circumcision have played such a central role?” As a Jewish woman, alive in a time of greater empowerment and voice for women than ever before in our past, I felt that my decision had communal significance. It wasn’t just an individual decision.

I was right on the fence about whether to circumcise my baby or not. As I held my precious newborn, the enormity of this decision settled on my solo Mom shoulders. Yes, I was part of a community of the past, present, and future, but it was I who had to navigate the powerful emotions pulling me in opposing directions. Though I was equipped with many arguments and reasonings, it was up to me, in the end, to make this decision. This decision would be one of the first I made both as the mother of a son and as a new rabbi.

With the support of close friends and family who represented diverse positions on the issue of circumcision, I decided to separate the covenanting from the cutting. After all, the word bris actually means “covenant”—not cutting.

For the covenanting, we had a joyous welcoming ceremony for my baby on the eighth day of his life. For the cutting on the following day (with just three friends present), I allowed a mohel (ritual circumciser) to cut him. I separated the covenanting and the cutting, hoping that that decision would be one building block in a bridge between old traditions and new possibilities.

My second son came into the family by adoption at eleven months of age. He was born in Guatemala (where circumcision is not a general practice) so he had not been cut. Again, I was straddling the fence about whether to circumcise or not. By then I was a much more experienced mother and rabbi. But that didn’t quell the emotional intensity of making such a decision. As a rabbi, I felt equally tugged by my responsibility to uphold Jewish traditions and to engage in the ethical evolution of Judaism.

And, as a mother, I was asking myself whether it was right to subject this little guy to elective surgery? But wouldn’t he feel different and “other” growing up in a Jewish community and in a family with a circumcised brother, if he had an uncircumcised penis? I wanted to do what was right for him as a human and as a Jew, and I was convinced there didn’t need to be a conflict between the two. But which way to go?

I did not take him for surgery. His body is intact and un-cut. Now he is an older teen who participates actively in the synagogue. Not once have I witnessed or heard from him about a single instance of raised eyebrows or persecution about his penis. My child’s foreskin was never an issue when he was in preschool and the children changed into swimming suits before running in the sprinkler. In the organized Jewish world, there are places that would deny him participation over this issue, but those are not the places that recognize this person for who he is. If he ever does choose to engage in that kind of community, he knows the path of circumcision is open to him.

I know that there is a time-tested and very valid way to be Jewish without being circumcised. All I have to do is look at my three daughters. Fifty percent of the Jewish people have managed to be fully Jewish without any ritual cutting of skin—the females. I think this is an issue where being beyond gender in our decision-making would be worthwhile.

People on all sides of the foreskin issue have very strong feelings. Circumcision touches primal concerns about body, tradition, family, integrity, and trust. Today we are in a transitional period of Judaism similar to the time after the destruction of the Second Temple when some people tried to resurrect animal sacrifice and others went on to develop new practices of Judaism. We are caught between a Judaism shaped by patriarchy and a Judaism that will include a wider array of Jewish voices. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to counsel many people about the circumcision issue.

From my perspective, it’s okay if some people continue to circumcise male babies at traditional bris rituals, it’s okay if some people separate the cutting and the covenanting, and it’s okay if some people welcome their male and female children with only a covenanting ceremony.

I don’t think Jewish leaders should send down rulings on circumcision; I think they should serve as facilitators for parents navigating their own concerns, and taking into account their own perspectives, community’s practices, medical views, family values, and religious and ethical traditions.  

At this time of transition we need to be tolerant and inclusive, we need to learn from each other and we need to reflect and communicate together. Twenty-two years after making the decision about how to welcome my firstborn son, I am more confident  as a rabbi and as a mother. If I were making the decision today, I might not have made the decision to circumcise my first baby.

Welcoming a baby is an amazing experience for a family and a community and it helps clarify values and intentions. It is a time when people in both Jewish and interfaith families look to the Jewish community for wisdom and comfort. There is more than one right way to move forward.

Rabbi Julie Greenberg has served a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia since 2001; she also is a licensed family therapist. She can be reached at juliegberg@gmail.com or through www.rabbijuliegreenberg.com.

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