Struggling with Circumcision

Dear Son,

I’m writing to you now, years before you can understand, about a difficult decision your mom and I made for you today. I hope it was the right decision. I know it was a loving decision.

You’re only ten days old now. We named you just three days ago. I felt so proud of you as we told family and friends about your name and our wishes for you. (You slept through the ceremony, though.) Your mom and I both love you very much and we want to protect you.

By the time you read this, you’ll know about circumcision. You’ll know that in Judaism the tradition of ritual circumcision, brit milah, is very powerful, so powerful that many Jewish parents follow it without question, though it pains a baby boy and, as far as I have learned, isn’t justified medically.

By the time you read this you’ll also know something of your mom’s and my spiritual beliefs. It won’t surprise you that we couldn’t follow the tradition without question. But it may surprise you to learn how wrenching the decision was for us. We struggled a long, long time with our consciences. In fact, we began struggling with the question long before your mom got pregnant. In the moment after you were born, when we saw you were a boy, your mom and I exchanged a glance that spoke volumes we knew we’d have to make the decision we had wrestled with for so long. Above all, we wanted to do what was best for you.

You were born naturally, without any special tools or drugs. You came into our world healthy and whole. In your first minutes, you opened your eyes, coughed, breathed, cried, and peed, lying beside your mom and me. Incredibly, your body worked perfectly. I say incredibly though there was no reason to expect trouble simply because it’s hard to believe, after all the work and waiting and worrying, that everything can go just fine. In our eyes, you were born perfect.

You were also born Jewish. Now, what does being “born Jewish” really mean? To me, it doesn’t mean you’re blessed by a supernatural being. (But you’ll know that by the time you read this.) To me, it does mean you were born to Jewish parents, to a bloodline and set of traditions that I think have enriched the world and may prove of value to you.

These days almost all Jewish males are circumcised. That may change. (More about this in a moment.) I doubt it will change greatly in your lifetime, given the momentum of the 4,000-year history of the tradition. In your lifetime, an uncircumcised Jewish boy will pr obably be rare, as he is now. That was a consideration, though not a determinative one for your mom and me. So what’s the right decision for parents like us and for Jewish boys like you, born at the turn of the 21st century, in an era of accelerating change? Well, there is no right decision. At least that’s how I felt. Your mom felt similarly. There was no right decision for us: Either way, I felt we’d betray a fundamental principle. To circumcise would mean changing your natural state to an unnatural one and, in the process, causing you physical pain. Not to circumcise would mean breaking a link that many Jews see as crucial, and placing you in a tiny minority within Judaismburdens that I believe might pain you in other ways.

Our rabbi and I talked about all of this more than once before you were born. In fact, we first talked about it before your mom was pregnant with your sister. He made clear his own feeling that he couldn’t approve of not circumcising, but that he understood how hard the decision was for us and was willing to talk about it. He called himself a “work in progress,” acknowledging that his own feelings might change and encouraging us to consider how our feelings might change, too. Your mom and I had heard of other rabbis who were not so understanding. We felt lucky to know one who respected our conflicting feelings.

This morning, after all the discussion and struggle, we made our choice. We didn’t truly feel circumcision was right, but we chose it for you. We did so hoping it was the best decision for you at this time.

I held you and whispered to you as the mohel did his job. He and the rabbi and I were the only people with you. Most Jewish parents gather family and friends for a bris. We couldn’t. Your mom waited in the backyard, and I whispered to you as the other two men prayed. Then the mohel strapped you down. You began wailing, and it felt like a nightmare to me. At the last moment I imagined grabbing the mohel’s hands and stopping him and pushing him out of the house. But we had made a decision and, unbelievably, I let him cut you.

You cried and I cried. I got you to your mom’s arms and she offered you her breast. The experienced mohel had wanted to hold you himself and “sing you to sleep.” We declined, not wanting to hush you after what you’d been through. We held you and cried with you on and off into the afternoon. Crying was your only way to communicate, and we felt we needed to hear it. When you slept, we cried more. Partly we cried from shame, for allowing this.

You were perfect, and we let the mohel cut you. I’ve never felt so terrible.

We spent the rest of the day hovering near you, feeling sick. You were uncomfortable the whole day, fretful for longer. Before today, we had gotten to know you as a relaxed person, calm and trusting. It might sound silly, years later, but we worried that we had changed you forever.

Right now, as I write this, what we did feels like a mistake. I shudder thinking about it.

But might it have been the right choice for you?

We can never really know, because you’ll live your life from this day forward, and we can’t know how things would’ve turned out for you the other way. Imagining life “the other way,” for you, I foresaw a burden: a burden that might have embittered you, first as a boy, then as a young adult. (We’ll talk details as the years go by.)

As your mom and I struggled with the decision, I found myself rejecting circumcision, wanting to fight it, yet unable to drag you into that fight. After worrying ourselves sick, we made the decision with the hope that your life would be less difficult this way than the other.

Still, tonight it feels wrong. It may be dangerous to confess this to you, but I feel some bitterness tonight about my own Judaism. I feel the way a person might feel if he hated his own voice. I can’t comfortably justify circumcision. It feels like a terrible anachronism. Part of me wants to push for change. I feel guilt at not being part of a change that I think North American Jews will inch toward in coming generations, and that I think some Jews sorely need.

But was the choice we made right for you? I hope so, but don’t really know. I’m writing all this not to answer or to defend, but to explain. I want you to understand, someday, what happened today. And I want to do what I can to help you, if you ever have a son, make a decision you can feel right about. I want you to know, early in your life, that I would respect whatever decision you and your partner might come to. You need not repeat our decision. You need not reject our decision.

Frankly, I hope that your Jewish experience differs from ours which is not simply to say that I hope the tradition fades. Rather, I want the Jewishness you experience to enable you to feel freer than we did: freer to opt out of circumcision without fearing that an uncircumcised son will suffer over the years, but also freer to circumcise your son without feeling compelled. I want you to grow up feeling that the choice is truly yours. “Choice” and “tradition” aren’t natural allies. As much as possible, I want to give you both.

Years from now this letter might feel unnecessary or overwrought. At least it will give you a sense of the concern and love your mom and I felt today. You are a beautiful little person, son, and you will be a beautiful man. We love you very much.

Love, Dad

Originally published in Reconstructionism Today, Vol. 11, No. 3, SpringSummer 2004. Used by permission.

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