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The following three articles were taken from a discussion on the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of Jews. 

A Successful Struggle Not to Circumcise

 I am the father of two boys, ages six and almost four. When I met the woman who would become my wife (and introduce me to RC), my unquestioned assumption was that circumcision was normal. In fact, I had written my college thesis on what held the Jewish people together and had argued that circumcision was one of the key pillars. When we got married, my wife was clear that we would not be having children until we figured out whether or not we would circumcise. I don’t think for a moment she wavered in her opposition to it, but she did think with and listen to me through many, many discussions. She seemed to know that I had to decide for myself.

There were three things that shifted my thinking:

1. Discharging terror

2. The Jewish couple (one of them a rabbi), who along with my wife introduced me to RC, choosing not to circumcise their son. This shifted my perspective enormously. I understood differently what was possible. It was like opening the blinds in a room and letting light in. 

3. Reading Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and an article in Tikkun magazine called “The Kindest Un-Cut.” The latter tells the story of a couple’s decision and ends as follows: “We decided that we want him to live in a world without violence, so we welcomed him without violence. We welcomed him equally, his mother and I, in the time-honored way that desert cultures have always welcomed strangers to their tents: We washed his feet.” I cried as I read it and sort of1 knew after that that I couldn’t cut my own son either.

Then I went about telling2 my family of origin, before we even started trying to have a baby, that we weren’t going to circumcise. It was important to me that I talk to them first so they couldn’t question how much they mattered to me. And my wife didn’t want it to hang over us while we were pregnant.

My mother was the easiest—she tends to be open to new interpretations of tradition and was mostly excited to hear we were thinking of having a baby. My brother, the most religiously traditional of us, was surprisingly relaxed. He said Jews get to make their choices about how to observe. My father was very restimulated. He told me that I was like Cain (in the Bible, who killed his brother).

Over the next year, he and I had a bunch of the hardest and best conversations we had ever had. He yelled, pleaded, argued, and ran numerous guilt trips at me,3 yet he fought hard to listen and to understand what seemed totally unthinkable to him. He said he would have to tell my (as yet unconceived) son that he disagreed, and I told him he probably couldn’t. I had huge sessions, before and after our conversations, to try to keep coming toward him. I don’t know what he did without discharge. I guess he loved me enough to keep coming toward me.

Since that time, I have had two sons. My brother has had one, whom he circumcised. I couldn’t figure out how to back4 him to rethink circumcision and still support him to have his own thinking.

Watching my nephew be circumcised, I saw how deeply connected the ritual is to our internalized oppression:

• My brother and his wife stayed far away from their son during the ceremony.

• Most of the women (my mother, her friends, and others) talked endlessly about how awful the tools were and the whole experience was. It became clear to me that it is only sexism, internalized sexism, and male domination that keep Jewish women from saying “no more” and men from listening.

• My father, who in our discussions had told me that the days he attended a circumcision were the most joyous of his life, was white as a sheet—so much so that my mother asked me to stand near him to catch him if he fainted.

• And, of course, my nephew had no idea what hit him5 and was not given a moment to cry before wine was shoved in his mouth.

I wasn’t sure about my own decision not to circumcise until the day my first son was born. I remember holding him and thinking, “No one is touching my son.” In the month after each of our sons’ birth, we held a naming ceremony. It was a small family affair (one led by a rabbi and the other by my brother), and we washed each boy’s feet. The mood was joyous, connected, and welcoming. My father said a personal blessing he had written for each of his new grandsons. I thought I would share one of them, as it makes me cry every time I read it about what is possible for how we welcome our sons into this world. This blessing was for my eldest:

May you have the patience and tenacity of your namesake, Jacob,

Who wrestled with the angel (and received the name Ysrael),

Who prospered after years of hard work,

And who made peace with his brother.

May you learn to meditate and enjoy nature as did Isaac.

May you have the inspiration, the faith, and the courage of Abraham, the father of our People.

May you have the capacity of these men to love others, including the stranger, and to perceive God’s love.

May the wisdom of Sarah, the moral compass of Rebecca, the devotion of Leah, and the strength of mother Rachel also inspire you and guide you.

May all that you learn from your ancestors and your parents help you create a meaningful life in a changing and complex world.

Amen

Anonymous


1 “Sort of” means somewhat, more or less.
2 “Went about telling” means proceeded to tell.
3 “Ran numerous guilt trips at me” means tried to make me feel guilty in numerous ways.
4 “Back” means support.
5 “What hit him” means what happened to him.



Circumcision and Being Mixed Heritage

Hello beloved RC Jews,

I am a religiously active Reform1 Jewish man. I was ritually circumcised. I had my son circumcised, too. I was already involved in RC when he was circumcised, and I have counseled a lot about it. I felt guilty about it and still do. Other people on this list have written about how safe, connected, whole, and intact they felt their sons’ first months on earth were without circumcision. I am envious. I wish I could say the same thing. I fought hard to be there for him, to stay close to him, but I imagine that I see a hurt and hesitation in him that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t subjected him to this surgical procedure. I feel a lot of grief, and like I was unable to fully protect him no matter what I did.

I am a mixed-heritage Jew. My mother converted to Judaism (with a Reform rabbi) before I was born. I grew up with Judaism—the religion as well as the heritage—being a precious and important part of my life. When I was a young person, a lot of people (mostly non-Jews, who had only a partial knowledge of Jewish law, on the level of “trivia”) would tell me that I wasn’t really Jewish because my mother was not Jewish. This was a major way that anti-Jewish oppression was directed at me. I was able to respond with confidence that they were wrong: my mom had converted, and thus I, too, was Jewish!

Later I found out that my mother’s conversion wouldn’t be acknowledged under the Orthodox2 interpretation of Jewish law (as the rabbinical ordination of the Reform rabbis wouldn’t be considered valid) and that I was Jewish under Reform and Conservative3 halacha (religious law) but not under Orthodox halacha. This was terrifying to me. I felt like I was being excluded from my people.

My son is also mixed heritage. My wife is Catholic. We decided that we would raise our children as Jews. We both felt strongly about it. Even though we would transmit things we loved about both our heritages, our priority was on having our children feel fully and totally Jewish and integrating them into a Jewish community. This was also important in order to interrupt anti-Jewish oppression and the enormous pressure to assimilate, especially where we live. There are few Jews here and little knowledge of Judaism. A common attitude is that it’s weird and suspicious not to celebrate Christmas and that objections to Christianity dominating everything are trivial and obnoxious. Also, there is little non-Orthodox Jewish life here. Our family has been much involved with the liberal Jewish community, but it is tiny and struggling for acceptance and visibility.

If my son had not had an official conversion to Judaism, he would not have had what I had, which is the ability to say to people, “Yes I am Jewish!” He also would not be able to participate in the Jewish community here, the way it is now. He could not, for instance, celebrate a bar mitzvah.4 Could I have fought to change this? I don’t know how that would have gone, and whether it would have caused him to be targeted.

At the time we circumcised our son, I was not aware of any Bet Din (rabbinical court) that would have performed a Giur (conversion) for him had he not been circumcised. It may be that there are such resources, which would be an important thing for mixed-heritage Jews to know. But it wasn’t an option I was aware of.

Therefore, it is with sadness that I read what many people write, “We did not circumcise, and no one ever attacked or excluded our son because of it. It was a non-issue for us.” I am sure that this is true. It’s also a privilege that a mixed-heritage Jew in an area like ours, with a small and not diverse or liberal Jewish community, does not enjoy.

Halachically, a child of a Jewish mother (or father in U.S. Reform Judaism) who does not get circumcised is a Jew who has simply skipped one of the mitzvot (commandments), albeit a traditionally important one. But outside the United States, a child of a Jewish father who does not get circumcised, and therefore doesn’t get converted, is, halachically speaking, by the standards of those communities, not Jewish.

So for me, particularly as a European, it did not feel like a choice of “protect my child or not.” It felt like a choice of “protect him from what”—from a painful and bewildering surgical procedure or from exclusion and outsider status in the precious religion I dearly wanted him to be a part of.

I could, of course, have let him decide to get circumcised and convert later if he wanted to. But until he made such a decision, he would not be protected from growing up excluded from our Jewish community. No one would have asked if he was circumcised, but plenty of people, knowing his mother wasn’t Jewish, would have asked if he’d had a Giur. So mixed-heritage (especially non-U.S. patrilineal) Jews are exposed on this issue in a way that other Jews are not.

 “Gershom”


1 Reform Judaism is a movement in Judaism that does not require strict observance of Jewish    law and adapts the historical forms of Judaism to the contemporary world.
2 Orthodox Judaism adheres to the Torah and Talmud as interpreted in an authoritative    rabbinic law code and applies their principles and regulations to modern living.
3 Conservative Judaism adheres to the Torah and Talmud but with allowance for some departures in keeping with differing times and circumstances.
4 A bar mitzvah is a ceremony for a Jewish boy on his thirteenth birthday when he assumes the religious duties and responsibilities of an adult.



My Current Thinking about Circumcision

I am an observant Jewish mother, and I decided to circumcise my son when he was eight days old. That was almost eight years ago. I had been in RC for six years at that point.

My thinking has evolved over the years since my son’s circumcision—as I have discharged and as I have witnessed several other circumcisions. My current thinking about circumcision is the following:

• Circumcision is a physical hurt, and it plays a role in creating and perpetuating male domination. The domination of our sons through this practice sets them up1 to dominate.

• It is not a rational practice.

• Currently it is one of the most fundamental and central rituals of observant (and some non-observant) Jews that defines them as Jews. As things stand currently, it is hard to imagine a post-bar mitzvah2 boy/man being “accepted” within most (if not all) observant Jewish communities if he has not been circumcised. My guess is that most of us RCers who are observant Jews don’t feel like we have the choice not to circumcise our sons, if we want to stay within our Jewish communities.

• We need to change the thinking about and practice of circumcision, as a community. This will be a process. It may look different for secular Jews, for Jews within more liberal branches of Judaism, and for Jews who feel bound by Jewish law. For observant Jews, the conversation will need to go hand in hand with an exploration of Jewish law. The process of change will be similar to how women’s roles within observance have changed within the framework of Jewish law over the past forty years.

Here are some things I have experienced or learned that have affected my thinking:

• A few of my Co-Counselors were able to hold out their thinking about circumcision but also stay by my side. They didn’t leave me alone and isolated as I chose to circumcise my son. Two Co-Counselors, a Jewish man and a Catholic woman, came as counselors to the circumcision, which allowed me to stay close to my son before, during, and after it. Remembering them there has given me the space, probably more than anything else, to fight for my own thinking. Every situation is different, but finding the delicate balance between holding out policy and thinking, and not abandoning each other, can make all the difference in the world.

• I have attended three circumcisions since my son’s. They were all circumcisions of sons of close friends. I have gone as a counselor and also to learn so that I can be better equipped to engage in dialogue with my community about this ritual. I have seen that mothers, in particular, have a hard time watching the circumcision, let alone3 staying close. One mother couldn’t even be in the room. It is clear to me that the women can tell4 that circumcision is indeed a physical hurt. In my mind, this is the starting point of their being able to tell that it is not a rational practice. When we hold out that circumcision is a physical hurt, that eight-day-old baby boys do feel pain, then surely something will change.

At one circumcision, the mother was in the back of the room and the father was up front but not close to his son. I encouraged the father to move in close and talk to his son, so that his son knew he was there. I think that made a difference for both the baby and the father. We get to push our sisters and brothers to actually look and see. I don’t think things can change until this happens.

Here are some suggestions (in addition to those already put forth by others) for how we can move forward on this issue:

• We can hold out policy and thinking while we stay counselor and fight alongside other Jews so that they can get their thinking for real.

• We can discharge our internalized anti-Jewish oppression, including any feelings we have about Orthodox,5 ultra-Orthodox, liberal, or secular Jews.

• We can discharge about the preciousness of Jewish males. Those of us who have chosen, or would choose, to circumcise our sons can, for discharge, decide that we would do anything to preserve and protect the humanness of a Jewish boy, even if it meant (fill in the blank).

• We can back6 leaders within the observant community in finding their thinking. We can stay and love them and fight for their minds, rather than abandoning them.

• If we are Jewish females, we can remember that we have thinking here and can lead on this topic.

Were I to have another son, I would not be able to circumcise him. I don’t know where that would lead me in terms of my relationship with my observant community, but I would have to find out.

I appreciate the struggle and what we are each doing in our own ways to find our best thinking as we move forward on this topic. Thank you for listening.

Anonymous


1 “Sets them up” means predisposes them.
2 A bar mitzvah is a ceremony for a Jewish boy on his thirteenth birthday when he assumes    the religious duties and responsibilities of an adult.
3 “Let alone” means or to a greater degree.
4 “Tell” means perceive.
5 Orthodox Judaism adheres to the Torah and Talmud as interpreted in an authoritative  rabbinic law code and applies their principles and regulations to modern living.
6 “Back” means support.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00