Circumcision: Age-Old Rite Faces Modern Concerns

Ross Goldstein and Susanna Garfein decided to give their son Bram a bris when he was 8 days old. Neither had second thoughts. Garfein says she was surprised by the transcendence of the moment.

hide captionRoss Goldstein and Susanna Garfein decided to give their son Bram a bris when he was 8 days old. Neither had second thoughts. Garfein says she was surprised by the transcendence of the moment.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

For many couples, having a baby is a spiritual experience. For Jews, there's another, religious, element that is intrinsic to the Jewish identity. Nearly all Jewish parents have their baby boys circumcised, as commanded by God in the Bible. And yet, for some Jewish couples, whether to circumcise or not is becoming an agonizing decision.

The ritual dates back four millennia to the book of Genesis, where God made Abraham a deal. God promised to give Abraham children, land and a special relationship as his God. In exchange, God said, "Every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you."

Some 4,000 years after God made that covenant with the world's first Jew, the contract still holds. And on their eighth day, Jewish boys make good on that promise.

"This is one of the most important things we do as a people," says Steven Adashek, a doctor and mohel who has performed more than 3,500 circumcisions.

"In the 613 Mitzvah commandments given in the Torah, which are given in order of importance, doing the bris [circumcision ceremony] is the second one listed, which means the second most important one that we do," he says. "The only one that takes precedence is that first commandment, which was 'Be fruitful and multiply.'"

A 'Transcendent' Bris Ceremony

On 8-day-old Bram Goldstein's big day, several dozen friends and family gather at 10 a.m. at a friends' home in Maryland to celebrate the boy's entrance into Judaism.

Susanna Garfein, Bram's mother, says she's emotional, but not squeamish. Neither she nor her husband, Ross Goldstein, is having second thoughts.

"It is something that has a history, that more so than anything else, connects people to their Jewish identity," she says.

"We knew we wanted to raise him Jewish and that's the first step on that process," adds her husband, Ross. "This is tradition, it is part of our culture, it is what we do, and there was no question that we would do this."

Before the ceremony, the parents and Dr. Steven Adashek whisk Bram to a bedroom upstairs, where the mohel does last-minute preparations. Increasingly, couples are seeking out mohels with a medical degree, because they can administer a local anesthetic and help avoid both the pain and the crying during the ceremony.

"If we can do something more to alleviate pain, we should," Adashek says. "The Torah says we have to do this on the eighth day, but nowhere does it say it has to hurt. The best bris is where everybody cries except the baby."

A few minutes later, Adashek carries the boy to the crowded living room. As Susanna and Ross hover nearby, he places the boy on a card table. He recounts the story of Abraham, and the ritual that has survived good times and bad.

Dr. Steven Adashek,a mohel, performed Bram's bris. He administered a local anesthetic to the baby boy.

hide captionDr. Steven Adashek,a mohel, performed Bram's bris. He administered a local anesthetic to the baby boy.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

Throughout the history of the Jews, Adashek explained, "the father would say in times when it was unsafe, 'I may not be able to teach my son Torah in safety. I may not be able to lead him to Bar Mitzvah. But Judaism will not die on my watch.'"

Keeping up the pattern, the mohel deftly removes the diaper, then announces: "He's got a nice-sized penis!"

Everyone laughs, the tension briefly broken. Then the knife comes out and people turn their heads. It's done in 40 seconds. Not a sound from Bram. Adashek clothes the baby and raises him for the crowd to see, and the crowd breaks into a round of singing Mazel tov.

Afterwards, Bram's mother says she was surprised by the transcendence of the moment, especially since Susanna, a college professor at Towson University, says she's not a spiritual person.

"There was something in that room. You felt you were part of something bigger," she said, her voice trailing off. "It's not just about the circumcision. It's the custom. It's the connection — not just between Bram and us, but it's the connection between Bram and his faith and his tradition."

An Alternative: The Brit Shalom

The vast majority of Jewish parents — whether orthodox or secular — opt to circumcise their boys. Yet, a small but growing number of Jews, are wavering.

Rabbi Binyamin Biber is one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who performs what's called a Brit Shalom — or a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision. i i

hide captionRabbi Binyamin Biber is one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who performs what's called a Brit Shalom — or a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR
Rabbi Binyamin Biber is one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who performs what's called a Brit Shalom — or a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision.

Rabbi Binyamin Biber is one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who performs what's called a Brit Shalom — or a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

"It's a really hard decision," says Susan Peckham. "It makes me cry. It's so upsetting, really, it affects me at my core."

Peckham and her husband Daniel Abraham are expecting their first child. Peckham converted to Judaism from Christianity — a long process in which she studied with three rabbis and promised to raise her children Jewish. She later met and married Dan, got pregnant — and soon she began having second thoughts about the sacred ritual.

"We're hoping that this child will be born through natural childbirth, without any medication, without any intervention," she explains. "And following along the same lines, why would we want to turn around, and in eight days subject our baby to what is a violent act?"

They don't know the baby's gender, but Susan strongly believes it's a boy. So a few months ago, she began reading books about the history of circumcision, about the medical pros and cons, and about the procedure itself. She brought her findings home to Dan.

"What was miraculous was reading the descriptions and the fact that I couldn't get through the first page or two," Dan says.

Now, with the baby due in September, they are in an agony of indecision. They want to spare their baby pain and avoid the very low risk that something could go wrong. And yet, they wonder, would they be betraying their ancestors? Would they be abrogating the covenant that has spanned 4,000 years?

"I have a little voice in the back of my head that says circumcision is Mitzvah number 612 and it's just as important as all other mitzvahs put together," Susan says

"On the other hand," Dan jumps in, "we also recognize there are many commandments that have gone away over time, that are observed by some and perhaps not others."

Dan and others say that most modern Jews don't follow everything the God of the Bible ordained, such as ritual cleansing or punishments like stoning people. So the couple is considering an alternative, called a Brit Shalom, which is a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision. This is why they're sitting in the living room of Binyamin Biber, one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who perform these ceremonies.

"More and more and more are coming to us specifically with this question of circumcision," says Biber, who serves at Machar, the Washington, D.C., Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

"I will say it's one of the more delicate subjects that we offer family counseling around," he adds. "It's very challenging."

It's challenging, he says, because often the grandparents and extended family are appalled. In some cases, they won't come to a ceremony without circumcision. Dan Abraham nods, recalling the conversation with his parents, when he told them they might not circumcise their boy.

"My father was rather quiet," he says. "But my mother had a rather emotional reaction: 'This is not part of the tradition, it's sort of ... wrong.'"

He says his parents will support whatever decision they make — a decision that eludes them still.

"I don't know how we're going to decide," Susan says.

"Maybe the birth itself," Dan adds. "I mean, we may actually get to that point when we haven't actually made a decision, and there's a child sitting between us and that may tell us what to do. I don't know. I honestly don't know."

Surely it is a complicated calculus — weighing an ancient promise with modern mores, and ultimately, deciding whether God's relationship with the Jewish people requires a physical sacrifice.

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