ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Time now for the latest story in our series "Beginnings."
For many couples, having a baby is a spiritual experience. For Jewish parents, there's also a very real religious tradition involved, one that is central to the Jewish identity. Nearly all have their baby boys circumcised, as commanded by God in the Bible. But NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that for some Jewish couples, whether or not to circumcise is an agonizing choice.
BARBARA HAGERTY: In the book of Genesis, God made Abraham a deal. I will give you children, I will give you land, and I will be your God.
In exchange, God said:
Unidentified Man: (Reading) Every man-child 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.
HAGERTY: 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.
Dr. STEVEN ADASHEK (Mohel): This is one of the most important things we do as a people.
HAGERTY: Steven Adashek is a doctor and a mohel who has performed more than 3,500 circumcisions.
Dr. ADASHEK: In the 613 mitzvah - commandments - given in the Torah, which are given in order of importance, doing the bris is the second one listed, which means the second-most important one that we do. The only thing that takes precedence is that first commandment, which was be fruitful and multiply.
HAGERTY: It is 8-day-old Bram Goldstein's big day, and several dozen friends and family arrive to celebrate the boy's entrance into Judaism.
Ms. SUSANNA GARFINE: Right now, I'm emotional.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HAGERTY: But Susanna Garfine, Bram's mother, is not squeamish. Neither she nor her husband, Ross Goldstein, is having second thoughts.
Ms. GARFINE: It is something that has a history; that more so than anything else, I think, just really connects people to their Jewish identity.
Mr. ROSS GOLDSTEIN: You know, we know we want to raise him Jewish, and that's the first step on that process. This is tradition. This is part of our culture and what we do. There was no question that we would do this.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
HAGERTY: The ceremony begins as guests crowd around to see this most public of surgeries. Bram is quiet. Dr. Adashek has given the baby a local anesthetic, and he won't feel a thing.
Dr. ADASHEK: Good morning, everyone.
Unidentified Group: Good morning.
HAGERTY: Adashek places the boy on a card table. He recounts the story of Abraham, and the ritual that has survived through good times and bad.
Dr. ADASHEK: So the father, whose job it is to physically do the circumcision -Ross loves that idea - would say in times when it's unsafe, I may not be able to teach my son Torah in safety; I may not be able to lead him to bar mitzvah.
HAGERTY: Keeping up the patter, he deftly removes the diaper.
Dr. ADASHEK: He's got a nice-sized penis.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HAGERTY: The tension breaks. 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.
Mr. ADASHEK: Amen. And then we have to say mazel tov.
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
Ms. GARFINE: There was something in that room, that you just felt that you were part of something bigger.
HAGERTY: Afterwards, Bram's mother says she was surprised by the transcendence of the moment.
Mr. GARFINE: It's not just about the circumcision. It's the custom; it's the covenant. It's the connection not just between Bram and us, but it's the connection between Bram and his faith and his tradition.
HAGERTY: The vast majority of Jewish parents - whether orthodox or secular -opt to circumcise their boys. Yet for a small but growing number of Jews...
Ms. SUSAN PECKHAM: It's a really hard decision. It makes me cry. It's so upsetting. It really it affects me at my core.
HAGERTY: Susan Peckham and her husband, Daniel Abraham, are expecting their first child. Susan 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.
Ms. PECKHAM: We're hoping that this child will be born through natural childbirth, without any medication, without any intervention. And following along those same lines, why would we want to turn around and in eight days, subject our baby to what is a violent act?
HAGERTY: They don't know the baby's gender, but Susan strongly believes it's a boy. So, she began reading books about the history of circumcision, about the medical pros and cons, about the procedure itself. She brought her findings home to Dan.
Mr. DAN ABRAHAM: And what was miraculous was reading the descriptions and the fact that I couldn't get through the first page or two.
HAGERTY: Now, with the baby due in September, they're 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 would they be betraying their ancestors? Would they be abrogating the covenant that has spanned 4,000 years?
Ms. PECKHAM: 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 the other mitzvahs put together. And...
Mr. ABRAHAM: On the other hand, we also recognize that there are many commandments that have gone away over time, that are observed by some and perhaps not others.
HAGERTY: Dan and others say many modern Jews don't follow everything the god of the Bible ordained, including ritual cleansing, or punishments like stoning people. So, the couple is considering an alternative, called a Brit Shalom, a Jewish welcoming ceremony without the circumcision.
Binyamin Biber, a rabbi in Maryland, is one of a few dozen rabbis nationwide who perform these ceremonies.
Mr. BINYAMIN BIBER (Rabbi): More and more people are coming to us, specifically with this question of circumcision. And I will say it is also one of the more delicate subjects that we offer family counseling around. It's very challenging.
HAGERTY: Challenging, he says, because often the grandparents and extended family are appalled. Some won't come to a ceremony without a circumcision. Dan Abraham nods, recalling the conversation with his parents when he told them they might not circumcise their baby.
Mr. ABRAHAM: My father was rather quiet, but my mother had a rather emotional reaction that said that this is not part of the tradition; it's just sort of wrong.
HAGERTY: He says his parents will support whatever decision they make, a decision that eludes them still.
Ms. PECKHAM: I don't know how we're going to decide.
Mr. ABRAHAM: It may be the birth itself. I mean, we may actually get to that point where we haven't fully made a decision, and there's a child sitting between us, and that may tell us what to do. I don't know. I mean, I honestly don't know.
HAGERTY: It's 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.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.