By MARK REISS, M.D.
The bris (Yiddish) or brit (Hebrew) is nothing more than a covenantal naming ceremony for baby Jewish boys. Traditionally done on the eighth day of life, the baby is given his Jewish or Hebrew name, he is ushered into the community of Judaism, and his foreskin is removed. Until relatively recently, this patrilineal ceremony was reserved for males.
Nowadays, we have similar naming ceremonies for baby girls, minus the genital cutting. In Hebrew, the term brit milah refers to ritual circumcision. Why not eliminate the cutting, and peacefully give baby boys a name which welcomes them into Judaism? The term brit shalom, “Covenant of Peace” is used to denote an alternative non-cutting naming ceremony. Other terms include brit b’li milah (covenant without cutting), brit chayim (covenant of life) and brit ben (covenant for a boy). Brit bat being the term for a girl’s naming ceremony.
Although the topic of circumcision was once taboo, recently this subject has received an increasing amount of media attention. The ballot initiative to prohibit the circumcision of minors in San Francisco has generated a crescendo of articles in newspapers, magazines, and online publications. Chat rooms discuss circumcision daily. TV shows, YouTube videos, and even full length films are available on the subject. As a result of this exposure, information about the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on our baby boys is being made available to all. Complications from this unnecessary surgery are being publicized. People are becoming aware of the exquisitely sensitive and unique tissue of the foreskin, and how removal of this integral part of the penis robs men of a full sexual experience. Moreover, we are learning how the act of circumcising a baby is a violation of his basic human rights.
Inevitably, when the topic of circumcision comes up, Judaism comes to the fore. Jews have practiced circumcision as a ritual ceremony since ancient biblical times, and the bris has remained sacrosanct. A Jewish baby boy is born, and people ask “When is the bris?” not even considering the alternative─ blissfully leaving the baby boy’s penis intact, in its natural and normal state.
Other biblical imperatives: animal sacrifice, slavery, stoning of adulterous women, mandates against homosexuality─these have mostly fallen by the wayside. Judaism, except for the Ultra-Orthodox, has bridged the gap from ancient lore to modern day scientific enlightenment. Most Jews do not maintain kosher dietary laws, nor do they believe in laws forbidding travel or work on Shabbat. Why do they stubbornly maintain the atavistic ritual of circumcision?
In the past, circumcision was used as an identifying marker by multiple oppressors. In ancient Israel, Greek and Roman rulers banned circumcision with penalty of death. Jews were martyred for resisting these bans. During the Holocaust, baby boys were circumcised by their parents in cattle cars on the way to crematoria. Consciously or unconsciously, there is a strong sense that circumcision will prevent the annihilation of the Jewish people. Many Jews, however, are mistaken in their belief that circumcision “makes you Jewish.” In fact, according to strict Jewish law, Halacha, identity is purely matrilineal. If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, regardless of the status of your genitalia.
In the United States, where circumcision is being performed by physicians in hospitals as a “medical procedure,” many secular Jewish families have their sons circumcised in the first days of life because it is the American thing to do. These parents do not understand that this medical procedure does not fulfill Jewish law. Today, the number of hospital circumcisions is dropping, especially on the West Coast. Hopefully, these secular Jews will eventually abandon circumcision.
There is no prescribed formula or ritual liturgy at a Brit Shalom. A rabbi or lay celebrant can officiate at the ceremony but this is not required. Many families will create their own ceremony and this can be a very gratifying process. Couples invite grandparents, family members, and close friends to partake in the ceremony. Many templates and samples are available.
About ten years ago, I realized that many Jewish parents desire an “official” person to conduct their naming ceremony. To serve this need, I created a web page called Celebrants of Brit Shalom. This site lists rabbis and lay leaders willing to officiate at Brit Shalom ceremonies. In the beginning there were only a few celebrants. Today more than fifty celebrants are listed. I also maintain a non-published list of celebrants who will officiate at Brit Shalom ceremonies but do not wish their names to be publicly listed.
Most modern Jewish couples expecting a baby will discuss the issue of circumcision. Quite often the final decision is difficult and can be divisive. Although most Jews are still circumcising their baby boys, a growing minority of families are abandoning the practice. An increasing number of Jewish boys are having a Brit Shalom ceremony, rather than Brit Milah. These baby boys are being left genitally intact, getting Hebrew educations, having Bar Mitzvahs and ultimately taking their place in the Jewish community.
Mark D. Reiss, M.D. is a retired physician and classical pianist. He serves as Executive Vice President of Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC) and is the founder and administrator of Celebrants of Brit Shalom.