|Lisa Moss: Proud to be Jewish|
and against circumcision.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Refusing to Close the Book: An Interview With Lisa Braver Moss
On Saturday, October 29, Lisa will be joining filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon at the San Francisco screening of his film Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision, a documentary that challenges the Jewish tradition of circumcision. After the film, Lisa will participate in a question-and-answer session and sign copies of her novel.
BTB: Can you talk a little about your upbringing and background?
Lisa: I’m Jewish, and grew up in Berkeley without consistent Jewish observance or affiliation. After college, I worked as a technical writer in the computer field. It was only as a young mother, through my anti-circumcision work, that I became increasingly interested in Judaism--and in essay writing. I later branched out into other topics as a nonfiction writer and columnist. Then I returned to the circumcision controversy as a fiction writer.
BTB: Do you consider yourself an anti-circumcision activist and, if so, what’s your strategy?
Lisa: Definitely. Despite having written numerous articles and a novel on the topic, I can’t seem to get the issue out of my system! I like to write and speak about circumcision from a position of curiosity or intellectual inquiry rather than emotional reactivity, preachiness or confrontation. I feel I’m most effective when I provoke thought, but at the same time respect other people’s pace as they absorb the complexities of this highly charged issue. I don't know whether I have convinced anybody. This may sound odd, but I don't think it's my business. When I obsess over convincing or not convincing in specific cases, I tend not to get anything done!
BTB: You became involved in this issue after circumcising your boys. Every mother wants to do what’s best for her children. Looking back, can you talk about why you felt circumcision would be best for your sons?
Lisa: I grew up in a very chaotic and difficult home, and I think it would have been grounding for me as a child to have been connected with the Jewish community. I wanted to make Jewish life more accessible to my children than it was to me, to give them a sense of belonging via Jewish preschool, summer camp and Hebrew school. At the time the boys were born, there was virtually no questioning of circumcision among affiliated Jews, and I just didn’t see any option but to comply. Little did I know that I’d wind up finding my voice later.
BTB: Not long after circumcising your second son, you wrote an article for Tikkun, “A Painful Case.” What prompted you to write this?
Lisa: I was doing some editing work for Dr. Dean Edell on his medical newsletter in the late 1980s. Dr. Edell is opposed to circumcision and happens to be Jewish. I talked with him about my feeling pressured into circumcising my sons despite my misgivings, and Dr. Edell encouraged me to write about my experience. In the Tikkun article, I talk about the pain issue and the risks and drawbacks – all of which are relevant from a medical point of view and from the point of view of Jewish law, because as we learn more, Jewish practices can change. In that article, I also propose that in a way, a new baby is a “stranger” because, as Maimonides points out, the parents’ love for the child is not yet “consolidated,” making the ritual psychologically easier on the parents than if it were performed on an older child. The paradox is, if that’s true—if the child is indeed a “stranger”—then Jewish law mandates we treat him with kindness, rather than taking advantage of his unfamiliarity.
BTB: I imagine being so involved in Jewish life and being a vocal opponent of circumcision can be challenging.
Lisa: I have many friends and acquaintances who don't see the circumcision issue as I do. Probably some are baffled as to why I'd spend years writing a novel on this topic. Yet these people are my audience and my peer group. They’re smart readers and thinkers who just haven’t crossed over to what I consider a more enlightened view about circumcision. I hope that because of my work, people will begin to let themselves question this sacred cow. Forgive the mixed-religion metaphor.
BTB: Do you see the anti-circumcision movement as a feminist cause?
Lisa: Yes, and I’ve been disappointed in most Jewish feminists and “progressive” Jewish organizations and publications on this subject. So far, Jewish feminism vis-à-vis circumcision has concerned itself with two things: providing naming ceremonies that welcome baby girls into the covenant, and allowing women to serve as mohels. Neither addresses the most obvious feminist issue from my perspective: the mother’s experience of the ritual. A mother who is huddled sobbing in the next room at her son’s bris, or gulping down wine or sedatives to get her through, is not having a spiritual experience. She is being subjected to a trauma. I’m not suggesting that every Jewish mom feels traumatized when her baby is circumcised, but many do. It’s 2011 and women are being patted on the head and told to calm down—i.e., that their feelings about this ritual don’t count. If this isn’t a feminist issue, what is?
BTB: What, to you, would signify a real step in right the direction?
Lisa: The brilliant essayist Miriam Pollack points out that the circumcision tradition tells women they cannot trust their basic biological imperative to protect their child. As Miriam states, for women, spirituality and biology are inextricable—so circumcision is an act that violates not only the child, but also the mother. I would like to see the day when women’s spirituality around the circumcision issue is considered every bit as valid as men’s. That would signify that we’ve really stepped into Jewish feminism.
BTB: Did the experience of circumcising your sons, and then coming to regret it, influence the way you parented from that point forward?
Lisa: It’s made me more aware that the so-called experts aren’t necessarily right, and that to be a good parent, you have to be willing to listen to authority but also, ultimately, to listen to yourself. Parenting doesn’t mean being an iconoclast for its own sake—but it does mean trusting your instincts. Now that my sons are grown, what they seem to notice most is how I tackle my challenges. They're not scrutinizing me to see how many mistakes I’m making. When I navigate difficult territory, whether personal or professional, and briefly, casually share with them how I’m going about it—that’s what they find useful. This was probably true even when they were little.
BTB: In life, good can often arise from bad. What good has come out of your decision to circumcise?
Lisa: I now have a body of work, influenced by my own experience, to which others can refer in contemplating this issue. I’ve had the opportunity to do scholarly research and to write essays challenging circumcision from a Jewish point of view. I’m also thrilled to have been able to address this topic in fiction, which allows the reader to entertain thorny questions while absorbed primarily in story.
BTB: There will be Jewish parents reading this interview who are contemplating whether to circumcise. What would you like to say to them?
Lisa: That some Jewish parents have ethical qualms about circumcision, and are making the decision to leave their sons intact. I'd steer clear of saying, “It's an utterly barbaric tradition!” and making similarly shrill arguments. Instead I would encourage them to look to their peers who have similar concerns. I’d also point out that thanks to Mark Reiss, M.D., there’s now a growing list of providers of Brit Shalom ceremonies, beautiful rituals that welcome the baby into the covenant while leaving him intact.
BTB: You said when you decided to circumcise your sons, you felt it was important to your sense of Jewish belonging. I think many feel this way and also, in a broader sense, that circumcision is important to the continuation of the Jewish people. What are your thoughts on this now?
Lisa: One can have a strong sense of Jewish identity and be opposed to circumcision. For me, rather than eroding my Jewishness, my anti-circumcision research and activism has solidified it. As far as the future of Judaism, I think spiritual vitality, community, works of tikkun olam (healing the world), and a commitment to quality Jewish education are what matter most. We have a worldwide Jewish population that’s a third lower than it was before World War II. We should do all we can to see to it that our rich tradition and history continues, but this doesn’t mean rejecting change. Jewish practice has actually changed a lot over time. As one example, we don’t observe the commandment to stone to death the wayward son or the adulteress. However, examples like this one have limited use in illuminating the circumcision issue, because most Jewish scholars still don’t see circumcision as harmful. It’s been extremely difficult to convince them otherwise. So the issue really becomes one of getting people--Jews and non-Jews alike--to wake up to the harm.
BTB: What Jewish arguments do you find persuasive?
Lisa: The case of the deaf person (cheresh), who was classified in Talmudic times with the mentally incompetent and not allowed to partake fully in Jewish life. Over time, as Jewish scholars learned more about deafness, that classification changed. Today, deaf people are treated as equal Jews in every respect, even by the Orthodox. In other words, even Orthodox Judaism has changed as we’ve acquired new knowledge and understanding. The Reform movement is often seen as the most influential wing of progressive Judaism. But the fact is, Judaism itself is progressive. The case of the cheresh shows that.
BTB: You’ve recently written a novel, The Measure of His Grief. The main character is an American Jewish doctor and the son of Holocaust survivors, probably the last person one would imagine would wage a revolt against circumcision. Yet he does. What gave you the idea for this character and what do you find significant about the character choice?
Lisa: I got the idea for the character from my own journey. When I first started writing about circumcision, I was very caustic and angry, and people were put off by the one-sidedness of my arguments. I had to learn what was effective in communicating about this challenging topic. I thought tactical evolution might make an interesting element in a full-length work of fiction. I was also fascinated by the idea that one could have a primitive memory of one’s own circumcision, as a friend of mine told me had happened to him. Then there is the very real enterprise of men who are restoring their foreskins. Probably several hundred thousand or more men around the world are doing this. Such an amazing phenomenon, and such a powerful metaphor. Why hadn’t that been touched upon in a novel before? Pretty soon I realized I had a male main character.
BTB: The Measure of His Grief is your first novel. Can you talk about the writing process and some of the challenges you faced?
Lisa: I had a lot to learn when writing The Measure of His Grief. I embarked on the project with passion for the medical and Jewish ideas, the arguments against circumcision and the information about foreskin restoration. I was confident this material was compelling and would give the story momentum--and it did. But as I worked on the manuscript, I found the more tightly I tried to control things—the more I relied on anti-circumcision arguments to drive the story—the less the book rang true as a human tale. I realized for the novel to work, it had to be about the characters. I had to become willing to immerse myself fully in the fiction enterprise and let the characters take over. The novel couldn’t be a thinly disguised polemic against circumcision.
BTB: How has your body of work, including your new book, been received in the Jewish community?
Lisa: I feel my writings on circumcision are respected in the Jewish world. Plenty of people have disagreed with me, but I feel the points I’ve made have been heard. I experienced little negativity when my novel was published last year. If anything, my Jewish friends and fellow congregants seem curious about my work and respectful of it. I feel accepted and even celebrated in my community, and I think that's a huge statement about the ability of Jews and Judaism to withstand inquiry and to embrace difference of opinion. I’ve had wonderful reviews and interviews in Jewish and mainstream publications.
BTB: Have you talked about your book to Jewish audiences and, if so, what was that like?
Lisa: When The Measure of His Grief came out, I was invited to speak about it at my synagogue. That was remarkable, because my synagogue, while quite progressive on many social issues, has a mainstream perspective on circumcision. A member of my community who’s a well-known circumcision advocate was upset that I’d been given a book talk at the synagogue. He called the senior rabbi and several programming committee members, demanding that if I spoke, he should get equal time. The synagogue defended the appropriateness of my having my own event. At the talk, the rabbi served as moderator in a way that was respectful of my position. He also saw to it that the circumcision proponent, who was in attendance, didn't monopolize the discussion. What resulted was a lively, positive, inspiring evening of intellectual and spiritual inquiry.
BTB: You’ve been writing and speaking about this issue for many years now. How has your focus changed?
Lisa: In the past, I devoted a lot of effort to articulating an anti-circumcision view consistent with Jewish law and thought. I posed questions about pain, risk and ethics that should be of interest to all Jews, even the most observant. These days, I’m able to focus more on the simpler reality: that a growing number of Jewish parents are finding circumcision so problematic that they are deciding to leave their baby boys intact. And some are welcoming their infant sons into the covenant with ceremonies of peace, not circumcision.
BTB: So how is the Jewish community to metabolize this shift?
Lisa: I encourage rabbis, community leaders and even mohels to get to a point of genuine openness and curiosity about this phenomenon of questioning circumcision, rather than turning a blind eye or automatically assuming the trend is anti-Semitic, “fringey” or insignificant. Young Jewish parents are leaving their babies intact because they see circumcision as harmful—not because they’re rejecting Judaism. It’s up to Jewish leaders to embrace this reality, to learn more, and to reach out. There is a saying, attributed to Gandhi, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
Lisa Braver Moss is a writer specializing in health, parenting, family issues and humor pieces, and is the author of The Measure of His Grief (Notim Press, November 2010), the first novel ever to tackle the male circumcision controversy. Lisa’s work has appeared in Tikkun, Parents, the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column, "I'm Not Impressed," is published in the Piedmont Post. Lisa’s nonfiction book credits include Celebrating Family (Wildcat Canyon Press, 1999), and, as co-author, The Mother’s Companion (Council Oak Books, 2001). Lisa’s early work questioning circumcision can be found at beliefnet.com and NOCIRC. Please visit www.lisabravermoss.com and "like" The Measure of His Grief on Facebook.