Our Covenant Is With Our Son: My Family's Take on Jewish Circumcisions

The author's husband, James, and their son Etani. 

The baby, who had been so quiet, peaceful, and trusting just moments before, opened his mouth in shock, a look of utter bewilderment on his face, and then started to scream. He screamed shrilly, like a wounded animal.

“I hate this part,” his grandmother muttered to me, shaking her head and ducking outside. “I’ll come back later.”

The newborn’s father stood by, grimacing with pride and swaying slightly. Before the ceremony had begun there had been ample vodka for all.

Now that a band of erogenous tissue had been cut off his penis by a mohel, the baby was visibly in pain. As the Orthodox Jewish men danced, sang, and chanted in what was supposed to be joyful celebration, holding the baby high above their heads, Josiah continued screaming. His mother looked on nervously, a bewildered smile frozen on her face.

I dug my fingers into my 7-year-old’s shoulder as he stood next to me.
“I’m so glad we didn’t do that to you,” I whispered.

“Mom,” he said, shrugging away under my hand, “you’re hurting me.”

We wash our hands in lavender water before sundown on Friday nights. We share challah, sometimes homemade. We light candles and sing prayers in Hebrew. This summer my eldest will be a junior counselor at a Chabad summer camp and my two little ones will spend a week doing Jewish arts and crafts in our town’s Jewish Renewal temple. I hosted 21 people for an unorthodox but lively seder this year. We celebrate Hanukah with latkes and doughnuts, exchanging our favorite poems instead of gifts. We talk at dinner about the Holocaust, about Grandpa Willy who came penniless to New York City to escape pogroms in Russia and started his career at age 19 selling balloons in Central Park; about how Jews value education above almost anything else because no one can take it away from you. My mother’s father was a civil rights activist and a lawyer who worked tirelessly to found Israel. My grandfathers, my father, all my uncles, my three older brothers, every one of my male ancestors for thousands of years has been circumcised.

“I didn’t know you could be Jewish and not be circumcised,” my friend Noah, who lives in Boston, admitted when we talked about it one day. The doctors would not let him witness his son’s operation because it was against hospital policy. So Noah doesn’t know how the circumcision was performed, what device was used, or what kind of anesthesia, if any. But so much scar tissue has grown over his son’s circumcision site that every time his toddler gets an erection he cries out in pain. Skin bridges have formed on the shaft of his baby’s penis. When stretched, they bleed.

It is because of the Jewish value of education, the Jewish ability to adapt and to change, the Jewish thoughtfulness, and the Jewish desire to end suffering that my husband and I chose not to circumcise our son. There are many parts of the Torah that current Jewish traditions choose to ignore: Jews no longer practice polygamy, though it is mandated in Deuteronomy. We do not own slaves, though several Jewish texts detail how they should be governed. And we have agreed—as a religion and a people—that blood sacrifices have no place in modern Jewish life.

At nine years old, Etani (his name means “my strength” in Hebrew) adores playing Dungeons and Dragons. He’s an unstoppable midfielder in soccer. He’s writing a book with his older sister. He also likes to make bananas baked in phyllo dough slathered with maple syrup. His plan is to become an inventor and own the largest candy shop in the world.

“It’s a boy,” my husband said quietly as he lifted the baby onto my chest. I didn’t believe him. I sobbed with joy at the tiny baby in my arms who looked up at me curiously and didn’t cry. We left his penis the perfect way it was when he was born. If our son chooses to make God’s covenant and become circumcised as an adult, circumcision will be his choice, his sacrifice, his personal covenant, as it was for Abraham. Our covenant is with our son: to protect him, cherish him, educate him, and ultimately let him make his own decisions about his body.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute at Brandeis University and the author of the new book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, which includes a chapter on the business of circumcision.


  1. I too, left my Jewish son intact when he was born 22 years ago. I thank God every day for that decision, and the God that I thank is a loving creator who does not require the torture of newborns. God is love and genital cutting is not loving.

  2. As an RN who has seen the torturous procedure many times, I commend you for speaking up and educating people about this practice.

  3. Thank you for sharing your family's journey. I cannot fashion words to comment properly right now, but I certainly feel that so many new parents are betrayed by the pressure to carry this on when it goes against every instinct they have to protect and honor their child.
    It simply is a long-standing practice that has no place in a modern ethical society.
    It is now so entwined in a ceremony (and cushioned by US cultural society that picked up this tradition, too) that the Jewish ceremony has evolved over time to take on more and more religious meaning, and symbolism. I do understand, to some degree, how hard it is to break with the tradition.
    A peaceful birth and welcome to life has so much meaning to me- both for child, but also for the new family... I hope more people will wrestle with this and find a way to honor the covenant and birth of a child in a peaceful and gentle way.
    I see no threat to Judaism... only a more beautiful and peaceful way to welcome a child...

  4. Yeah, yeah. I know. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and all that. But, please… Let's be serious for a moment; let's take a good, hard look at reality—you know, what's actually going on. Think you have the guts to face up to it? I doubt it.

    You can sit in your circle all day, jerking each other off over your supposed love for questioning, education, and community positivity—well… jerking it as well as you can, of course—but the fact remains: People are getting drunk on vodka, and then slicing up a child's penis, sucking on it with herpes-infected mouths, and dancing around with the victim—a wounded infant—held precariously high above their heads. ('But the mohel doesn't drink beforeha'—Shut up; save your impotent retorts for someone who doesn't have a functioning brain.)

    This is outrageous, insanely irresponsible behavior! And you KNOW it! Could enlightened, educated, deep-thinking beings truly countenance such a thing? We all know the answer: No. HELL NO! At least the gentiles are ashamed enough of this mutilation ritual that they bar laymen from witnessing the atrocity, rather than hide behind some liquored-up revelry and decree it a 'mitzvah'.

    Honestly, I have no idea why all of these perverted, violent, sexual abusers are allowed to live around me—why they are not locked away in insane asylums and in prisons where these sick individuals belong. How can you stand to sit around them at the dinner table? 'But… but… it's Zayde!' Yeah, well, he's the one who held you down while some paid clown cut up and then sucked on your dick. Truly, this is a fascinating account of mental compartmentalization.

    Frankly, if community cohesion, learning, and questioning still lead people to act in this way—to exploit a gOddamn infant in some blood ritual—then you can keep it! You can keep it with all of the Nobel prizes you like to jerk it to whenever someone tries to point out this insanity. Here. Here's a Nobel prize for Insane Sadosexual Pedophilia; for such a small percentage of the world, the Jews are once again over-represented in a field…

    Take responsibility for what you've done and what you are doing.

    1. To whom are you speaking, Tom? The author hasn't DONE what you describe and is not DOING it. Perhaps you should re-think the value of coming to a place where people question what you question, and throwing around a bunch of unproductive animosity.

      To answer your earlier question: YES, otherwise rational and caring people can condone this act. You should focus on understanding WHY that is if you really want to be a part of bringing change. If instead, you simply write it all off as good vs. evil, or apply guilt based on ethnicity or culture, you will remain ineffective. \ /,,

    2. I think your response betrays poor comprehension of my words.

  5. Excellent, excellent, excellent article! Jennifer Margulis is amazing.

  6. roger desmoulinsJune 26, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Mrs Margulis:


    "To be Jewish means knowing when to be disobedient." (Eli Ungar-Sargon at the end of his film "Cut")

  7. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your beautiful experience of gently welcoming your son into the world and protecting his right to genital autonomy and religious freedom so that he can make those personal choices for himself. I love that you're raising him with your cultural traditions, giving him the richness of his heritage, too! You give me hope for a more gentle world for our babies and the men they become.

  8. A boy's religion should be between his ears - not his legs.

  9. I am so encouraged by Jennifer's story. My new husband and I had a deal: he would agree to not circumcise our baby (if we had a boy) IF I would agree to not pierce the baby's ears if a girl! He had some kind of visceral antagonism to punching holes in baby ears. Deal!