By MOSHE ROTHENBERG
|Using his voice for good: In addition
to performing brit shalom celebrations,
Moshe Rothenberg sings to benefit
social causes. Above he performs in a
NYC benefit for the people of Darfur.
The Jewish opposition to circumcision was just beginning 24 years ago when my wife Yehudit and I decided to leave our newborn son intact. We were not the only Jewish parents of our generation to reject circumcision, but we were among the first.
I performed my son’s birth ceremony and it was beautiful. We called it a brit b’lee milah or “covenant without circumcision.” The gift of life came unencumbered by any cutting and joy permeated the room. All three of Samuel’s living grandparents refused to attend his brit because they knew no circumcision would be taking place. This only made what Yehudit and I had decided to do more powerful. There was no going back.
Samuel was accepted and welcomed everywhere he went, in and out of the Jewish community, and within all of the relationships we had among the different Jewish denominations, including our Orthodox Jewish friends. To my knowledge, no one ever teased Samuel while he was growing up about his being in a distinct minority as a Jew with an intact penis. He never seemed to take note of the fact that his penis looked different than mine. (Not noticing or not caring is very typical for intact boys with circumcised fathers.) Nor has my son ever expressed negative feelings to me about being intact. Today, as an adult, Judaism is very important to our son.
100-Plus Brit Shalom Ceremonies
Samuel’s birth ceremony was the first that I conducted, but would not be the last. Over the past several decades, I have officiated at more than a hundred birth ceremonies for intact Jewish boys in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. The ceremony I have developed includes blessings associated with it being a joyous event (candle lighting and Shehechiyanu); honoring the parents and grandparents; and creating, along with the parents, a meaningful alternate ritual. Non-cutting ceremonies for Jewish boys are called by different names, including “brit b’lee milah” (covenant without cutting), “brit shalom” or “bris shalom” (covenant of peace), “brit ben” (covenant for a boy).
The number of brit shalom ceremonies I have been performing in the past few years has dropped off significantly. I definitely attribute this to the fact there are now, for the first time, rabbis in the New York City metropolitan area who are performing birth ceremonies for babies of both genders—no questions asked—and choosing not to get involved in the circumcision issue.
Brit shalom rituals for Jewish newborns are important because they are an expression of joy in being Jewish, and of the immense pride and pleasure of bringing a new Jewish life into the world. For Jews who are opposed to infant circumcision, the ceremonies can also be a means of affirming with loved ones the deeply held belief in the sacredness of the human body, and the right of every man to decide for himself whether to get circumcised.
I’m not a rabbi in any official denomination of Judaism, but do have a comprehensive Jewish education. Most mohelim (ritual circumcisers) are not rabbis but have studied extensively on the ritual aspect of brit milah. I have done this, and have also worked within the anti-circumcision movement for many years, learning about and teaching others about the harmfulness of circumcision, and about Jewish replacement ceremonies that spare anguish to the child and his family.
Advocating for Intact Jewish Boys
In addition to my role as brit shalom celebrant, I have also found myself in the position of advocating for Jewish families who are placed in difficult situations as a consequence of rejecting of circumcision. For example, about ten years ago a parent in Toronto, Canada called to ask me to conduct a bar mitzvah for her son because the rabbi there refused, as he knew the boy’s penis was intact. I coached the boy’s mother to accomplish having her needs met by having the bar mitzvah occur in their synagogue. After weeks of discussion, the rabbi relented and the child had his bar mitzvah up there where it belonged. Afterwards the family came to New York, where I live, and we had a celebration!
People often wonder about my upbringing and how I got involved in all of this. My parents were immigrants who felt a Jewish education for their children was very important. I attended Hebrew school from age four until confirmation at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue when I was sixteen. My grandfather’s death, shortly before my bar mitzvah, only enhanced the serious, non-frivolous aspect of this event. I gladly went to Sunday school as a teenager, something many of my friends were less than enthusiastic about. My Jewish education continued into adulthood. I studied at a yeshiva in Israel and have taken many courses on Judaism over the years at synagogues, Jewish community centers and YMHAs.
Recognizing Circumcision’s Harm
I became aware of the harmfulness of circumcision in the late 1970s as part of a counseling workshop I attended where people shared distressing childhood experiences within a group setting. The workshop could be, and often was, of a very powerful nature. It is hard to describe this workshop to those who have not experienced it firsthand. One of the participants shared his recollection of being circumcised as an infant. It might seem impossible that anyone could recall such an early childhood experience, but this can and did occur with regularity during these workshops. As I watched and listened to the man who was having this experience, a ripple of fear permeated by body. I knew at once that my own circumcision was not a harmless “forgotten” event from my past, but remained with me at a very deep level. In time, I came to more fully recognize and deal with the incredible pain and trauma I had experienced as an eight-day-old infant. Eventually, I concluded this practice should be stopped.
It has been a pleasure for me to serve Jewish families as a brit shalom celebrant and child-advocate. Judaism is a religion and a culture I love and have reaped benefits from throughout my life. It led directly to my commitment to social justice and social action, two of the most important values in my life. It also led to my attending Yeshiva University School of Social Work, where I received my Masters in Social Work.
Judaism has evolved through centuries. It is inevitable and right that parts of Judaism have changed. We who oppose infant circumcision believe further change is needed. Circumcision, despite its historic centrality, has to go. It is nothing short of child abuse. No parent or religious leader would ever choose to carry out or endorse such a heinous act if they held this point of view.
Moshe Rothenberg is a certified social worker and teacher, having spent most of his career in the New York City public school system. He is also an accomplished singer, performing in synagogue choirs, college glee club, Pete Seeger’s Clearwater project, and the New York City Labor Chorus. He holds the distinction of performing more non-cutting birth ceremonies (brit shalom ceremonies) for Jewish boys than any other individual to date. To find out if Mr. Rothenberg is available to officiate at your brit call (347) 248-6584.
I was profoundly moved by the candidness of your article. I have known many Jewish people who are deeply caring and loving people who see the harm that has been done by others as something that needs to be denounced and resisted outspokenly. It is not surprising that more and more Jewish families see keeping their sons intact as an expression of what it means to be truly Jewish. To always question in search of truth is one of the reasons why so many of our greatest scientists were and are from the Jewish community. Blessings upon you and your work. Be well. Shalom.
God bless you! I was raised a(non-practicing)Catholic woman from birth, and Sufi now. I have been looking online this evening, as I heard the news about the high court in Germany ruling that circumcision was cruel and unneccessary. My own son is intact, and when we explained circumcision to him recently, he looked horrified/scared, and was glad that we didn't do something like that to him. I would be torn if someone could show that God directly commanded circumcision, but if it's only tradition, and not commanded (by God), I think people should be more humane and compassionate than that.