These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Questioning Tradition

Posted on November 25, 2013 by Alanna Kleinman

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1063822_10151679239410629_462879539_oA recent lunchtime discussion about the ceremony of Brit Shalom caused me to question a tradition I found meaningful and quite honestly, took for granted.

Brit Shalom is a naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys that does not involve circumcision. A family can choose to create their own ceremony, or look to templates that already exist. There are currently 50 Rabbis who offer Brit Shalom ceremonies in the United States. This ceremony is meant to replace the traditional Brit Milah.

Brit Milah is a powerful ritual, one that connects the Jewish people to God and to the Covenant. Brit Milah marks Jews as separate, as chosen. Circumcision is a powerful identity marker. Until recently, I saw Brit Milah in its origins as just that- a means of marking Israelites as different from their idolatrous neighbors. The truth is that ritual circumcision is not a uniquely Jewish custom, and dates back to early times in Ancient Greece and Egypt. So if Brit Milah did not directly mark Israelites as separate, what did it do?

In later times, circumcision was cited as a method for limiting sexual activity between husband and wife, when said activity was thought to be dangerous and devious. (This post is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Brit Milah- quite the opposite. I simply mean to raise the issues I struggle with in relation to this ritual.)

I don’t want to argue about loss of pleasure or health benefits in relation to circumcision. The evidence on both sides is meaningful but not enough to sway the discussion one way or the other.

Since first learning about Brit Shalom, I’ve asked a good deal of my friends how they feel about Brit Milah. For the most part, the men were happy their parents went through with the tradition, or they didn’t care much. But one friend told me he wished his parents had waited. At first, I was a bit shocked to hear this. He continued to explain that although he feels a strong connection to Judaism and is a practicing Jew, he feels as if his parents didn’t honor his future ability to choose for himself what religion he wanted to be a part of. By giving him a Brit Milah, they assumed he would follow in their footsteps. The fact he did is besides the point- on some level, they didn’t acknowledge his ability to choose.

This friend got me thinking. When I one day raise children, of course I want to raise them Jewish, and of course I hope that they find meaning and fulfillment in Judaism. But what if they don’t?

Should we give our sons the opportunity to choose for themselves? I acknowledge that adult circumcision is a terribly painful process but it is also one that gives its participant pride of choice and memory of that choice.

Is this mitzvah more for the parents or the children?

When does a ritual makes us uncomfortable enough that it becomes time to adapt it to our current world context?

I know that if the day ever comes when I bring a baby boy into this world, I will have to revisit these questions and not simply follow the tradition because “it’s what has always been done.”