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Ancient Ritual, Modern Misgivings

August 9, 2012 By:
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Cantor Mark Kushner (left) officiates at a bris in New York. Rachel Venoker holds her ­newborn nephew, Max William Venoker. Photo by Sarah Merians

Zoe Cohen and Ken Rosso are due to have their second child in September, and if it's a boy, they're already set on not circumcising him.

The West Philly couple made the same decision three years ago when their son was born, and they have no regrets.

As far as they're concerned, she says, honoring an ancient ritual isn't worth inflicting what they worry may be traumatic, irreversible damage to their son's body -- and doesn't make him any less Jewish.

At the same time, recent news that local German officials moved to ban the practice scares Cohen.

"I don't feel like anyone should be banned from doing it," the 35-year-old art teacher said, citing friends who would be emotionally scarred if they couldn't exercise the religious tradition. "But I do wish more people would consider what it really means to alter a child's body at that age."

Though the bans in Germany and elsewhere have renewed international debate about the merits of circumcision, Cohen appears to be an anomaly among local parents when it comes to ritual brit milah.

In many Jewish circles, the practice remains largely unquestioned. Anecdotally, local rabbis and mohels say they are fielding more concerns from less observant or unaffiliated parents, but at least so far, almost all of them end up having a bris for their newborn sons. Of course, that doesn't account for parents who never even approach the mohels, and there is scant data on how many Jewish couples follow the ritual.

The legal battle in Cologne, Germany, dates back to late 2010, when a Muslim boy had to be treated for excessive bleeding after a hospital doctor removed his foreskin. Following a lengthy investigation, a district court this spring ruled that male circumcision, even when done with parental permission, should be considered bodily harm if the boy cannot give consent.

Muslim and Jewish leaders denounced the ruling for encroaching on religious freedom. Responding to the outcry, German legislators last month passed a resolution calling on the government to write a law explicitly permitting the practice. Meanwhile, two Swiss hospitals suspend­ed circumcisions and the governor of Austria's Vorarlberg province ordered state-run hospitals to temporarily stop the practice in July until German laws were clarified.

Even in the United States, the controversy surfaced around this time last year when anti-circumcision groups lobbied for bans in San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif. A state judge blocked their efforts in July 2011, ruling that cities have no power to regulate a state-licensed medical procedure.

Though the right to perform circumcisions religiously and medically still reigns so far in the United States, local mohels and rabbis predict this is the start of more deliberation as society becomes more focused on choice and control.

At the same time, they say, maybe there's nothing wrong with questioning.

From Cohen's perspective, it's only natural that more young couples would be thinking about the ethics of circumcision at a time when some are questioning the conventional wisdom of whether it's medically beneficial.

"For our parents it was sort of like, 'Oh yeah, we never got to really think about that,' " Cohen said, because it was almost a default hospital procedure for every newborn boy, regardless of religion. Jewish parents who preferred to observe the ritual bris had to request not to have it done so they could hire a mohel to do it when the baby was eight days old, per the commandment in the Torah.

In addition to parents generally becoming more pro-active about "what gets done to their kid," the Jewish population is also becoming increasingly diverse, which means more blended traditions and differing viewpoints, said Rabbi Kevin Bernstein, a mohel from Elkins Park.

As a result, Bernstein said, he's noticed a growing interest in non-traditional brit milah ceremonies, though the overall number of couples who opt to do something different remains tiny. He estimates that fewer than 5 percent of the roughly 150 couples he works with annually ask him to do some kind of welcoming ceremony after having their baby is circumcised in the hospital. Maybe once or twice a year, he said, he'll perform a boy's naming ceremony without any foreskin cutting at all, a concept known as a "brit shalom."

Center City mohel and cantor Mark Kushner said he suspects that some parents have always resisted the ritual cove­nant. At the same time, Kushner said, he has yet to notice any dip in demand for his services. Over the past 36 years, he estimates that he's performed more than 10,000 circumcisions.

"Even if you are a cultural Jew, it is so deeply embedded in us and our culture, we don't think twice about circumcising our children on a dining room table and then eating lox on the same table," Kushner said. "It's who we are."

Locally, the issue generated a lively online debate in late June when an expectant mother wrote to Jewish Exponent blogger Miriam Steinberg-Egeth for advice over whether or not to circumcise should she have a boy. She wanted to, but her husband had reservations after reading that it might decrease sexual satisfaction and could lead to medical issues if botched.

While Steinberg-Egeth advocated for circumcision, dissenting commenters argued that the procedure wasn't healthier or cleaner and, in fact, could lead to infections if done improperly. Rather than forcing such a contract on a baby, why not allow him to decide for himself when he got older?

Others countered that this was a flawed solution because the procedure would entail more pain and a longer recovery the older the boy got. Furthermore, they said, parents make permanent decisions all the time on behalf of their children, regardless of potential health risks or benefits.

Following the blog post discussion, the questioning mom-to-be, who asked to remain anonymous, said her husband ended up deciding that the scientific evidence against circumcision wasn't as compelling as he thought, and it might be a bigger deal to break tradition, the 30-year-old school psychologist said.

Various studies show that circumcision may reduce the risk of contracting prostate cancer, syphilis, penile cancer, urinary tract infections, HIV and genital herpes, as well as reduce the transmission of human papillomavirus.

The American Medical Association says there are compelling enough reasons for circumcision that many doctors feel it's justified, and that prohibiting it would intrude "legitimate medical practice and the informed choices of patients."

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, of the Reconstructionist Kol Tzedek congregation in West Philly, said she gets why some people resist the ritual. If she wasn't Jewish, Herrmann said, she probably wouldn't have had her son, Nadiv, now 1, circumcised either.

"For me, it's a complete act of commitment to Judaism," Herrmann said.

She guessed that many Jewish and even interfaith couples feel the same way, which explains why over eight years of working as a progressive rabbi, she's only met three couples who decided not to circumcise their sons.

Herrmann added that local leaders need to respect those who choose to follow values that don't follow tradition. "That's going to be a reality in our future Jewish community that we're going to have to deal with in 20 to 30 years," she said.

The bottom line, Kushner said, is that there is no rational explanation in the Torah for why we do this, just like the laws of kashrut. "God says, 'Do this on the eighth day,' period," Kushner said. "When you have to do something that you don't know why you're doing it, it's simply a matter of faith."

That's reason enough for Molly Steinberg Howard, a 28-year-old saleswoman from Lafayette Hill who's expecting her first child in October. Though her husband, Chris, is Catholic, they've decided to raise their children Jewish. Steinberg Howard said they never considered not having a bris if it's a boy.

"If we stop doing things that are tradition, then that part of our culture dies,"¿Steinberg Howard explained. "To carry on the traditions is basically carrying on the religion."

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