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Bris Debate

Monday, April 8, 2013
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Solomon Elias Egeth

When I wrote this post back in July, I didn't yet realize how soon it would be that I would be planning a bris for my own son. Solomon Elias Egeth was born on Sunday, March 31, and his brit milah was yesterday, April 7, his 8th day of life.

Unlike the mother who wrote this question, my husband and I didn't struggle with whether or not to participate in this ritual, but we still had to decide exactly how to welcome our son into the Jewish people. We're beyond delighted to welcome Solomon into our family and into our community, and, in case you're wondering, I cried, he loved the Manischewitz, and we served pizza instead of lox.

Dear Miriam,

I'm pregnant and not due for several months, but my husband and I have already started debating whether or not, if we have a boy, we'll have him circumcised. We're both Jewish, so a bris is part of both of our family traditions. He thinks the kid should get to make his own decision later on, but I'm not so sure. Aside from praying it's a girl, any suggestions on how to resolve this?

Signed,
Bris Debate

Dear Debate,

New parents used to face far fewer options than they do today. Now, the marketplace for parenting paraphernalia and ideas has been thrown open by online reviews, message boards and, so it often feels, too many choices. In my estimation, the debate about ritual circumcision derives from a similar place. People who are having babies today are used to a panoply of options leading to open-ended debate resulting in the best possible outcome given all real and imagined variables. For two Jews even to be debating whether to have a bris shows that we are in a very particular historical time where Jewish ritual is seen as a series of suggestions available for sampling, rather than a system to buy into wholesale.

Your husband's idea that your child should get to choose is an interesting one, but it runs counter to the Torah commandment. According to that, the father of the baby is responsible for ritual circumcision on the eighth day of life. Your husband can choose to forgo that obligation just as he might decide to eat pork or to wear clothes containing both wool and linen. He gets to decide (hopefully with your input), but putting the decision on the kid later in life isn't part of our tradition when it comes to this ritual.

I just finished reading the book I started when my daughter was born (yes, she's a year old, so catch up on all your reading now) called The Sabbath World, by Judith Shulevitz. At the end, the author shares that one of her teachers gave her an "out" for observing commandments by saying, "We could meditate on the laws. We didn't always have to follow them" (p. 186). Your decision-making process about a bris is just that: meditating on the mitzvah. If you decide to have a bris for the child, you are joining a long, long chain of families who have shed a little blood on behalf of peoplehood. If you decide not to, you're also in good company, as expressed in many articles on Kveller and InterfaithFamily about Jewish parents deciding not to circumcise.

Here's the thing, though: you and your husband are going to make approximately an infinite number of decisions about this baby's life without his (or her!) consent. For starters, the baby didn't ask to be born, or to live in whatever city you live or to wear onesies with pithy slogans. Are you considering waiting until the child reaches maturity to ask if s/he wants to be vaccinated? If your family keeps kosher, are you going to feed the baby non-kosher food so that s/he can decide as an adult whether or not to follow the dietary laws? Shulevitz goes on to say, "Being commanded strikes me as a succinct way of saying 'being born into the world.' Being commanded means that customs come upon us from the outside, like the language that we learn from our parents..." (p. 186). As the parents, you're going to decide everything about this baby's life, starting with how s/he is welcomed into it and welcomed by the Jewish people.

This may seem like a big decision now, but in the coming months, the decision-making in your little family is going to increase exponentially. Think of this question as a test case for how you make decisions together as parents. Whatever you decide, what's more important is how you decide.

Since you're asking me, here's my honest opinion: Yes, you should have your baby circumcised, and not in a closed-door hospital procedure, but on the baby's eighth day of life, surrounded by family and friends, with a mohel making bad jokes, followed by bagels and lox. You will cry, the baby will suck on a rag soaked with Manischewitz, and everyone will tell stories about it for years. This is what our people do. This is one of those mitzvot (commandments) that didn't undergo much change from Torah Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism and that reads, to me at least, as a fundamental aspect of calling oneself a member of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. But then again, it's not the only aspect.

Sending good wishes for a happy and healthy pregnancy, and, if you still want me to, praying for a girl.

Be well,
Miriam

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