Will circumcising our as-yet-unborn son make us better Jews?

If all goes well, my wife and I are going to have a baby.

Wait! Don’t hand me a cigar just yet. Don’t slap me on the back and yell “Mazel tov!” It’s not happening tomorrow, not in nine months, but soon. Planning stages.

You can kvell a little bit though, because this is a breakthrough for cynical old me, to move past my moral and political dilemmas about procreation — Malthus, should I adopt instead, etc. …

To my great surprise, it’s my wife — who has no philosophical ambivalence about starting a family — who has conjured up a whole new ethical quandary.

What I’m about to bring up is bound to get you upset, so my wife and I would both appreciate it if, before you keep reading, you would make yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath, then come back. OK?

Now that you’re back and relaxed, I’m talking about God’s covenant with Abraham, the really intimate, private one, if you get my drift.

Our non-Jewish friend had a baby at UCSF. She didn’t want to have her little boy circumcised, so she asked about its policies. She found out that circumcision is not a routine practice at the hospital and that those who want it done have to pay extra.

When my wife went to meet our friend’s baby, she recoiled at the thought of cutting off part of his soft, smooth new skin. She came home with her brow furrowed.

“Would you want our child to be circumcised?”

I had wondered about that occasionally, as I contemplated my own discreet scar. The whole thing feels wrong, reminds me of religious fanatics who lash themselves with leather straps or nail themselves on crosses.

At the same time, I feel as though it’s indispensable to being a Jew. Would I still feel like a Jew if I weren’t circumcised? The physical mark of my Judaism sets me apart from other people.

But is feeling set apart really a sign of identity or just difference? Certainly Judaism is about more than that.

What do you do when something feels like both the right and wrong thing to do at the same time?

We brought up the subject to our parents. They said quite firmly: “Of course you would need to circumcise a child! That’s what Jews do.” They didn’t want to discuss it.

I looked online for perspective. After Googling on circumcision, I skipped past the self-righteous screeds about why not to circumcise. That part wasn’t my issue.

I soon found what I was looking for, a moving account of one family’s brit and naming ceremony for their baby. I pictured myself in their shoes and could imagine feeling proud of my son becoming part of an ancient tradition. In the same instant, though, I pictured what the mohel was doing. It seemed outrageous; it opened a whole new can of worms.

If God is everywhere, why can’t prayer and action be a sufficient sign of acknowledgment? Why is circumcision acceptable when other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are not?

I’ve never been good at doing something just because I’m supposed to. It’s always intrigued me that Judaism is a religion based so strongly on ironclad faith yet also based on asking questions and interpretation.

I thought of all the other high-strung would-be Jewish fathers throughout history, wondering how they dealt with the dilemma.

I looked inside the Torah for perspective. I thought of the original mohel, Abraham, and his leap of faith to undertake the covenant with God. Did he have as many doubts and questions as he contemplated this very act?

You may be saying to yourself, “Here you are, Jay Schwartz, not even expecting a child yet, getting crazy over this. What if you have a daughter?”

Somehow things are never that simple.

by Jay Schwartz