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Thursday, January 5, 2012 | return to: news & features, local


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Brit shalom is catching on, for parents who don’t want to circumcise their child

by emma silvers, j. staff

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When Andrew and Lisa, a young couple in the East Bay, were preparing for the birth of their first child, a boy in 2009, they faced a conundrum. Lisa was not Jewish; Andrew was “ethnically, culturally” Jewish but not practicing.

The couple wanted some kind of Jewish ceremony to welcome their newborn, but they were conflicted about circumcision. “I didn’t feel comfortable with making that decision for another human being,” Lisa said. “So we went online and started looking into alternatives.”

What they found was a naming ceremony called brit shalom — Hebrew for “covenant of peace.” They also found Rabbi Judith Seid, who leads Tri-Valley Cultural Jews, a Pleasanton-based community for people who identity with Judaism through family, culture and/or history rather than through religion. Seid helped the couple plan a naming ceremony for their son that reflected their wishes.

A still of a brit shalom ceremony taken from the 2007 documentary “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision”   photo/courtesy of eli ungar-sargon
A still of a brit milah ceremony taken from the 2007 documentary “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision” photo/courtesy of eli ungar-sargon
According to the New York Times and NPR, the couple is at the cutting edge of a trend.

In July 2011, during the same week a measure aiming to ban circumcision of any male under 18 was ordered by a judge to be taken off the San Francisco ballot, both media outlets reported on brit shalom. They noted that the ceremony is a small but growing phenomenon in the Bay Area.

Brit shalom is frequently promoted by opponents of circumcision as a way to welcome baby boys into the Jewish covenant without a brit milah, also known as a bris.

But it’s not just a ritual seized upon by “intactivists,” anti-circumcision activists. It’s also seen by some Jews as a ceremony that can be adapted and personalized, and one that promotes egalitarianism — the male equivalent of a girl’s baby-naming.

Seid, a rabbi who also works as a cantor, said she presides over a couple of brit shalom ceremonies each year, though they’re not always referred to that way.

“We usually just call it a baby naming,” she said. “Same like with a girl.”

Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant
Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant
At a recent ceremony she helped lead — for a baby boy in San Francisco — there were remarks about Jewish tradition, the Jewish community, and the child’s parents and grandparents. No mention was made of the circumcision that did not take place.

“People want some kind of way to mark the birth of their child, and if they don’t want to circumcise, then this is a way to acknowledge a new member of the Jewish community,” said Seid.

Seid’s personal stance is that circumcision is “up to the parents,” and she doesn’t ask families who choose a brit shalom about their reasons.

Still, the ceremony is controversial, even among some of those who perform it. Rabbi Jerry Levy, who reaches out to unaffiliated and secular Jews in the Bay Area and beyond through an agency called Bay Area Jewish Services, said he does perform the ceremony.

“Let’s just say that I do the ceremony,” said Levy, 69, an independent Reform rabbi who lives in Tiburon. “I may not favor it, but I do it.”

Levy said he believes that parents should be able to choose the content of their religious practice. But it is no coincidence that brit shalom appeals, he said, mostly to parents who have a weaker sense of Jewish identity and less interest in Jewish continuity. “I think that this not wanting to circumcise your sons is part of this process of diluting Judaism and assimilating into a very bland culture,” Levy said.

Rabbi Jerry Levy
Rabbi Jerry Levy
However, Levy said that in recent years he has officiated at more brit shalom ceremonies than at circumcisions. (As an independent rabbi, he explained, fewer opportunities arise to officiate at services in general.)

Mark Reiss of San Francisco, a 78-year-old retired Jewish doctor who is executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, maintains the most complete list of those who officiate at brit shalom ceremonies. The list includes eight officiants in the Bay Area.

He began putting the list together after turning firmly against circumcision in 1999.

“Circumcision is not an identity issue,” reads a statement by Reiss posted on the website. “You do not need to be circumcised to be Jewish any more than the need to observe many other Jewish laws. The bottom line is this: If your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, period.”

All major branches of Judaism currently call for parents to circumcise their baby boys. But if, as recent stories in the New York Times and NPR have reported, the incidence of brit shalom is increasing, some believe it will follow in the path of intermarriage — that is, the ceremony may one day raise very few eyebrows.

“When I first started doing interfaith marriages, you can bet that I got a lot of flak from my colleagues in the Reform movement,” said Menlo Park–based Rabbi Yeshaia Charles Familant, who was one of the first Reform rabbis in the country to begin performing intermarriages, in 1967.

When the couples he helped marry later had children, they called him, which is why Familant started performing what he called brit chayim (covenant of life) ceremonies in the early 1970s. Before retiring last year, Familant said he performed about 15 to 20 of the non-cutting naming ceremonies annually.

Familant is not opposed to circumcision, but he has no problem performing brit shalom–type ceremonies.

“If it violated any of my principles I would not have done any of this,” he said.

As for Andrew and Lisa, the ceremony surpassed their expectations. They invited 25 family members and friends to their home to witness the brit shalom, which incorporated a prayer shawl that once belonged to Andrew’s father. The reactions from everyone, including many of their practicing Jewish friends, were extremely positive, Andrew said.

“It felt like the evolution of something traditional,” he said. “It may seem new, but there is a history; there’s something fundamental behind it.”

The couple is now expecting their second child. They plan to have a similar ceremony for her.


The Los Angeles Jewish Journal contributed to this report.


Comments

Posted by lucid
01/05/2012  at  07:20 PM
It is strange that no

It is strange that no mention is made of the Torah.

Whether this omission is a reflection of the writer’s lack of knowledge of Torah or unwillingness to refer to the traditional reason for our existence as a people is irrelevant.

Medically, there are less chances of spreading disease from those who are circumcised. But this is not the primary reason for getting it done.

It is shocking to me that Jews furthest from Jerusalem are also so far out that they cannot follow the traditions that our fathers and their fathers practiced going back 3,000 years.

Being circumcised is a primary covenant with God and it is the duty of every Jew to follow it.

It also follows that those who do not follow it, break that covenant. 

Hopefully, this practice will go the way of smoking pot and dropping acid in public in SF, so that it does not become the laughing stock of the Jewish world.

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Posted by isaac
01/06/2012  at  12:03 AM
YAY!!!

it is preposterous to think that anyone would want erogenous tissue removed; why then don’t rabbis and doctors remove the hood of the clitoris from girls?

and as to the above posters comments on doing everything the way it is done in the Torah: Moses himself was not circumcised, and up until the destruction of the second temple brit milah may have been performed, but it is now brit priah, far more MUTILATING, and no longer done with a flint knife. many of the things listed in the Torah and the Tanakh are illegal now. mutilating our own children’s bodies (out of fear?) should be one of them. and by the way- i am jewish, and i have a foreskin, and if you think it should be removed only because of my own or my mothers ethnicity than i think you are anti-semitic. worth thinking about no?

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Posted by Hugh7
01/06/2012  at  12:04 AM
Contact details

Those who believe that “being circumcised is a primary covenant with God and it is the duty of every Jew to follow it” are still free and able to have themselves circumcised when they can informedly consent to it. That is in much greater accord with the Talmudic principles of doing no harm, causing no pain and not imposing religion on others (in a way they can never change) than cutting part of an infant’s genitals off.

In most of the developed world, “medical” circumcision of healthy babies is virtually unknown, with no significantly greater prevalence of any of the diseases it was supposed to be good against. That is now a pecular American practice, a survival of 19th century anti-masturbation hysteria.

To find a celebrant of Brit Shalom, go to http://tinyurl.com/britshalom

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Posted by lucid
01/06/2012  at  02:27 AM
re

Issac. I’ll pass but thanks for the offer.

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Posted by MisterEquality
01/06/2012  at  06:39 AM
question lucid

You said “It is shocking to me that Jews farthest from Jerusalem are also so far out that they cannot follow the traditions that our fathers and their fathers practiced going back 3,000 years.”

So the length of time something happens justifies it? With your argument, slavery should also be legal, as it too dates back thousands of years and has cultural significance. Don’t think that would fly today, but at any rate the length of time some thing happens is moot.

“Medically, there are less chances of spreading…”

This is the argument that makes people laugh at Jews so much. You keep changing arguments with a red herring. When the “tradition” argument fails due to the presence of something else, you jump ship with health claims which have nothing to do with Judaism.

Women have more disease odds than men, and in fact have a 5 to 10 percent higher chance to get an infection. Medical studies have also shown cutting women may have some benefit…i guess that makes it ok too based on your argument…

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Posted by RolandDay
01/06/2012  at  08:17 AM
Circumcision does not make one Jewish

A circumcision does not make one Jewish.

A child born to a Jewish mother is considered to be Jewish. Circumcision has nothing to do with it.

There now is an abundance of evidence to show that male circumcision is psychologically traumatic and injures sexuality.
Parent do well to avoid injuring their child.

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Posted by martin
01/07/2012  at  01:58 AM
No one should be distressed

This sounds like a positive development, particularly if it prevents more young couples from feeling alienated from Judaism. They obviously have done a great deal of research and given this much thought, and have come to the conclusion - as is their right - that the latest understanding of circumcision has made it incompatible with their own morals and/or their understanding of history and obligation.

This isn’t a simple issue; there is more to it than blind obedience. Every year we learn new information about what the original Hebrew circumcision entailed and how poorly its origins have come to be understood in modern times. Such issues as when it actually was implemented, what role the discredited Hebrew priests may have played in originating or promoting circumcision, and how dramatically the operation was changed by the rabbinical council as the Talmud was being written. After all, it is the Talmud—not the Torah—that specifies the extensive and intrusive circumcision that is performed to this day. The original circumcision mentioned in Bereshit was clearly a vastly different, less radical affair, done in unsanitary conditions by the child’s father himself, using crude implements. As such, it removed only the overhanging tip of the foreskin and left the major part of it still fused to the glans, to separate naturally on its own in childhood. This is the procedure Yeshua would have had done to him, by his father, since the “new” circumcision wasn’t mandated until at least 100 years later.

There are already thousands of Jewish families around the world that forgo the brit milah, and have for generations. I know this first-hand; I live in and grew up in the United States, but was born in a country with a sizable Jewish population where only about half circumcise their sons. My parents struggled with whether to proceed with brit milah for me and my brother. We in North America have somewhat of a biased perspective, because within all of our lifetimes religious circumcision has coexisted with routine infant circumcision in the larger society. But this is absolutely not the case in most of the world, which is why between a quarter and a half of Jewish families in Europe, South America and Asia do not practice brit milah. Presumably they don’t even conduct a brit shalom/brit chayim, so viewed in this context what these US parents are seeking out could be seen as an improvement toward strengthening Jewish life.

Those experiencing a sense of tsuris over the idea of brit shalom should carefully examine why this causes them such grief or stress. Nearly every Jewish parent opting to forgo circumcision still defends the right of other Jewish parents to keep that tradition. They simply disagree about whether it is right for their own family. Flexibility on circumcision does not mean the end of Judaism or even assimilation; particularly not in a nation that still circumcises 2/3 of its boys routinely. The best way to view this new tradition is to wish the families great happiness and health, and welcome their children just as they do yours.

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Posted by aunursa
01/09/2012  at  02:55 PM
"Moses himself was not circumcised"According

“Moses himself was not circumcised”

According to the Talmud and Midrash, Moses was born circumcised.
http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/1391191/jewish/Was-Moses-Born-Circumcised.htm

“That is in much greater accord with the Talmudic principles of doing no harm, causing no pain and not imposing religion on others ... than cutting part of an infant’s genitals off.”

Since the rabbis of the Talmud endorsed neo-natal circumcision, your assertion is a fallacy.

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Posted by MisterEquality
01/09/2012  at  05:59 PM
aunursas fallacy

Aunursa, I hate to inform you, but citing religious texts cannot be used as credible citations due to personal religious beliefs being asserted within the text itself, which ultimately nulls out any truth. This is why any biblical citations can only be used to reference the quote itself, it can not be used to validate true events. Since there are so many versions and interpretations of each religious text, whether or not one book said Moses was born circumcised or not is moot. It’s not a historical document.

Also to point out the born circumcised note of yours, in medical literature today, it is widely known as aposthia, which is classified as a birth defect which must be noted as it can cause problems. So basically, when you cut a childs genitals with out any real immediate medical need, you are literally defecting their genitals. You can’t change form without changing function and expect no drastic side effects, I.e. need for lube or ed treatments.

It is just possible that Jews today are waking up to the harm circumcision brings and want to spare them unneeded pain unless it’s absolutely life or death. It’s their body, it’s something they need to live with for life and it’s their religion…what gives you any right to control their sexual identity or religion? Yes a foreskin is identity, they may not want to identify with your vision of Judaism. Your beliefs are not the end all say all to someone elses body, even your child.

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Posted by Emes LeAm
01/09/2012  at  10:00 PM
Liberal Judaism

Three out of every four Jewish children born in the UK are orthodox.  This type of demographic is playing out all over the Jewish world.  The attitudes reflected by most of these letters and the article itself point to, frankly, a not very serious problem.  Yes, many of these sorts of people don’t have a bris.  But how long will they be relevant to Judaism?  How long will they even remain Jews?  A moment or two, then they will simply vanish away into friendly Xmas celebrations and Buddhist mantras.  Their children?  Oh, their children won’t be even remotely Jewish.  Torah-true Jews need not be troubled by these sorts of actions and attitudes.  Just keep your children away from them and watch them fade away.

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Posted by Hugh7
01/13/2012  at  12:03 AM
A principle is more basic

Aunursa:
’ “That is in much greater accord with the Talmudic principles of doing no harm, causing no pain and not imposing religion on others ... than cutting part of an infant’s genitals off.”

Since the rabbis of the Talmud endorsed neo-natal circumcision, your assertion is a fallacy.’
A principle is more basic than an endorsement. If the rabbis did not know how harmful circumcision is, or appreciate how painful it is (we now know that circumcised babies react differently to the pain of vaccination, months later), that does not make my recourse to the principle fallacious. And they lived at a time when letting children grow up free to perhaps embrace another religion or none (trusting that they would stick to one’s own on its merits) was simply unthinkable.

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Posted by Lynn Mason
03/09/2012  at  06:00 PM
I'm so happy the brit shalom is getting more popular!

For me, the risks that come with circumcision aren’t worth it. I’ve done a lot of research and I found out that no medical organizations recommend routine infant circumcision. I also read a story in the Huffington Post just last week about a baby boy contracting herpes from his mohel during his circumcision and dying at Maimonides Hospital in New York in September of 2011. I know circumcision won’t prevent HIV/AIDS or STDs because I’ve known circumcised men with HIV and HPV. Only condoms can prevent STDs and condoms don’t work better if a man is circumcised. So, I’m very happy that the brit shalom is gaining popularity. I could never risk my child’s life over something as trivial and unimportant as circumcision.

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