Thursday, February 13, 2014 | return to: views, opinions


Choosing not to circumcise — last frontier of Jewish inclusion?

by lisa braver moss

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How can synagogues make their members — and prospective members — feel more welcome?

9_Vmoss_avatar_withnameSome synagogues send a message of inclusion, stating on their websites that they welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, Jews of color, disabled Jews and interfaith families. But there’s one Jewish minority that’s rarely, if ever, mentioned: the growing number of Jewish parents who choose not to circumcise their newborn sons.

Although circumcision is but one ritual choice, it would be easy for a family to get the idea that congregational Judaism expects — or demands — circumcision. Even the most liberal synagogues don’t say on their websites that keeping one’s baby boy intact (not circumcised) is a valid option.

Yet my research indicates that noncircumcising families are welcome in many synagogue communities. I asked senior Rabbi Yoel Kahn at Congregation Beth El, a large Reform congregation in Berkeley, whether such families are welcome at his synagogue. “Certainly,” he said. Rabbis also answered “yes” to that question at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco and Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. In fact, every local Reform synagogue that responded to my questionnaire said yes.

But might this be a reflection of life in the bubble of Bay Area liberalism? I checked with rabbis around the country to find out whether they, too, welcome families opting out of circumcision.

Ronne Friedman, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, a large Reform congregation, affirmed the inclusion of such families. “Yes, [they’re] welcome to join … we would only address the question with a family if they raised it with us.”

At Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, founding Rabbi Susan Talve said such families are welcome. So did senior rabbi Ron Segal of Atlanta’s Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation whose website says it leans toward the traditional.

Not only are noncircumcising families welcome in much of the Jewish community, many congregational rabbis are quietly performing brit shalom naming ceremonies for intact baby boys.

What congregational rabbis may not realize is how many circumcision-averse Jewish families they aren’t serving, prospective synagogue members at a perfect moment of their lives in which to consider affiliation. The opportunity is lost because parents questioning circumcision would rather not brave a conversation with someone they believe may give them a hard time about their decision.

“Jewish parents deciding against circumcision frequently will not call their local rabbi for a brit shalom ceremony,” said Dr. Mark Reiss of San Francisco, a well-known proponent of brit shalom. “They will intuitively feel that they probably will get an argument.”

Reiss is the originator of Brit Shalom Celebrants, a Web page that lists more than 150 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders who openly perform brit shalom ceremonies ( The officiants operate on a fee-for-service basis.

Not all rabbis who do brit shalom ceremonies want to be openly associated with it. Although the page makes it clear that many of the listed officiants also do traditional  circumcisions, the page is perceived by some as an “anti-circumcision” list.

If noncircumcising families are welcome in Jewish congregational life — indeed, if rabbis are already performing alternative ceremonies when asked — why not let parents know this? I invite congregations everywhere to adopt the win-win policy of openly welcoming brit shalom families.

Lisa Braver Moss is the author of the novel “The Measure of His Grief” and has published in the Huffington Post, Tikkun and Parents, among other outlets. She lives in Piedmont.


Posted by Dave Peters
02/13/2014  at  06:29 PM
Reform only

I suppose that asking only Reform (if their adherence to at least some tradition is not inspected too closely.
Brit Shalom is an faster path to assimilation than Reform itself (see the Pew report), because intactness is a sign of indifference and lack of commitment on the part of he parents to that oldest of all our practices.
Even my mother, who went underground to hide and ‘blend in’, made sure we were circumcised.

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Posted by avengah
02/14/2014  at  04:48 AM
There are many Jews who,

There are many Jews who, having read the literature on circumcision, have decided to leave the decision up to the boy when he’s old enough. It’s not as harmless as you might think. These are people who keep kosher and shabbat etc. Here’s some more information:

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Posted by andrewgross
02/14/2014  at  05:50 AM

Synagogues could also be more inclusive by welcoming those who advocate that Israel is the cause of all the problems in the Middle East should be eliminated. Synagogues could also be more inclusive by welcoming Jews who worship Jesus and why try to convert Jews to Christianity. Synagogues could also be more inclusive by welcoming people who advocate for the elimination of tefillin because it’s made from animal products.

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Posted by Jewish Intactivist
02/14/2014  at  09:22 AM
Some Articles Worth Reading

Intactivism Spreads in Israel. This Time by Jews.
Intactivist Media Initiative Comes to the Holy Land

Jewish Intactivists Increasingly Vocal in Israel

What is a Jewish Brit Shalom (Covenant Without Cutting)?

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Posted by GSCohn
02/14/2014  at  04:08 PM
The advocacy of no

The advocacy of no Brit Milah has been your mantra for over twenty years. While it is an individual’s choice, there are rituals and there are rituals.  Just because some people are uncomfortable at a Bris does not mean it is wrong nor harmful.  There are millions of men who don’t remember their Bris but do remember the covenant

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Posted by Till Benz
02/14/2014  at  04:15 PM
So glad about the change

It´s great news, that the necessary change about infant circumcision has begun.
To me, concerning that, the following things seem clear:

1. Human rights, individual freedom and an enlightened state of law are (at least among) the most precious values we share in all western societies (surely including Israel).

2. If someone accepts only one these values, the decision about the most private parts of the body must be the one of the person the body belongs to
- especially as that includes a decision about the further sexual life and an irreversible sign of a religious confession.

3. Religions always changed and always will change. That´s how they manage to stay helpful for people over thousands of years in a changing society*.

4. I strongly reject any claim, that Judaism isn´t compatible to only one of the named values.

I can´t tell you how glad I am to see that more and more Jewish people are willing to end infant circumcision, among them more and more rabbis.
Sometimes it´s the change that keeps the identity.

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Posted by avengah
02/14/2014  at  04:21 PM
An individual's choice. Yeah. Taking

An individual’s choice. Yeah. Taking that to its logical conclusion, which individual gets to choose? The boy who will be using the part in question should be the one to decide whether he wants a functional, highly erogenous part of it removed. Not his parents. I resent the fact that the choice was taken away from me 33 years ago, according to the Jewish tradition. And try telling the boys who have suffered major complications or even death that the bris is harmless.

It would be a great declaration of faith if an adult willingly submitted to the procedure. Forcing it on infants is meaningless since they can’t consent. This is a huge human rights violation, and I’m so glad more people are starting to see this; hopefully more children will be spared the knife.

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Posted by Hugh7
02/14/2014  at  04:39 PM
Lisa Braver Moss makes an

Lisa Braver Moss makes an excellent point that silence on this issue perpetuates the self-fulfilling claim that “All Jewish males are circumcised” (and likewise “All American males…”). In fact the number of exceptions is probably much higher than anyone imagines. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is as toxic here as in its usual context, making intactness a shameful secret.

In an increasingly (we may hope) kindly, humanitarian age, for more and more parents, unremitting pressure to cut their boy babies may mark their breaking-point from Judaism. If there is an alternative they may stay, and the other merits in Judaism will keep them in it.

Dave Peters: Intactness (being no more self-chosen than circumcision) is not a sign of indifference or lack of commitment, but of humane parents. Antiquity is no guarantee of virtue. Many harmful practices lasted a long time until they were rightly brought to an end.

Andrew Gross:

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Posted by TLCTugger
02/17/2014  at  05:01 PM
Circumcision alters sex dramatically

Circumcision alters sex dramatically and that’s why only the owner of the genitals has the ethical standing to offer consent for non-therapeutic amputations.

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