"You know I love you, Lisa, but about circumcision -- well, can't we just agree to disagree?"
As a Jewish woman who opposes circumcision, I often get this kind of conversational preempt from friends and family. It's an occupational hazard of writing about such a highly-charged topic: people seem to think I'm looking for a fight.
In truth, I'm exhausted by the litany of pros and cons. Circumcision causes pain (just look at this list of benefits!). Foreskin tissue is erogenous (circumcision is more hygienic!). It's unethical to make this decision for an infant (parents have to make decisions about their children's health all the time!). And on and on -- a veritable Wimbleton of volleys back and forth, each of which is but a few Google clicks away from support or refutation.
How I'd love for us to change the conversation so that instead of arguing points, we focus on the Jewish families who struggle to navigate their way through this complex issue.
Clearly, families who say yes to circumcision will have support from the community. But what happens to those who decide to keep their sons "intact" (i.e., not to circumcise them)?
One would think these nonconformists might be shunned for turning their backs on a practice so deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche. But evidence suggests that such families are accepted in, and integrated into, Jewish settings. Indeed, as I reported in a recent article in j. weekly, Reform rabbis say these families are welcome in their synagogues, preschools and bar mitzvah classes.
The problem is, many Jewish families choosing not to circumcise don't realize they're welcome. That's because from the get-go, many such parents would rather not brave a conversation with someone they think might give them grief about their decision.
"Jewish parents deciding against circumcision frequently will not call their local rabbi for a brit shalom [covenant of peace] ceremony," says Dr. Mark Reiss, referring to a ceremony often used by families opting out of circumcision. "They will intuitively feel that they probably will get an argument." Reiss maintains a list of rabbis, cantors and lay leaders willing to perform brit shalom ceremonies on a freelance basis.
While there are congregational rabbis on Reiss's list, there are also many pulpit rabbis who aren't on the list, but who will perform brit shalom and similar ceremonies if asked. Through such a ceremony, the baby is brought into the ancient Abrahamic covenant and given his Hebrew name.
But why would parents initiate contact with a synagogue for this service when they could find a local freelancer from Reiss's list, or do a ceremony themselves? Or -- why not skip the ceremony altogether?
A recent Pew study on Jewish demographics tells us that less than a third of American Jews today belong to a synagogue. Some Reform and other liberal congregations, well aware of the anemic numbers, have been working hard to bring members in by sending a message of inclusion to the community. These institutions openly welcome and celebrate the diversity of modern Judaism: single-parent families, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, Jews of color, Jews with disabilities and interfaith families.
I'd like to see synagogues reach out similarly to families who decide not to circumcise. But how? They can't very well advertise "All penises welcome!" on their websites. This is a delicate matter. The language, though public, would need to convey respect for privacy and carry no connotation of judgment about the family's choice. A misstep could be damaging to the child's self-esteem and trust in Jewish institutions as he grows.
I propose we adopt the term "brit shalom families." While not all of the families hold such ceremonies, it's a close-enough description -- and far-enough removed from language that could seem squirmy. ("Non-circumcising families"? Ick.)
Why reach out to brit shalom families? Well, because they represent an untapped source of Jewish participation, and they're at a perfect stage of their lives at which to consider synagogue affiliation. They're young. There's preschool ahead, and religious school, and bar mitzvah, and teen programs. There's community to be a part of.
Like it or not, in the contemporary American landscape, identification as Jewish has become optional. Families need a reason to turn toward Judaism. We should be sending a clear message of inclusion to all families, regardless of their sons' circumcision status.
That's why I think the laudable efforts that Jewish institutions are currently making to reach out to Jewish minorities should be augmented to include outreach to brit shalom families.
Let's stop arguing the pros and cons of circumcision. Let's start welcoming brit shalom families as we're welcoming all other Jewish minorities.
Really, where's the controversy?