THE BLOG
09/30/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Controversy or No-Brainer? Proposing a New Rhetoric of Jewish Circumcision

It used to be that when Jewish friends and acquaintances from my synagogue would first find out about my work, they'd need a moment of mental adjustment. It was hard for them to square the diminutive soprano from choir with the troublemaker who had penned The Measure of His Grief, the first novel ever written about Jewish circumcision.

And a few questions about the book and about my nonfiction writings would quickly reveal my shocking point of view: that I think the Jewish people should stop circumcising.

"But circumcision is much healthier!" the person would sometimes feel compelled to explain. "It's more hygienic. It prevents disease. Don't you realize that AIDS rates in Africa have gone down dramatically because of it? Oh, but the procedure is so much worse when the person is an adult. Much less traumatic to get it done in infancy, much more humane... nothing like what's done to women in Africa -- now that's barbaric... "

I'd smile, acutely aware of the need to remain calm. I might note (with some private resentment) that that the Abrahamic covenant -- the only reason for circumcision from the point of view of Jewish law -- got no mention.

Given that the comments were most often medical, I'd meet the person there. I'd patiently explain that there's no reason for radical surgery on healthy tissue except as a last resort. Or I'd state the erogenous nature of foreskin tissue in the most neutral tone of voice conceivable.

Sadly, none of it ever seemed to change anyone's mind.

I belong to a large, urban Reform congregation in the S.F. Bay Area that's at the forefront of efforts to include and engage Jewish and interfaith families through special programming and consciousness-raising. There is perhaps no synagogue in the country that's done more to reach out to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, Jews with disabilities, and multi-ethnic Jews. I take deep pride in the fact that my congregation is among the leaders in Reform Judaism in this endeavor.

At the same time, it's been maddening to me that while all these very worthy issues are passionately discussed and addressed, the topic of circumcision has remained largely unquestioned in institutional Judaism. I find this all the more frustrating in the context of the Reform movement -- a core principle of which is to examine Jewish practices in terms of their relevance and their consistency with modern sensibilities.

Why has circumcision remained the one issue that still cannot be touched, even in my congregation?

And then one day, it occurred to me that my synagogue's efforts to embrace the LGBT community, Jews with disabilities, Jews of color, even interfaith families -- all this was outreach to people, not to issues.

What if circumcision could somehow cease being an issue? What if the discussion could be focused instead on families who are opting out?

What if the entire circumcision conundrum could be reframed as a matter of the inclusion of these families?

I didn't know if my rabbis would see it this way; I didn't know if anyone would. But I was determined to find out.

First, I needed to verify my hunch that Jewish/interfaith families opting out of circumcision were already welcome at my synagogue. Sure enough, the clergy and the executive director told me these families are welcome; intact babies, boys and men are currently members of our preschool, religious school, bar mitzvah classes, and on up.

All of the clergy said they either had, or would, officiate at brit shalom ceremonies if asked. (Brit shalom, Hebrew for "covenant of peace," is a baby-welcoming ceremony for families opting out of circumcision.)

The Temple's executive director told me it is not at all uncommon, maybe 2-3 times every year, that prospective members ask whether a decision not to circumcise a baby would be an issue, and/or whether an intact older child would face problems at the religious school or the teen program. The family is assured that the child is welcome to enroll in the preschool, have a bar mitzvah, and fully participate in synagogue life.

That being said, there are some very real prejudices outside the Reform context, even in the liberal Bay Area. (My clergy caution families who are considering keeping a baby intact that not every Jewish community will be as accepting of their decision.) Two local Conservative rabbis told me that intact boys are not allowed to have bar mitzvahs at their synagogues. But these rabbis both made it clear that they would respectfully steer the families toward communities that would fully welcome them.

All in all, there's been entirely too much fear mongering about keeping Jewish babies intact --about the possibility that the boys might be rejected in Jewish life as they grow. Why hadn't there been any investigation of where in Jewish life these boys and their families were welcome?

I began to e-mail a brief questionnaire around, focusing on Reform congregations; of all the Jewish denominations, Reform Judaism is "the big fish" because of its numbers and influence. If Reform synagogues had an unstated convention of welcoming the families, I wanted to know about it -- and write about it.

While my study was by no means exhaustive, it did give me a feel for the current Reform climate vis-a-vis this phenomenon. Virtually every Reform rabbi I interviewed said that non-circumcising families were welcome, that he or she would perform a brit shalom ceremony if asked, and that he or she would allow the boy to be bar mitzvah'ed.

But -- how would parents know that? Poking around on the congregational websites of the rabbis whom I interviewed, as well as those of other major Reform congregations across the country, I was unable to find any indication that these families are welcome. Of course there are synagogues that seem more likely than others to be open-armed, but there's no direct reference to such families even among the more inviting.

So if, for example, parents were looking for a rabbi to officiate at a brit shalom ceremony, or for a congregation that would allow an intact boy to become a bar mitzvah, they'd have to get over a very real hurdle in order to initiate a conversation. That is, they'd have to cross their fingers and hope the rabbi wouldn't turn out to be unsympathetic or judgmental.

Little wonder that so many non-circumcising families either hold no ceremony at all, or find their way to the Celebrants of Brit Shalom page maintained by Dr. Mark Reiss, a retired physician and proponent of baby-welcoming ceremonies for these families. Reiss has collected the names of over 200 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders who are willing to officiate at brit shalom ceremonies on a freelance basis. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions would do well to note the tremendous success of this page, and the service it's providing in the absence of meaningful outreach to non-circumcising families on the part of mainstream Judaism.

Why don't congregational websites more openly welcome non-circumcising families? Why must the families lose out on belonging, support and community as a result of the omission--while Jewish institutions, meanwhile, lose out on diversity, vitality and warm bodies?

Perhaps one reason is that there's no way to refer to the families that's both clear and tactful. As I'm fond of pointing out, it would be awkward to announce "All penises welcome!" on a synagogue website.

Kidding aside, effective and appropriate language would be needed for an open welcome. I've proposed "brit shalom families," a term some rabbis whom I've polled seem to like. And there's always the straightforward (if clunky) "noncircumcizing," the term that j. weekly editors used in titling the print edition of the article I eventually wrote about my aforementioned research project.

I'm currently in active conversation with my clergy about language changes on our synagogue website. Stay tuned for an update.

Though change is slow, there's much to be grateful for -- starting with the sturdy infrastructure of inclusion and welcoming in Reform Judaism and other progressive movements of Judaism today. I see no reason why non-circumcising families will be denied an open welcome once institutions realize that Jewish affiliation may be at stake.

As for my conversations with fellow members of my community -- here's an experience I had recently when a typical exchange was brewing between me and another congregant.

"Circumcision is much better medically," the woman opined, rattling off the standard points. "Fewer urinary tract infections, less cervical cancer in the female partners, and just more...well, aesthetically pleasing. And did you know that the World Health Organization."

I waited until she came up for air, then spoke matter-of-factly. "You know," I said, "there are Jewish parents who have all the information that you're referring to -- and they come to a different conclusion."

"Oh!"

Again, I took my time. "So I would ask you a question. Do you think those families should be welcome in our congregation?"

"Well of course they should!" she exclaimed.

This is how it's been in virtually all of my conversations since. If I frame the question in terms of inclusion instead of controversy, I get a "this is a no-brainer" response.

As for that moment of dissonance, the awkwardness because nice girls generally don't go around discussing the male anatomy -- that, too, seems to have evaporated. I'm not discussing the male body, but the body we call Jewish community.

Adapted from a presentation given at the Genital Autonomy 2014 conference.