Karen Trister Grace is a midwife who, for many years and as a matter of principle, opposed circumcision. But a few years ago, she was required to learn how to do the procedure as part of her work delivering babies at a Bronx hospital. She soon began seeing circumcision as “not such a big deal.”
It became a bigger deal when she was pregnant last year. It prompted Karen to begin thinking about her Jewish identity. It also led her to reflect on how she and her husband, Peter Grace, a Catholic, would raise their new child.
In an age when interfaith marriage has become common, increasing numbers of couples are having difficulty selecting a religious tradition in which to raise their children –– if they choose one at all. For many, offering their newborn son up to be ritually circumcised — an exercise in faith and commitment for even the most devoted Jew — can be a challenging first step to take.
It can also be a difficult issue to negotiate with a Christian partner, who may want the baby baptized in addition to having a brit milah, the ritual circumcision marking the entry of a Jewish boy into the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Mohelim say that misinformation spread over the Internet by circumcision opponents creates even more apprehension and confusion among couples considering the issue.
A few botched circumcisions have recently been in the headlines: In Israel, a baby boy’s penis was injured during his brit milah and his family was awarded tens of thousands of shekels in damages.
Then there is the recent news that three New York-area babies were infected with the herpes virus simplex 1, possibly by the mohel who circumcised them all. One of the babies died, and the incident has led to calls for greater oversight of mohelim. These stories have been eagerly seized by anti-circumcision groups in an attempt to persuade more people not to go forward with brit milah. “I think this is a wake-up call for the Jewish community,” said Gillian Flato, director of Jews Against Circumcision, which put out a press release on the matter. “Are they willing to blindly follow tradition and jeopardize their sons’ lives?”
For many couples, struggling with whether to have their sons have brit milah predates the current controversy. In Brooklyn last spring, Karen Trister Grace gave birth to Jeremy. She knew she didn’t want him to be baptized, but she also felt conflicted about him having a brit milah.
“I was reluctant to stand up and say I was going to raise this child Catholic. I was not raised in a very religious home but feel very strongly that I am Jewish and that my son is half-Jewish,” said Trister Grace, who lives in Park Slope. “I also didn’t know how we could have a circumcision that was acceptable to both my husband and me,” she said. “I had never even been to a bris, and I wondered if it would be something I would feel comfortable participating in. My husband also didn’t want to feel alienated by being asked if he would raise this child Jewish.”
After much discussion with friends, a Reform rabbi and a Modern Orthodox mohel, they decided to go ahead. Some in similar circumstances are electing not to have their sons ritually circumcised, however.
Karen met Lauren Abrams, another Park Slope-based midwife, when they were both pregnant. Eight-month-old Micah is the second son to be born to Abrams and her partner, Donna Freeman-Tweed, who is a native of St. Kitts. Neither Micah nor his four-year-old brother Elijah had a brit milah.
“I knew I was having a boy when I was pregnant with Elijah, and I was very conflicted about circumcision,” Abrams said. “On the pro-circumcision side, the only one, was my Jewish background.”
While she was not raised in an observant home — her family lit Chanukah candles but also had a Christmas tree — as an adult she became involved with Jewish rituals and gay-friendly synagogues. “Having reconnected with my faith and wanting my son to be considered Jewish, if we didn’t circumcise I was concerned I’d be turning my back on something that was very, very important: a covenant with God and the Jewish faith,” she said.
Working against it was that circumcision isn’t part of her partner’s culture, and her own orientation, as a midwife, against medically unnecessary procedures.
“I’m still slightly ambivalent about it. Partly because I’ve been afraid to ask a question: If my sons want to be observant, will they be permitted to? I haven’t quite dealt with that yet, but my sense is that they can do whatever they want, and if it’s truly important to them, they can choose to be circumcised as adults if they wish,” Abrams said.
Today, though, many Jews don’t feel that they are commanded to fulfill this religious obligation any more than any other.
“I didn’t feel commanded to do it, partly because I grew up not feeling commanded to follow anything,” said Abrams. “There are many ways I don’t follow the commandments and this was just one of them.”
Yet ambivalence still weighs on her. “I’d probably make the same decision, but it still isn’t easy, even all these years later,” she said.
Last week, though, she attended a lecture by a mohel who is also a pediatric urologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “He essentially said that if you’re not doing it for ritual reasons, don’t do it,” she said. “Then he gave a lecture on possible complications, complete with gruesome slides. That really sealed it for me.”
While no one tracks the number of Jewish ritual circumcisions, in the United States in general the rate of non-religious circumcision among all newborn boys is falling, said Philip Sherman, a cantor and mohel.
Cantor Sherman, who estimates he’s performed in excess of 15,000 britot, said that in the 1960s, 90 percent of newborn American boys were circumcised. Today, he said, that has dropped to roughly 60 percent.
The culture around circumcision is shifting, in part because of a 1999 statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which, reversing its earlier stand, did not recommend routine infant circumcision, though it supported parents choosing it for religious or cultural reasons. The anti-circumcision groups now issuing statements and press releases citing the recent herpes cases as justification for their position have also had an impact. While they aren’t new — they’ve been around for at least 25 years — the Internet has given these groups a whole new reach, Cantor Sherman said.
“People are subject to a tremendous amount of anti-circumcision information off the Internet. Many of these families who are lacking Jewish knowledge also don’t understand the difference between a bris and a circumcision, and equate the two,” he said.
For instance, expectant parents today are often unaware that an inexperienced resident may do a hospital circumcision and take as long as 30 minutes. An experienced mohel completes the circumcision in well under a minute, said Cantor Sherman.
Some Jewish brit milah opponents promote the idea of a naming ritual without circumcision.
That’s the route Diana Ayton-Shenker and her husband, William Shenker, took when their son James was born three years ago. They have two older daughters, and modeled James’ welcoming ritual after theirs.
Ayton-Shenker, an international affairs consultant, lives with her family in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
She was raised in an observant Conservative home and spent time living in Israel, she said. “It wouldn’t occur to anyone in my family not to circumcise. It’s just a given.” Her husband was not raised with any religion, she said, but supports the family’s Jewish life.
Their family is “observant liberal,” said Ayton-Shenker. They observe Shabbat, holidays and kashrut, she said, say the Shema with their children at bedtime and are active in their synagogue, a Reform temple where she is on the board.
“We’re very Jewishly identified,” Ayton-Shenker said. “I don’t observe unconsciously. We choose to be conscious in what we do and do not do, and that was my feeling about how we chose to sanctify our children’s births.”
“Once it became clear to me that he would still be Jewish, as fully Jewish as anyone else, it was a non-issue for me. The only reason I would consider circumcising my baby, unless there was a medical reason, was so he could be Jewish,” she said.
Any baby born to a Jewish mother is automatically a Jew, according to Jewish law, though a boy is not a member of the covenant if he has not had a brit milah. “The parents who bring their child to the bris are making a statement. They’re saying ‘I want to connect my son to the Torah and 3,500 years of Jewish history. I want my son identified as a Jew,’ and they’re making a sacrifice,” said Cantor Sherman.
“There is a moment of discomfort for the baby,” he acknowledges. “On a secular level, parents make a similar decision when they decide to inoculate him. With an inoculation there are even children who get sick from them. But you make the decision because you want to prevent your child from getting a more serious disease.”
Though the recent cases of herpes transmission were tragic and, said Cantor Sherman, would not have happened if the mohel had used a more widely practiced approach to suctioning the blood than the method he did, which involved using his mouth, brit milah remains an extremely safe procedure in every sense.
And, he said, it provides a benefit that no other ritual can replace, he said. “In the case of a bris, you protect your child spiritually.”