Intact and Jewish

jewish mother and son

When, in the dimly lit room, in my twenty-first week of pregnancy, I saw the sepia-colored 3D ultrasound screen settle for a moment on what were unmistakably boy parts, my mind was already made up. No child of mine would be circumcised.

Big whoop, right? Roughly a third of little boys born in the United States are circumcised these days, so my decision to keep my own kid intact hardly seems revolutionary. And, to me, it wasn’t.

Out of sheer politeness, I asked my partner how he felt about the matter, knowing full well that, if he came up with any of the pat reasons to cut, I could shoot them down (“But I want my son to look like me!” Are you identical in every other way? “He’ll get teased in the locker room!” By 32 percent of the boys in his class? “It’s too hard to keep clean!” All of my stuff is on the inside and I manage just fine, thanks). But he agreed — circumcision just seemed…mean.

Our baby would be perfect as he came, and his body autonomy took precedent over any cultural norms we might be bucking. Oh, yeah: cultural norms. Did I forget to mention that we’re Jewish?

So, while our decision was commonplace in part of our community — the farmer’s market-shopping, chicken-keeping, aluminum water bottle-toting part — it was decidedly less so for the other Jews in our life. In a small city with one synagogue whose congregation could fit in our living room, it followed that we probably wouldn’t find much support. And we didn’t. I avoided the issue entirely, even putting off choosing a Hebrew name because I wasn’t sure how to bestow one on my son without all the pomp and bloody circumstance. Before his birth, I’d looked forward to taking him to “tot shabbat,” but found myself altering our walks so they didn’t lead us past the temple doors, past the pacing shomer who would certainly ask questions. On the night that I worked up enough courage to attend, I packed my five month-old son into the Ergo and was met at the top of the synagogue steps with familiar music, warm smiles and congratulatory handshakes. That is, until the mouths attached to those hands each asked, “What’s his Hebrew name?” We sat alone and left early.

Part of me felt guilty, understanding that these people weren’t bloodthirsty or prudish but concerned with keeping tradition alive. And wasn’t I? The tiny kippah I sewed for my son’s first Hanukkah should attest to that. But at what cost, tradition? We were still Jewish, and we could make our own way while remaining true to our belief that you don’t mess with someone’s body unless he says it’s cool. 

I started to research other options. I knew we weren’t the first Jewish parents to keep our child intact; what did everyone else do? The internet provided a few examples of Bris shalom ceremonies: welcoming covenants of peace. Right up our alley. We found a Unitarian minister whose own sons were intact, who was delighted to help us create a meaningful, respectful rite of passage for our boy, and hours before his first birthday party we gathered friends and family in our home to name him and welcome him to Judaism on our terms. Kindly and gently. 

Since our Bris shalom, I’ve run across others in the same predicament; I’ve had conversations about whether or not we made the right choice (we did), if my son is “actually Jewish” (he is), and if we would make the same choice again (we would). The only thing I would change is my own hesitation. If there’s anything the past year and a half of parenting has taught me, it’s to trust the instincts that keep my child safe and happy. My partner and I are accountable to our son. Not that roomful of yentas with the questions in code, not the triage nurse who insists I must retract the foreskin for cleaning, not even those like-minded families who laud our decision. Just my partner and me. And when our son inevitably holds us accountable, as kids seem wont to do, I look forward to saying, “We thought you were already perfect,” rather than “It seemed like the thing to do.”

Photo Credit: Author

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Natural Parents Network is happy to present an ongoing series about “Belief and Parenting.” We welcome contributors from any faith (or no faith at all) to speak about how their spirituality affects the choices they make as parents: whether you are a Buddhist whose beliefs led you to gentle discipline, an atheist whose worldview encourages consensual living, a pagan who emphasizes the beauty and reverence of nature, a Christian who seeks biblical guidance, or if you’re walking another path entirely — please share your experiences with our natural parenting community. See our Contributor Guidelines for details on submissions, and then email Dionna {at} NaturalParentsNetwork {dot} com to submit your story.

StefanieStefanie is a Jewish Southern California transplant living in the Pacific Northwest with her high-school-teaching partner and toddler son, who is a positively fantastic advertisement for gentle birthing, breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, vegetarianism, cloth diapering and remaining intact. She spends her occasional free time playing the autoharp, sewing, writing and daydreaming about goat ownership. Stefanie blogs at very, very fine.

24 Responses to Intact and Jewish

  1. Amy  

    What a beautiful and thoughtful post! Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. I will definitely be passing this along to those who are undecided about circumcision because of the “tradition” aspect. I love the last line, “I look forward to saying, “We thought you were already perfect,” rather than “It seemed like the thing to do.”” You said it perfectly.

  2. Moorea  

    beautifully written post. I attended a similar Bris Shalom in Seattle which was wonderful. How heart wrenching to not know how to give your child a Jewish name without the blood attached!

  3. Rebekah  

    This is an awesome article. Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Brittany@Mama's Felt Cafe  

    Wonderful! We need more examples out there of Jewish families keeping their sons whole. My husband is Jewish and our son is intact.

  5. Mare P.  

    Wow, what a beautiful, heartfelt, and authentic post. We don’t have a boy yet (only a girl), but I’ve already started these discussions with my husband (“What if we were to have a boy? Do we have to circumcise him?”) and am finding him a little resistant to the idea of keeping him intact. So my hypothetical son is already very much on my heart and mind and this post echoes everything I have been thinking. Beautifully, beautifully said. “We thought you were perfect as you were.” What an uplifting message to tell your child. He’s a lucky boy to have parents like you.

  6. Tipper

    Thank you for this post. As someone who is on the path to converting to Judaism, this is a topic that resonates strongly with me. I do not want to circumcise my future sons (the one we have now is uncircumcised), and feel there is so much room for Judaism to shift on this topic. It seems to be the only tradition that you must adhere to, whether you’re a secular or religious Jew, and regardless of denomination, in order to be considered “truly Jewish,” and that’s just so strange to me. Even stranger is that so many Jews don’t wish to talk about it, let alone *debate* it.

    • edouard

      Is Judaism about being a light unto the nations? Or is it about surgically removing the natural cover on the glans of the penis and then asserting that doing so is a mitzvah? Is the core of Judaism brit milah, or tikkun olam?

      I was one of two men in my graduate school class who contemplated converting to Judaism despite being intact. The other guy went through with it and married an orthodox woman. I was daunted by the requirement that in order to join this ancient and rich faith tradition, I had to give up the most sexual part of my body.

  7. Amy

    Thank you for this beautiful and heartfelt post. While I’m not Jewish, I did travel to Israel for a summer and studied Biblical and Modern Hebrew and hold the faith very close to my heart. My son has a Hebrew name and my mom couldn’t believe that I chose not to cut him. He also, surprise!, was born perfect, as was your son! Well, that’s his choice, I say. It is so important, also, to get out the message that modern circumcision is much more brutal than “just the tip” that was done during the times of Abraham and Genesis (I have a friend who wrote his doctoral thesis on this subject.) I know, no matter how much pupice organ (foreskin) is cut, I still want to ask God, why?

  8. Janine  

    This is lovely! I didn’t realize it was down to 1/3, but your reasons are the exact reasons I give when someone asks for my opinion.

    • edouard

      It is 15-25% in Nevada and the Pacific coastal states. But east of the Rockies is still the Empire of the Bald Penis, with rates as high as 85%. There are still walks of USA life where the only boys that emerge intact from the maternity ward are the sons of Latinos, first generation Americans, and the rare crunchy Mom.

      A Columbus Ohio intactivist has told me that when she gave birth in the teaching hospital for Ohio State’s medical school, routine circ was not an option because never mentioned. But when she gave birth in a typical suburban hospital, she was asked over and over if she wanted her newborn son circumcised. Many other American mothers have complained on the internet of being treated in this manner by maternity ward staff.

  9. Shana

    I love hearing from and about other Jews who chose to keep their sons intact. I have frequently felt alone in the decision. I certainly did not have the support of my family (huband excepted, of course). Although, we found a lovely humanist officiant to perform our welcoming ceremony, in which his Hebrew name was given, and no one in the family had any complaints. In fact, quite the contrary, it was a lovely and meaningful ceremony. I am much more confident about the decision with my second son, due in September.

  10. Mrs. Smitty

    If we had had a boy, we would have faced a frustrating amount of commentary from my family & friends. We are by no means Jewish, but every single guy in my family is circ. as far as I know. Everyone seems to think it’s gross, weird looking, unclean or just plain stupid. I sure as heck don’t know where they get their “knowledge” on the subject..they sure would double-take if my husband cared to share that he’s intact. But I’ve done my own research and hubby and I agree, no boy of ours would get snipped.

    • edouard

      The great tragedy of circumcision is that many circumcised men grow up to prefer that their own sons be circumcised. Girls with circumcised brothers and sex partners often become mothers who insist that their own sons be circumcised.

      Thus circumcision becomes a deeply rooted sexual meme. In the other English speaking countries, the medical profession has used its authority and prestige to help root out this meme. American medicine has tied its own hands, by ruling that parents have a right to circumcise their sons, and do not have to give a reason for doing so.

  11. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision

    … … There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective by Miriam Pollack
    http://www.noharmm.org/pollack.htm

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.
    http://www.beyondthebris.com/2011/07/defying-convention-interview-with_27.html

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors
    http://intactnews.org/node/103/1311885181/jews-speak-out-favor-banning-circumcision-minors

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D. http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish-shalom.html

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D. http://www.jewishcircumcision.org

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1
    http://intactnews.org/node/105/1311886372/jewish-voices-current-judaic-movement-end-circumcision-part-1 ……..

  12. roger desmoulins

    Stephanie, thank you for sharing this intimate part of your life journey with us. Given that you live in the Pacific Northwest and are crunchy, your preference is no surprise in this corner. I am greatly relieved that you and your son’s father are of one mind here.

    After your son turns 18 or 21, he is free to have himself circumcised, if he prefers, for any reason including faith or loyalty to his fellow Jews. It will be done under anesthesia, he will be on pain killers for 2-4 weeks, and the risk of complications is less.

    Among educated families living in the Pacific coastal states, the circ rate is less than 30%. Routine circ is now seen as inconsistent with progressive parenting and with sexual sophistication. East of the continental divide, the rate among educated families is still often over 80%.

    I see no reason why a religious ceremony is required to confer a Hebrew name on a boy. Just give him a Hebrew middle name when filling out the vital statistics form. Also, in the USA it is still completely accepted to give a child a first name from the Old Testament. My real name is that of one of the 12 Apostles. My wife’s name and that of our daughters are all from the OT.

    I am a proud Judaeophilic Christian. But I draw the line at circumcision. The only people who should consider circ are men past their 18th birthday who fully believe in the Biblical God and in the Covenant described in Genesis 17. All other parts of the human community should cease circumcising forthwith.

    • stefanie @very very fine

      Roger, Thanks for your reply. The naming is an important ceremony to most every Jew, and a Hebrew name is much more than a middle name. It’s the name with which he or she will be called to Torah, if at no other time, when s/he becomes a bat/bar mitzvah. These traditions may be important to other families as they were to us, and I was glad to find a way to honor that tradition while respecting my son’s bodily autonomy.

  13. Michel Hervé Navoiseau-Bertaux

    Stephanie’s testimony does not oppose original, authentic judaism:

    “Abraham against circumcision, a formidable Biblical breakthrough”
    http://www.salem-news.com/articles/november172010/genesis-deciphered-hn.php

    * * * * * “Thou shalt not circumcise.”, the abolition of circumcision by the Second Commandment”
    http://www.salem-news.com/articles/january312008/circ_paris_13108.php

    “A new Biblical breakthrough: Moses’s son forcibly circumcised against his father’s will”
    http://www.salem-news.com/articles/january242011/zipporah-moses_hnb.php

  14. roger desmoulins

    @Tipper:

    “I do not want to circumcise my future sons (the one we have now is uncircumcised),”
    There are internet support communities that will support your preference: for starters, Jews Against Circumcision, led by Ronald Goldman, and BeyondTheBris, led by Rebecca Schwartzman Wald. Her blog has eloquent testimonials by frum Jewish mothers who refused to circumcise their infant sons.

    “…and feel there is so much room for Judaism to shift on this topic.”
    European and Latin American Jews fully agree. Intact even has a foothold among secular Israelis. It is mainly in the USA and Canada where Jews try to turn the phrase “uncircumcised Jew” into an oxymoron.

    “It seems to be the only tradition that you must adhere to, whether you’re a secular or religious Jew, and regardless of denomination, in order to be considered “truly Jewish,” and that’s just so strange to me.”
    Many Jews see it as the “price of admission,” the test of seriousness. The unspoken purpose of ritual circumcision is twofold.

    One, before routine infant circumcision became popular in the English speaking countries, it effectively ruled out adult male converts. For thousands of years, Judaism pretty much did not welcome converts.

    Two, it made it awkward for a European Jew to leave his people and faith and blend in with the Christian crowd. His Jewish origins would be evident every time his Christian wife did foreplay on him. Likewise, it made it impossible for a Christian man to pretend to be a Jew and lie his way into a Jewish marriage.

    “Even stranger is that so many Jews don’t wish to talk about it, let alone *debate* it.”
    To me, this is not strange at all. Bris is intensely sexual, and is hard to justify on feminist and humanitarian grounds. It is hard for anybody with a serious college education to take the narrative in Genesis 17 literally. Bris is also on a collision course with Jewish sexual sophistication. In Scandinavia, a majority of Jewish men are reportedly intact. In France, bris is rare among Jewish families that have been in France for 150 years or more.

  15. Jewish Intactivist

    Here are a few other Jewish Intactivist resources. A key part of Jewish understanding is the interpretation of scripture in the most ethical way. It is time for us to eliminate the surgery. That which is profane cannot be holy.

    Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision – A Film by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
    http://www.cutthefilm.com

    Alternative Jewish Rituals
    http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/ritual.htm

    Israeli Linguist Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the Circumcision?
    http://vadimcherny.org/judaism/how_judaic_circumcision.htm

    A Case for Bris without Milah.
    http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish.html

    To the Mohel Who Cut Me by Shea Levy
    http://www.beyondthebris.com/2011/06/to-mohel-who-cut-me.html

  16. alayah

    what a beautifully written post. thanks for sharing.

  17. hillary  

    omg i feel so alone being a jew and being SO AGAINST RIC!! My husband has even told me if I don’t change my mind we aren’t having more children (we have 1 girl) because I refuse to cut my son. It just is so heartbreaking hearing when my friends have boys because I KNOW they will be cut :( never will I go to a bris again (missed a handful of friends because of it) and I am never doing that to my child. THANK YOU!

  18. Stefanie

    Hillary, I’m so sorry for your predicament. It’s SO hard to go against key parts of one’s cultural or religious identity so I feel for your husband as well. Just know you’re not alone, and as any rabbi will tell you, if your mom’s a Jew, so are you! (regardless of your foreskin, ha!)

  19. Lynn Reed

    Offering empowerment & support to Jews who choose to leave their sons Intact (not circumcising).

    Also giving access to a “DIY” ceremony (Bris) without the cutting (Milah) that they themselves can perform thereby circumventing:) the need to find a supportive rabbi… which in many parts of the world is difficult or impossible to do.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/141962229156708/

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