May 9, 2013
The decision whether to have a bris is an obvious choice for many Jewish couples. However, for interfaith couples, this can be a much more challenging dilemma. Many non-Jews hadn't even entertained the thought of having their sons circumcised, since others in their family had never done so before. The non-Jewish partner may even have some fears regarding the need for circumcision at all. There may also be unease with the cleanliness of the home as a setting for circumcision, rather than the supposed sterility of the hospital. However, the infection rate is well under 0.1% at home — and there is no potential for a hospital-acquired infection!
The monumental decree by the Reform Movement allowing patrilineal descent has opened up the doors for scores of interfaith couples. According to Reform Judaism, if either parent is Jewish (and also agree to raise their baby to be Jewish) then this child would be considered Jewish.
The decision to have a bris establishes the potential opportunity for your son to be a full member of the Jewish community. That does not mean that your son cannot be exposed to his non-Jewish grandparents' customs and traditions. Taking part in two different cultures may be somewhat challenging when bringing up your son as a Jew, yet, through teaching acceptance and recognition of differences, your son will be able to form a Jewish identity.
A mohel, the individual trained in circumcision, who is experienced in working with interfaith couples must understand all these nuances. The bris must also be conducted in the most sensitive and respectful manner, acknowledging the backgrounds of both extended families. Both sides of the family should feel comfortable and involved. This doesn't mean that the ritual ceremony need be altered in any way, it just means being flexible with explaining the ritual in English and allowing others in attendance to share in the varying honors that were traditionally reserved for Jews.
One honor, the person/people carrying the baby into the room (the Kvatter/Kvatterin) may be of any religion. Another honor is holding the baby during the bris (the Sandek /the guardian). The Sandek should be Jewish, however those surrounding the baby during the actual circumcision can be of any religion. People from various religions can perform additional readings that are also honors. In my experience, the more involvement by both sides of the family, the more comfortable the bris experience has been.
The bris is a beautiful and spiritually enriching ceremony. It consists of the explanation of the origin and purpose of the brit milah, covenant of circumcision, as found in Genesis 17:1, as well as prayers before and after the circumcision. Additionally, the baby will receive his Hebrew name. (I frequently get requests for help, offering suggestions of translations for the baby's name into Hebrew.). I encourage the new parents to say of few words about the person after whom the baby is named. I also welcome family members to recite personal statements, poems, or other readings that they find significant and add meaning to their ceremony. All these things make for a welcoming and satisfying experience!
When looking for a mohel or mohelet, look for one that is respectful and inclusive in his or her approach. Additionally, for the interfaith couple, there should be an appreciation of the obstacles that you have been facing culminating in this life-cycle event. It should transcend the experience from being a foreign ritual to being a spiritually rewarding and wonderful ceremony.