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Handling Hesitations over Circumcision: One Couple's Story

"Drink, Rabbi! If anything wrong, it's good!", boomed Boris, the father of the bride, as he shoved an ice cold bottle of black pepper vodka under my nose. He had just slugged down his own full glass of it, after a hearty "L'Chayim."

A few months later, Ala, the wife, called me in tears. She was pregnant with a boy and Alex, her husband, refused to have the baby circumcised. "Let him have it when he is thirteen," Alex protested. "When he becomes a Bar Mitzvah he can decide for himself".

It was late spring. The wedding ceremony had been held in Boris's spacious back yard. He had brought his daughter and her non-Jewish fiance over from the Former Soviet Union. They lived in a nice furnished apartment in his basement. His son-in-law was bright, a computer programmer, loved his daughter, and would make a good husband and father. Alex had agreed to raise his children as Jews.

"Has he spoken to a rabbi in your town?", I asked.

"Yes, and he's been of no help".

"What did he say?"

"He said it was important, that all Jewish boys have it, that it's not painful, that the baby will get over it very quickly. The rabbi was fine. But Alex insists that there be no circumcision!"

"Did he say why?"

"He doesn't want to inflict that kind of pain on his son", she sobbed. "He likes you, rabbi, can he come to see you?"

"Of course," I replied.

Alex came a week later. He was agitated. He reiterated his insistence that no son of his would be circumcised. I asked again and again why it seemed so threatening to him when clearly, millions of Jews and hundreds of millions of men throughout the world had been circumcised with an infinitesimal number of complications.

"Look, Alex, Abraham, the Father of our people, circumcised himself with a knife of flint stone and survived. He had a son, Isaac, and we Jews have been brissing ever since. It is the sign of a Covenant with God, that any children engendered by this man will be brought up Jewish. That's the promise."

"Look, rabbi. I won't have my son circumcised. Period."

"Are you circumcised?" I asked warily. He shook his head no. "Could it be that you are concerned that your son will be circumcised and when he sees that you aren't, you might be embarassed to be different?"

"No, that's not it," he said.

"Than what is it?" I asked.

"I work with computers all day long, so I logged on to a web site about circumcisions, brisses, and they showed how it was done. Blood all over the place, the baby screaming with pain. It was terrible. I will never allow my son to be put through that torture and pain. Never!"

I finally understood what had scared poor Alex. I carefully and patiently explained to him how in the last few years a very small group of Jewish men had established a "support group" to help and advise other Jews who had been thinking that they didn't want their children "brissed". This new, Anti-Bris group, believes that babies are permanently traumatized psychologically because their father symbolically castrated them by removing their foreskin. They provide group therapy for men who think they need help, and they urge all Jews to cease and desist from circumcising their sons. To bolster their case, they put on their web site a video of a bloody, messy bris.

"These people are liars!" I told Alex. I've been officiating at brisses for over forty years, and I assure you that there isn't a single mohel, or person who performs circumcisions, in our area who does a bris, circumcision, the way you describe it. Not one! From beginning to end, it takes a minute or two, they use a protective clamp that keeps the blood from flowing. Often they have to coax a drop of blood out in order to satisfy the ritual requirement of "one drop of blood." The anti-bris people have done a great job of scaring you and have done so by lying, and they know they are lying".

I gave Alex the name of an MD/Mohel who could demonstrate to him exactly what he does, and reassure him that what I said was true. Alex went to the MD/Mohel and spoke to him. When the time came, the doctor/mohel did it. Alex was not without anxiety, but was pleased with the outcome.

Alex and his wife came to my home to participate in a "Basic Judaism" class, keeping a promise they had made me before I had agreed to officiate at their intermarriage. They brought their baby with them. I watched as Alex rocked or held him in his arms, clucking and cooing. "You know, Rabbi", Alex said. "Back in Russia and here,too, I have watched parents, and grandparents in particular, look at their little babies with such love. They'd just stare at them for long periods of time, I mean really long periods. I couldn't understand why they were doing that. It just seemed so boring. But now I understand. Seeing and holding my son is the most wonderful experience I have ever had in my life."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Paul H. Levenson

Rabbi Paul H. Levenson graduated HUC-JIR in 1959, and began officiating at intermarriages in 1970 while in Kansas City, Missouri. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Chayai Shalom, Easton, Mass., is a member of the Newton Centre [Mass.] Minyan, and currently serves as rabbi at Boston Medical Center, New England Medical Center, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

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