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How I Counsel Interfaith Families Considering a Ritual Circumcision

Only a few months into my job as the director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism, I received a call from "Sharon." Sharon is a woman who will be giving birth to her first child in about a month. She knows it is a boy and she called to find someone to perform the circumcision. I told her that there are numerous mohalim (ritual circumcisers) in the area and I suggested a few that I knew. Usually, my conversations end there, but this one continued.

Sharon proceeded to tell me that her husband was not Jewish. I told her that would not be a problem. She then told me that her husband did not want their son to be circumcised. It was at this point that she had my full attention. We then spent about an hour on the phone talking about the issues involved. Three telephone conversations later, Sharon told me that her husband, now having the information that I gave to her, was willing to have the brit, ritual circumcision, done. All of her husband's information about a brit had been tainted with falsehoods and rumors. He actually believed that his son would be forever physically damaged from the experience and that his emotional well-being would be compromised for the rest of his days. It sounded to me as if the anti-circumcision rhetoric had warped his knowledge of the topic.*

I thought that this conversation was unique, but I have come to realize that these concerns were anything but. I receive calls every week from Jewish and non-Jewish partners alike that are very similar to my conversations with Sharon. There is a lot of false information floating around about what a brit is--everything from what technically happens at a brit to how Judaism responds to interfaith families.

The Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism does everything possible to answer all of these questions and to inform people of the facts. It is then up to each family to make the decision that is right for them.

So what do we tell them? Our goal is to preserve the Jewish tradition of the brit and to create comfort and assurance by combining our prayers with the gift of medical knowledge. Mohalim are trained to bring our sons and grandsons into the covenant of circumcision in a safe, gentle, and meaningful way. Our philosophy is based on the liberal understanding that a baby born to at least one Jewish parent is Jewish. In the spectrum of Judaism, only the Reform movement has adopted this policy. All of the mohalim that become certified through our program accept this premise and will perform a brit for a family in this situation.

The role of the mohel, though, goes much deeper than the man or woman who performs the action. The mohel is trained as a person who is a connection to the Jewish community and the history of the Jewish people. "Brit" means covenant and mohalim have the unique role of welcoming our sons into a covenant that dates back thousands of years. A pretty powerful role to have, and because it is so powerful, these people are dedicated souls that do what they can to make the experience a meaningful one for each family they work with. They are the ones that can help start the Jewish journey for this child and for this family. They are also sometimes the first person a family encounters as a representative of the Jewish community. Therefore each experience is different and special.

To find a mohel through our program anywhere in the world, you can go to our website at http://beritmila.org. You can also call our office at 1-800-899-0925, ext. 4261.

* Medical literature and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) state that infant circumcision may be beneficial in every stage of a man's life. Extensive studies have been done to prove this. Dr. Thomas Wiswell, M.D., a U.S. Army neonatologist, set out to prove there were no benefits from circumcision. However, in studying over 200,000 infant males, he found that newborn males had more severe urinary tract infections than girls and that these infections were ten to twenty times more common in uncircumcised boys. Dr. Wiswell is just one of many who have researched circumcision and have concluded that not only is circumcision not harmful, but beneficial. During the 1980s, reports showed that uncircumcised men exposed to HIV-positive prostitutes had anywhere from three to eight times greater chances of becoming HIV positive than circumcised men. The list goes on. I encourage people who have reservations to look at the research themselves. Don't take my word for it. Educate yourselves. When you do that honestly, it becomes very apparent where the truth is and where the deception takes place.

Opposition to circumcision has been with us throughout history. The Greeks, Romans and Nazis for example have all tried to stop this ritual. There are some reasons why we believe this is so. The first is an element of anti-Semitism, which we know has existed throughout history. This is part of the reason why the anti-circumcision movement exists today. Not that all anti-circumcision people are anti-Semitic, but they have been inundated with false information. With the creation of civil rights movements in the 1960's, many anti-circumcision advocates decided to make this a civil rights issue. There were also groups at this time that opposed vaccination, believing that children should have the right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated, when they grew older. Some people believe that circumcision negatively affects sexuality. However, doctors have no indication that circumcision has negatively affected a man's sexual ability. Doctors do have patients with sexual problems from NOT being circumcised. Many of these men had chronically infected and scarred foreskins. But psychologists say there is no indication that circumcised men have been psychologically damaged in any way. Circumcision is often used as a scapegoat for sexual dysfunction when the true cause could be an underlying condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or even medication.

Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Rabbi Donni C. Aaron

Rabbi Donni C. Aaron received her ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2001. She is the current Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism in Los Angeles, Calif. Donni is married to Rabbi Scott T. Aaron and has two sons, Meitav and Nitzan, and a daughter, Naor.

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