Terry R. Bard is a rabbi at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston.
Where to Have a Circumcision: At the Hospital or at Home?
The office that I have occupied for the last seventeen years was originally designed as a circumcision room for the large number of ritual circumcisions, performed in a large, urban academic medical center. When the room was built in the 1970s, new mothers' length of stay in the hospital frequently lasted or exceeded the eight days required for Jewish ritual circumcision. When new mothers and their sons were discharged from the hospital prior to eight days, they could elect to return to the hospital for the brit milah (ritual circumcision). Usually, it would be performed either by a mohel (a ritual circumciser) or a physician with a Jewish officiant.
Today, changes in medical practice have drastically altered the length of time most women stay in the hospital after giving birth. As a result, fewer ritual circumcisions take place in hospitals; most now take place at home.
Many couples, interfaith or not, express concerns about hosting a brit milah in their home. The occasion might mark the first time that they have arranged a celebration larger than a dinner party, and any new parent, but particularly the non-Jewish partner, may feel unsure about what to plan and what is expected. Frequently couples are anxious about entertaining a large number of people while they are still exhausted from the birth of their child, from sleepless nights, and from the transition to parenthood. The increased incidence of multiple births (resulting from new infertility treatments) only increases the level of apprehension.
For interfaith parents, the brit milah may mark their first "public" expression of a formal Jewish custom in their home in the presence of non-Jewish family and friends. For some, the very decision to perform the brit milah may not be equally shared, elevating their discomfort about hosting the event. Also, the non-Jewish spouse may feel out of place with such a seminal ceremony for her/his own son, on whom a strange and apparently painful ceremony is being performed.
Concerns like these prompt some couples to seek a seemingly neutral, less demanding setting, such as the hospital. Today, however, when electing this option, the new parents need to return to a hospital that frequently requires at least a paper readmission of their son. As a result, fewer people are choosing this alternative. Also, while some new parents choose a hospital circumcision because they believe it to be a medically safer environment than their home, it really may not be so. Hospitalized patients often harbor many noxious bacteria and viruses, and, while all hospitals make every effort to minimize exposures to these pathogens, such efforts still do not create a germ-free environment.
For most people, life-cycle moments contain both exciting and frightening elements. The birth of a new child is usually filled with both joy and fear. It thrusts new roles upon the parents, some of which can be quite daunting. One of these new roles is that of historical progenitor, recognizing that they have just added a new link to each of their family's chains. In an interfaith family, this role can be a source of both pride and anxiety, producing some feelings of ambivalence.
With everything in so much flux, it is little wonder that, while more Jewish and interfaith couples are enlisting the services of mohelim (plural of mohel), many now opt away from a formal brit milah. Instead, they have an obstetrician perform a circumcision on the day of discharge from the hospital--if they choose circumcision at all. Since a formal brit milah entails a commitment to raise the child as a Jew, many new parents postpone this discussion, waiting until they are less exhausted or less pressed for time. All too often they never get to it, until . . . the next life-cycle event approaches.
The addition of a child into a marriage forces each new parent to think about difficult issues and concerns. New parents should know that they are not alone when complex concerns bubble up. Seeking counsel is frequently quite helpful. Rabbis, clergy, and other professional counselors are usually prepared to discuss these matters with interfaith couples.