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More U.S. Jews opt out of rite

A small but growing number of parents find circumcision out of line with their faith's ethical imperative not to harm other human beings.

June 24, 2007|Judy Peres | Chicago Tribune

When Leo Grossinger was 8 days old, his parents invited relatives and friends to a ceremony welcoming him into their midst, as Jewish families have done for thousands of years.

They recited Hebrew blessings, lighted candles, shared wine and challah, a braided bread. A rabbi conferred Leo's Hebrew name, Asiel, which means "created by God." When the ceremony was over, the guests ate bagels and lox.

All in all, the event looked a lot like any other bris, or ritual circumcision. The only difference was that Leo never had to shed his diaper.

"I wanted to feel that connection with tradition," said Leo's mother, Erica Wandner. And it was important to her that he be given a Hebrew name in memory of Wandner's mother. But neither she nor her husband, Robin Grossinger, wanted to inflict pain and trauma on their newborn for a procedure doctors say is not medically necessary.

The Berkeley couple are among a small but growing number of American Jews questioning what is arguably the most sacred rite in Judaism. Despite an often strong affiliation with the Jewish community, they believe circumcision is inconsistent with the ethical imperative not to harm a human being.

Once performed routinely on nearly all newborn males in the U.S., circumcision has become less common in recent decades. The rate of U.S. babies being circumcised before leaving hospital has gone from an estimated 85% in 1965 to 57% in 2004.

But it would be difficult to overstate the significance of the practice in Jewish life, even for the nonobservant. There are 613 commandments in Judaism, said Rabbi Moshe Kushner, director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, but "that single commandment is equal to the other 612 combined."

The book of Genesis mandates that every male descendant of Abraham be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. God tells the patriarch: "This is my covenant, which you shall keep.... Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

Many parents hold a bris in their home, where the cutting is done by a trained person called a mohel. Others have their sons circumcised in the hospital and may hold a ceremony later.

A Jewish boy who is not circumcised, said Kushner, "is not totally Jewish," and some rabbis would refuse to officiate at his bar mitzvah or wedding.

And yet, breaking with what some have begun to view as a barbaric rite is no longer unheard of.

Brielle Epstein, whose 1-year-old son, Arie, is "intact," said she knew "at least a couple of dozen practicing Jewish families" who didn't circumcise.

"They're a little in hiding," she said. "But when people find out we didn't, they come out and say, 'Oh, we didn't either.' People are starting to realize it's not really that important. There are lots of biblical traditions we no longer follow, such as animal sacrifice and polygamy. Circumcision may be another one."

Epstein, who lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children, said she used to educate people about female genital mutilation, and "the more we thought about it, the more we made the comparison. If we were horrified at the idea that someone would do that to a girl, why wouldn't it be the same for a boy? Why would we cause our son unnecessary pain?"

It's hard to know how many Jews are giving up the practice; statistics are not broken down by religion. But an unscientific survey conducted recently by MAMY, an Israeli parenting website, found that 3.2% of Israeli Jews no longer circumcise. Ronald Goldman, who runs the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, said hundreds of Jewish families contacted his group every year, even though many prefer to remain anonymous.

In the Chicago area, only Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation will officiate at a noncutting bris.

In his six years as a rabbi in the Midwest, he has done only two. "It's definitely a minority perspective," he said.

The decision may be more common in areas where routine circumcision is less common. (Nearly 80% of newborn boys are circumcised in the Midwest, compared with 59% in the South and 32% in the West.)

Rabbi Jay Heyman, who officiated at Leo Grossinger's bris, said he did about five a year in the San Francisco Bay area.

"After officiating at [traditional bris ] ceremonies for over three decades, I've concluded that it's just too painful and traumatic for me to inflict on a neonate," Heyman said. "If I doubt it's something I'd subject myself to as an adult, I'm certainly not keen on inflicting it on a baby."

But for many families, going against the grain is difficult.

"When there's a life-cycle event, people get nervous and want to know what they're supposed to do, what's traditional," Chalom said. "That's part of the process when a baby is born. People fall back on 'we've always done it this way.' The couple may begin to question tradition, but the family reacts strongly."

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