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May-06-2013 21:54printcomments

Covenants without Circumcision in the Jewish Reform Movement

Many Reform Jewish Rabbis are Adopting Symbolic Covenant Rituals.

Jewish anti-circumcision

(TEL AVIV) - Many Rabbis are welcoming intact males into the Jewish community, and a growing number of Rabbis feel that surgical circumcision is no longer appropriate in the 21st century. In Europe, 200 years ago, influential Rabbis in the early Reform movement of Judaism began writing in private correspondences that Jews should abolish circumcision surgery. This movement first became well-popularized in the mid 70’s when some of the first Rabbis and celebrans in American began doing them for Jewish parents and sons. Today, almost 200 Rabbis perform Jewish covenant rituals without surgical circumcision, and many more will do so upon request. These include Rabbis in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanistic, and many other branches of Judaism. Keeping a Jewish son intact is no longer a marginal phenomenon. One list of these celebrants has gotten so large that Jewish parents, who choose not to circumcise their son, can find a Rabbi almost anywhere in the United States who will do a symbolic covenant ceremony. This list contains a number of Rabbis with intact grandchildren for whom they have held these kind welcoming ceremonies and blessings.

Groups of Jews who chose to keep their sons intact are starting up in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Both Reform Judaism and Humanistic Judaism formally welcome intact Jewish males. Many feel that if true Jewish morals were adhered to, circumcision surgery would be impossible.

Judaism has evolved enormously over the last two hundred years. Jews were active in the early civil rights, peace, women’s, gay rights, and environmental movements, making huge advances for human rights in a multitude of areas. The prevalence of female Rabbis and the acceptance of gays and lesbians in most Jewish communities shows just how quickly Judaism can evolve on issues of fundamental human rights. Many Jewish Americans and Israelis are active leaders in the worldwide Intactivist movement.

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish males around the world remain intact. Most Eastern European and South American Jews remain intact, and many Western European Jews have bypassed circumcision, seeing it as a needless, violent leftover of a bygone history. Some Jewish scholars and Rabbis believe that it is time to interpret the covenant in a symbolic and metaphoric way. Some other Jewish scholars think that surgical circumcision is against the ethics of Jewish law. Some Jews who were raised in the Orthodox tradition such as Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon , Mark Reiss, MD, and Jonathan Friedman have become especially vocal Jewish intactivists. Some religions like Buddhism and Hinduism consider surgical circumcision a violation of another person and a terrible misdeed.

Traditional circumcision surgery is mutilation and needless violence. Today's Judaism is ready to reject circumcision and to move to symbolic covenant rituals reflective of our respect for the human rights of our sons. The interpretation of Jewish law is constantly in a state of development, flux, and evolution, expanding as the realm of human rights expands. As Jews, we are regularly evolving our lives and practices to adjust to the constantly evolving moral arc of human rights.

As Jews, we always behave in the best interest of humanity and in the greater good of the world in general. Jewish laws prevent us from hurting or causing pain to ourselves, others, and even animals. Today many young Jewish couples are coming to recognize that surgical circumcision is wrong. As Orthodox intactivist Eli Ungar Sargon has invaluably explained, for most of today's Jews, moral and humanitarian behavior towards others is at the forefront of Judaism. We reject any rules that do not contribute in a valuable way to our lives.

Traditional circumcision is mutilation done without consent. The human body is a delicate biological eco-system and surgery on any part of it has an effect on the whole system. The intact male foreskin is an innate part of the human anatomy with a valid protective purpose. The presence of the Intactivist movement has thankfully brought these issues to the forefront of the American consciousness.

The integrity of the body is a moral value in Jewish law. Jewish law already opposes damage to the body such as tattooing, cutting or piercing, and circumcision surgery should be perceived by today's Judaism in the same way. Surgery that is not necessary to avoid health problems is prohibited by Jewish law. One hopes that within a couple of years, Judaism will completely abolish the cutting of traditional circumcision, and interpret the covenant in an exclusively symbolic and humane way.

Many Jews find circumcision objectionable. Some argue that circumcising a baby is mutilation and a criminal offence. Increasingly young Jewish parents are choosing compassionate Jewish covenant rituals for their newborn sons. Many of these parents want a welcoming ritual that affirms their Jewish faith while respecting and protecting their son's full personal wellbeing. This movement exists in the United States, Israel, the UK, and around the world. Intactivists are those who believe that child circumcision is a violation of human rights and fundamental morals, and a growing number of Jews are adopting this position. Jewish leaders, Rabbis, and scholars are evolving tradition to create a covenant without circumcision, and compassionate welcoming rituals.

Here are seven of these Jewish Rabbis and leaders speaking about a covenant without circumcision, and new Jewish Reform covenant rituals.

"I cannot support circumcision with any conviction, just because it has always been held in high regard. It remains a barbaric, bloody act, which fills the father with anxiety and subjects the mother to morbid stress. The idea of sacrifice, which once consecrated the procedure, has certainly vanished among us, as it should. It is a brutal act that does not deserve continuation. No matter how much religious sentiment may have clung to it in the past, today it is perpetuated only by custom and fear, to which surely we do not want to erect temples."
- Rabbi Abraham Geiger, an influential Rabbi in the early Jewish Reform movement.

"I believe circumcision is a major mistake...  Just as we no longer practice the animal sacrifices in the traditional temple, so let us not sacrifice an important piece of our mammal in the temple of tradition." 
- Rabbi Nathan Segal,
One Rabbis' Thoughts on Circumcision.

"I have already written about my opposition to infant circumcision.  Now, with the release of a new film and a new website, there is finally some momentum building among Jews to do away with this antiquated and barbaric custom.... I cannot imagine why any sane person would put their baby boy through an unnecessary and painful surgery without even the benefit of anesthesia.  Yet, until recently, no one in Jewish leadership has challenged this obsolete and primitive ritual."
- Rabbi Jeffrey Falick,
Eliminating The Cruelest Cut, October 4, 2011.

"Ritual circumcision poses difficult moral and religious issues for many liberal (non-Halachic) Jews… First, there is the issue of inflicting pain on the newborn in a religious ceremony. There is always tension as we gather around for a bris. Very often the mother (and sometimes the father) prefer to absent themselves as they can’t bear to witness the event. The cutting of the foreskin violates our instinct not to inflict any unnecessary pain on our children….We regard female genital mutilation to be utterly abhorrent and immoral. Why not circumcision?
While many anti-circumcision activists focus on the important question of pain or mutilation which could be thought of as the rights of the child, I want to focus the nature of circumcision as a core element of a Judaism that contradicts our commitment to a Judaism that fully includes both men and women.… When my son was born some thirty years ago, I felt I couldn’t break that tradition and chose to honor the power of tradition over my ambivalence. I just couldn’t imagine breaking the tradition. Over the past three decades I have become even more ambivalent about circumcision.... There are Jews who refuse to circumcise and create an alternative ceremony. You can find more information about this on the website: <>.
Rabbi Brian Walt, To circumcise or not, that is also a question., Congregation Tikkun v’Or Newsletter, Issue 163, July – August 2011.

"…the ritual and religious consequences of not being circumcised amount to nothing. There is absolutely nothing that an intact Jewish male today cannot do. Contrast this with - I'm talking from the Orthodox perspective - non-Sabbath observance. Jews who are not Sabbath observant are not trusted in Halachic courts of law, they cannot be witnesses at people's weddings, they cannot be trusted with issues of Kashrut, making sure that things are Kosher... Here's an issue that is very easy to solve. You don't even have to argue for the eradication of male circumcision in the Jewish tradition for everyone to be happy. All you have to do is say that this will be a decision that an individual makes at an age when they can make the decision.”
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Orthodox Intactivist.

"We do not engage in circumcision, so that we celebrate all babies being born, girls and boys and the ceremonies are the same for welcoming both girls and boys into a poetic kind of covenantal ideal of love and support. We're all born into the world vulnerable and in need of people who love us and take care of us…  we depend upon each other for love and protection and that extends in this case I would say also to creating a covenant without circumcision….  There’s no official place in our movement’s philosophy for circumcision… the welcoming ceremony has no place for it… it’s really unimportant actually… most Jewish people who have any of covenant actually focus primarily on how we treat each other…   we’re all in this together folks… we all have to live some kind of ideals… not sacrifices of children’s bits - I think that’s completely absurd at this time in history. I will say that I would not circumcise a child."
- Rabbi Binyamin Biber, President of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis,
Q&A with Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Georgetown University, September 22, 2011.

"The thought of saying Hebrew prayers over the cutting of a baby’s flesh seemed truly barbaric to me. I wondered, “if mothers had the power to design Judaism, would circumcision have played such a central role?”... My second son came into the family by adoption at eleven months of age. He was born in Guatemala (where circumcision is not a general practice) so he had not been cut. Again, I was straddling the fence about whether to circumcise or not.... I did not take him for surgery. His body is intact and un-cut. Now he is an older teen who participates actively in the synagogue. Not once have I witnessed or heard from him about a single instance of raised eyebrows or persecution about his penis... I know that there is a time-tested and very valid way to be Jewish without being circumcised. All I have to do is look at my three daughters. Fifty percent of the Jewish people have managed to be fully Jewish without any ritual cutting of skin—the females. I think this is an issue where being beyond gender in our decision-making would be worthwhile.... Twenty two years after making the decision about how to welcome my firstborn son, I am more confident as a rabbi and as a mother. If I were making the decision today, I might not have made the decision to circumcise my first baby.”
- Rabbi Julie Greenberg,
Cutting and Covenant: How I Decided Whether Or Not To Circumcise My Sons,

"We're seeing [circumcision's] decline, and we're seeing Rabbi's like me and others in other communities saying these practices are not warranted and we're seeing a generational shift away from them. One of the things that I think that's also critical is the growing popularity, and I think a rightful popularity of natural medicine and natural childbirth ideas. And I think that this is clearly seen as inconsistent - circumcision, male infant circumcision, female infant circumcision or genital mutilation - not consistent with natural childbirth, natural health. To the extent we see within nature patterns of evolved health and wellness. This is clearly not one of them. Inflicting a wound on an infant is clearly not one of those... If circumcision is ever wanted, it's not warranted at this point.”
- Rabbi Binyamin Biber, President of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis,
Q&A with Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Georgetown University, September 22, 2011.

More and more Jews are choosing to not circumcise their boys.. (Thank God!) And just as we accept Jews who do not keep kosher or observe as we do, we recognize the amazing diversity of practice and belief that is part and parcel of our astounding heritage.
Genital cutting does not create a 'mensch' (a conscious-caring individual). Indeed it is more of an obstacle to our natural development and [a] source of anger and confusion. Coming from an Orthodox background and having lived in Jerusalem, i am very aware that the problems of domestic violence and sexual pathology are just as prevalent in the observant communities as in the secular. Deuteronomy 10:16 says: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart..." In Hebrew, the word foreskin is 'orlah'... there is an 'orlah' covering the ear and the heart... What is preventing us from 'hearing the word of God and opening our hearts in love and compassion.. This is the real circumcision that needs to occur. and it is a life-time learning ceremony…. 'Brit Milah' is the Hebrew for the covenant of 'circumcision'. 'Mila' also means 'word'.. We can welcome the child with songs and praises and
holy words, gentle tones, and soft touches and smiles.”
- Rabbi Nathan Segal,
One Rabbis' Thoughts on Circumcision.

“In addition to rethinking the images of God, Jewish men may need to rethink practices such as circumcision. As I argued in my earlier book, The Savage in Judaism, circumcision in ancient Judaism was a symbol of a man's fertility, which was central to God's promise to Abraham. But it is time for men to begin speaking about the implications of using this kind of wounding as a sign of the covenant.
While debates continue about the medical necessity of circumcision, and about the pain the child may or may not experience, they are irrelevant to the specifically Jewish issue of whether a boy's entrance into the community should occur through a symbolic wounding. I believe that practices often carry meanings beyond those that actors intend. Whatever we say that circumcision means, the act of cutting the male foreskin makes male wounding central to the covenant between God and Israel.
The issue of circumcision, in my view, is whether we want submission and wounding, as a symbolic act, to mark a man's relationship to God and to the community in general. I no longer believe such a wounding is defensible.
There is more emotion about eliminating circumcision than perhaps any other traditional practice. But it is time to find a different symbol of a boy's entrance into the community. Instead of cutting our sons, we might celebrate their masculinity. A more appropriate symbol would be a nurturing act, one that would affirm a boy's relationship to a loving father, both his own and that of his God. We might, for example, feed our sons, since a meal is also a traditional symbol of covenant. Indeed, in one text, Moses and Aaron and the elders go up to the top of the mountain, and when they see God, they eat and drink. Feeding our sons, rather than wounding them, would be a symbol of our nurturing relationship to them.
Such a change, of course, will introduce a significant disruption into the tradition. Some fathers will be circumcised, and their sons will not be. And there will be some Jews who circumcise and some who do not. But why must this be any more problematic than the fact that some family members observe the Sabbath and others don't? Some parents say that they circumcise their sons so that they will look like the father. But parents can use the difference as a point of departure to explain how religious symbols develop. What if a Jewish boy wants to be circumcised later in life because he affirms the traditional practice? Haven't his parents foisted a difficult and painful alternative upon him? But this argument is spurious. Any decision eliminates a choice. The decision to circumcise also eliminates a choice to be uncircumcised.”
- Rabbi and Professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz,
A Masculine Critique of a Father God, Tikkun, September/October, 1995.

Related Genital Wellness Articles

At this time in history, aren't we ready to let go of traditions that no longer serve a constructive purpose in our lives, families, communities, and world? Aren't we ready to edit and reform our rules to honor our highest ambitions, rights, morals and values instead? In many other areas Judaism has found the correct moral distinction between action and ethics. How soon until we do so in this area as well? Isn't it time to correct the mistakes of the past by reforming our rules to reflect our highest ethics and the optimal good for all?

Judaism, the Foreskin & the Genital Wellness Movement
Jews, Intactivism, the Foreskin, & the Genital Wellness Movement Part 1.
Jews, Intactivism, the Foreskin, & the Genital Wellness Movement Part 2. 
Jews, Intactivism, the Foreskin, & the Genital Wellness Movement Part 3.

The New Jewish Intactivist & Genital Wellness Movements
The Intactivist Movement & Human Rights Within Judaism.
Religious Rabbis on New Understandings of a Symbolic Covenant
Jewish Intactivists Speak Out To Ban Circumcision on Minors
Humanistic Judaism, Intactivism and the Genital Wellness Movement
Dear Elijah: A Conservative Jewish Father's Letter to His Intact Son. On Peaceful Parenting.

“That just raises one of the ethical problems that I think is so central. There’s not a huge number of medical accidents, but the fact is that this is an unnecessary surgery. And so the fact that there would be any medical accidents whatsoever raises an enormous ethical question. Why should there be a procedure that is unnecessary… that there'd be any medical risk at all, and that there'd be pain afflicted at all. And no anesthetic given in 50% of the cases. What the hell's going on there?... If you look at the Hebrew Bible text you’ll see a place where circumcision is actually compared with the act of sacrificing animals.”
- Rabbi Binyamin Biber, President of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis,
Q&A with Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Georgetown University, September 22, 2011.

“There are really no practical religious ritual consequences - and I’m speaking about this from an Orthodox perspective too - to not being circumcised… The only exclusion in Jewish law – even from an Orthodox perspective, for an intact Jewish male is the Pascal Lamb, the Korban Pesach which hasn’t been brought in 2,000 years, and it won’t be brought again until the Temple’s rebuilt ostensibly. If it’s even brought when the Temple’s rebuilt, if the Temple’s rebuilt.”
- Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon,
Movie Screening Q&A, Georgetown University, September 22, 2011.

"The code of the Jewish law is called "halacha" (the way). Within the Code, there is a provision that if a mother loses a son because of circumcision, she is NOT obligated to circumcise her next son. I extrapolate from this, the inter-connection of my human family, that enough deaths and maiming have occurred because of circumcision. Therefore - circumcision is no longer a requisite! Just as we no longer practice the animal sacrifices in the traditional temple, so let us not sacrifice an important piece of our mammal in the temple of tradition." 
- Rabbi Nathan Segal, Rabbi of Shabbos Shul,
One Rabbis' Thoughts on Circumcision.


Genital Wellness Articles

The Jewish Intactivist & Genital Wellness Movements
Israeli Scholar Vadim Cherny: How Judaic is the circumcision?  It’s not at all, he finds.
Midwife Mamma: Today’s Jews Reject Circumcision and Choose Peaceful Welcoming Covenants
Eli Ungar-Sargon & Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the Ethical Problems of Circumcision. At the Manhattan Jewish Experience.
Eli Ungar-Sargon Outlawing Circumcision Good for the Jews?  Published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Covenant Without Circumcision Texts and Resources
A list of almost 150 Rabbis who lead compassionate Jewish covenant rituals 
A Brit Shalom (Covenant without Cutting) Ceremony (Sample Text for personal use.)
Moshe Rothenberg: Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community?
Michael Kimmel: The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin Published in Tikkun.

The Jewish American Genital Wellness Movement

From Orthodox to Reform Judaism, more Jews are questioning traditional circumcision.

Circumcision and Preventitive Surgery.
Intactivism is Active Within Humanistic Judaism
The Intactivist Movement and Human Rights within Judaism.
Rabbis On a Compassionate, Symbolic Covenant Ritual 

At this time in history, aren't we ready to dissolve the traditions that no longer serve a constructive purpose in our lives, communities, and the lives of others? Aren't we ready to edit and reform our rules to honor our highest ambitions, rights, morals and values instead? In many other areas Judaism has found the correct moral distinction between action and symbolism. How soon until we do so in this area as well? Isn't it time to correct the mistakes of the past by reforming our rules to reflect our highest ethics and the optimal good of all?

Judaism, the Foreskin and Human Rights Law.
Jewish Intactivism, the Foreskin and Genital Wellness. Part 1.
Jewish Intactivism, the Foreskin and Genital Wellness. Part 2.
Jewish Intactivism, the Foreskin and Genital Wellness. Part 3.



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