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Feminism and Brit Milah: Reconciling Faith and Personal Politics

November 6, 2009
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Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

For the vast majority of my life, I never even considered questioning the ethics of male circumcision. When something is so ingrained in one’s culture, it seems strange to question it. And I’m not referring to the fact that the United States has a circumcision rate of 75%. Growing up in a Jewish community, in a Jewish family, with only Jewish friends (that is, until I entered high school), 100% of the boys and men I knew were circumcised. It was simply a part of one’s identity.

But as I grew up and met men who weren’t circumcised, and as I became more interested and knowledgeable in feminist and liberal discourse, I began to wonder why Jews cling to this particular ritual in the way that we do. I can’t truthfully call myself an observant Jew – I don’t attend synagogue and I eat ham, use electricity on the Sabbath and celebrate Christmas with my fiancé’s family – but Judaism is an intrinsic aspect of my identity and culture. And, for many Jewish families, circumcision is the ultimate embodiment of that intrinsic identity, a ritual not easy to dismiss, even for progressive Jews.  So why is circumcision different from all other Jewish rituals? What has made circumcision a fundamental attribute of being a Jewish male, rather than a product of practicing Judaism? And is ritual circumcision compatible with feminism?

Let’s start at the beginning. The Torah teaches that Abraham and his followers circumcised themselves as a physical manifestation of Abraham’s covenant with G-d. And in order to preserve that covenant – to make sure that the Jewish people would always be united – G-d commanded that every male descendant of Abraham be circumcised as well. (In Hebrew, the covenant is known as brit milah.) So right from the beginning, we understand that circumcision is about membership. It’s about belonging to a single culture and knowing that, throughout history and across all denominations of the religion, this one particular signifier of membership will always be consistent.

But that can’t be all, can it? After all, if a child is born to a Jewish mother, that child is already a part of the Jewish faith. Is family not enough to validate one’s membership in a group?

Dana Goldstein of The American Prospect offers another perspective:

But there’s also a deep emotional tie to circumcision; a feeling of pride that Jews are physically marked as such — that a Jewish man can never totally escape his Jewishness, because it is inscribed on his body through circumcision. During the Holocaust, this was one way in which Jews were identified by the Nazis. We Jews are rightfully attached to that history. One of my friends, who is studying to become a rabbi, recently told me he considers circumcision the single most important Jewish religious obligation.

Goldstein’s sentiment makes sense to me. It reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mother, in which she said that Judaism is an innate part of one’s identity. If you are born a Jew, you will always be one, regardless of what rituals you observe or whether or not you believe in G-d. And nothing expresses that message better than circumcision. Having a physical marking like that — something that stays with you though every stage of life and every personal transformation — grounds you to your heritage. So it makes sense, when one thinks about it from Goldstein’s point of view, that brit milah is still widely practiced and considered to be a critical rite of passage for Jewish boys.

But none of that answers the other question — Is ritual circumcision compatible with feminism? I’m not so sure that it is. After all, isn’t bodily autonomy a fundamental tenet of feminism? Brit milah takes place when a Jewish boy is only eight days old; it is impossible to argue that babies can consent to circumcision. By the time a boy is old enough to comprehend the concept of circumcision and its significance (religious or otherwise), his decision has long been made. To protect the bodily autonomy of baby boys, some progressive Jews have developed the tradition of brit shalom — essentially, the ceremony of welcoming the child into the Jewish faith without actually conducting a circumcision. And though the normalcy of circumcision is so much a part of my culture and upbringing, the idea of a brit shalom does make me feel relieved in some ways. After all, if I believe that my choices regarding my own body should be made by me alone, shouldn’t that be true across the board, for all people, regardless of gender? It makes it hard for me to reconcile circumcision from a truly feminist viewpoint.

And there’s another reason why ritual male circumcision and feminism don’t quite mesh — there is no directly equivalent ceremony for girls. A ceremony geared toward girls — simchat bat — in which the baby is welcomed into the faith and officially given a Hebrew name, is now practiced in most denominations of Judaism. Often the name is related to the name of a relative who has passed away, providing an important intergenerational familial link. But there’s a difference between a name — something that one can change, hide or ignore — and a physical marking that can never be undone. (And, by the way, Jewish boys are given Hebrew names as well, as part of the brit milah ceremony, so naming is not a tradition unique to girls in Judaism.)

Now, I’m certainly not implying that baby girls should be circumcised or in any way bodily altered or mutilated as a cultural initiation into Judaism. I would never support such a thing. But, at the same time, it does feel like an inequity that Jewish men have this permanent manifestation of their faith that Jewish women simply don’t have. It’s almost as if brit milah makes Jewish men more Jewish than Jewish women can ever be. And I know, in reality, that such a belief isn’t true. Many Jewish denominations treat men and women completely equally. But I can’t help but think that there is a certain degree of sexism behind brit milah, even if a directly equivalent ritual for girls isn’t necessarily a good idea.

For so long, I never questioned circumcision. And now, all I have are questions. If I had a son, would I circumcise him? Would I hold a brit shalom for him, allowing him the option to decide for himself whether or not to be circumcised at an older age? And how would I respect my daughter’s bodily autonomy while still making her feel like she has a place in Judaism, equal to the place of any man?

None of these are easy questions to answer. But I’m glad I’m finally considering them.

This article is a part of GAB’s Circumcision Series.

21 Comments
  1. November 6, 2009 1:31 pm

    Thanks for this insight on circumcision in the Jewish faith and feminism! I find it interesting that circumcision is one’s identity for the Jewish faith, but yes, where is the ceremony for a woman?

  2. November 6, 2009 3:22 pm

    “But I can’t help but think that there is a certain degree of sexism behind brit milah, even if a directly equivalent ritual for girls isn’t necessarily a good idea.” Good observation, but why go in the direction you went? Why not say simchat bat has a certain degree of sexism and wish for a direct equivalent for boys? That’s brit shalom.

    Your readers may be interested in two sites:
    Jews Against Circumcision: http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/
    Jewish Circumcision Resource Center: http://www.jewishcircumcision.org/

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      November 6, 2009 3:48 pm

      If there ever comes a time where brit milah ceases to exist in the way we know it now, there would be a greater degree of equality between the ways in which boys and girls are treated in Judaism. As you point out, simchat bat and brit shalom are essentially the same thing, because neither involve circumcision. And maybe that is the right answer.

      But, as I explain in the first half of the post, brit milah is a huge deal in Judaism, practiced even by secular Jews. And there is a weight given to brit milah that simchat bat simply doesn’t have. (Not all denominations even practice simchat bat.) This may be because, like other Western religions, Judaism has some pretty patriarchal origins. Does that mean you can’t be a feminist and Jewish? Of course not. But it does mean that there is a lot of male bias in religious practices, and brit milah is one of those things. So you really can’t look at it the same way in reverse. Because of the context it’s coming from, there is a degree of sexism in brit milah that doesn’t exist the other way around.

  3. Joseph Peterson permalink
    November 6, 2009 6:31 pm

    Carrie, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from your article but I wanted to say that I enjoyed it very much. I liked that you brought up and considered very seriously the ethical problems associated with a cornerstone act of your faith. If I might make a suggestion, watch the movie ‘Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision’ http://www.cutthefilm.com/Cut_Website/Home.html

    It was made by a man raised as an orthodox Jew and kind of chronicles his exploration of the subject. It was very well done and I think it’s a must for someone in your situation. You can buy a copy or watch a slightly edited version that Eliyahu made available on YouTube.

    http://www.cutthefilm.com/Cut_Website/The_Film.html

    I am not sure which parts are removed from the YouTube version.

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      November 7, 2009 10:41 am

      Thanks, Joseph — I appreciate you giving my post a chance. 🙂 I’m still navigating my own thoughts on this matter, so thanks for the movie recommendation. I will definitely check it out.

  4. Caroline permalink
    November 6, 2009 8:40 pm

    I do want to correct you on your 75% number. I think you’re confusing prevalence with incidence. While 75% of men walking around today might have been circumcised, less than 55% of baby boys are being circumcised in the US currently.

    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/94200.php

    Also, these are good resources created by Jewish people choosing to leave their boys intact
    jewishcircumcision.org
    jewsagainstcircumcision.org

    Lastly, here are some good stories of Jewish parents in their own words

    “Cutting With Tradition” a documentary film following two Jewish couples who become parents

    two Jewish moms discuss circumcision

    Miriam Pollock

    Laurie Evans

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      November 7, 2009 10:42 am

      I did mean prevalence, you are right. Thanks for the correction. Either way, circumcision is still pretty common in the U.S., which was my point.

  5. November 7, 2009 8:09 pm

    Here are contact details for celebrants of Brit Shalom, including several rabbis.

  6. November 8, 2009 8:04 am

    The notion that circumcision is fundamental to Jewish identity, and that an uncircumcised Jew is an oxymoron whose father betrayed his people, are American assumptions, not universal facts.

    Many European Jews who are secular or reformed are intact. As leaving babies whole spreads in the western USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, a rising fraction of secular and tepid Jews in those countries are leaving their boys intact.

    There are a few Israeli families who began refusing bris about 10 years ago. Israeli parents blog that the kindie and primary school teachers of their children report that there now are 1-3 intact boys in the typical class. The Jerusalem Post has covered this thoroughly and without bias. This turn of events is quite surprising until one recalls that many Israelis are thoroughly secular, like European “Christians.”

    In my experience, Jews are very committed to sending their children to public schools. This nearly always means schools where Jews are a minority. Public schools include optional sports and required physical education. To be a circumcised Jewish boy in the locker room of a public school in a noncircumcising culture can be emotionally awkward, and could provoke very ugly anti-semitic taunts. Solicitous Jewish parents will find themselves making choices that reduce the risk that their boys will feel self-consciousness and bullied.

    100 years from now, the norm for non-orthodox families will be to let a boy decide for himself when he attains his majority. An intact Jewish man can always elect to have a bris if he gets engaged to a religious girl. With adult men, the protocol always includes lidocaine. In any event, to be circumcised as an adult carries for more meaning in terms of faith and loyalty to a people and its traditions, than circumcision performed on an 8 day old at his parent’s request.

    I also draw your attention to the 2009 documentary film by Danae Elon, “Partly Private.”

  7. November 8, 2009 8:14 am

    I agree that bris is incompatible with an equal role for women in Judaism.

    Bris is on a collision course with something that many Jewish families are very proud of: the medical, psychological, and sexological sophistication of Jews, and the friendliness of Judaism to this sophistication, unlike the case for Islam and many forms of Christianity. The sexual role of the bits that bris excises has never been thoroughly researched, and everything we know was discovered only in the last 20 years. A good deal more research is required, especially on how the moving foreskin might influence the pleasure women derive from intercourse.
    Advancing sexual knowledge threatens to create a serious dilemma for all non-orthodox Jews.

    Bris is a biblical mandate, Genesis 17. But just how many Jews are biblical literalists? For decades, I have heard Jews laugh and shake their heads at the way certain Christians take literally passages from the Tanakh which the vast majority of Jews interpret poetically or metaphorically. For Jews who feel rather detached from the Law and the notion of biblical mandate, bris is a human custom. And human customs can evolve and be re-examined. A major case in point in Judaism is the disappearance of animal sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple.

  8. November 8, 2009 3:16 pm

    Kahal, http://www.kahal.org/ , is an Israeli parents’ group that promotes intactness. Their e-mail is kahal__group @ walla.co.il (two underlines, close the spaces) phone: +972-3-5299246

    Two sites in Hebrew are Gonnen (Protect Your Child) at http://www.gonnen.org/ and a forum at Tapuz (Giving up Brit Milah) at http://www.tapuz.co.il/tapuzforum/main/anashim.asp?forum=202

    RD: “human customs can evolve and be re-examined” and it is a general rule that where customs involve food, the food moves to centre stage. This has already happened to a large extent with Brit Milah, so that Fran in “The Nanny” can refer to “throwing a bris” and the baby is often circumcised out of sight of the guests. Therefore the catering at Brisot Shalom should be particularly lavish.

    • November 8, 2009 5:17 pm

      Food is indeed a big part of the big deal! Jewish humour has it that the biggest issue with throwing a bris is choosing and affording the caterer!! And doing things so that the respective in-laws don’t nag about the occasion.

      Mother-in-law jokes all trace back, ultimately, to Jewish stand up comedy.

    • November 8, 2009 5:20 pm

      It has never ceased to dismay me that Jewish custom has not yet laid down that having anyone other than the father, mohel, and sandek be in the room while a bris takes place is simply not on. I predict this norm will evolve over the course of this new century, for a large majority of the Jews that continue to circumcise. I further predict that to allow a non-Jew to witness a bris will come to be seen as a serious faux pas.

      • November 9, 2009 4:16 pm

        Why do you say that? If the mother were made to watch close up, many subsequent sons would be left intact. If the whole* operation were put on a big screen for all the guests to see, Brit Shalom would become the norm in a year.

        *including the initial separation of the foreskin from the glans, akin to tearing a fingernail from its bed, which I suspect is done as part of “preparing the baby” and renders him insensible, so that he “slept right through it”.

  9. November 9, 2009 4:38 pm

    “If the mother were made to watch close up, many subsequent sons would be left intact. If the whole* operation were put on a big screen for all the guests to see, Brit Shalom would become the norm in a year.”

    Hugh, what you wrote above is precisely why bris is going to turn into a private affair! To prevent angry mothers from ending the custom!

  10. November 9, 2009 5:24 pm

    Our ancestors hid their genitalia for many thousands of years. Sexual acts were not discussed and took place under a blanket, except that somewhere along the line, most teens learned about vaginal penetration. Most women had biblical knowledge of only one man, the one they were married to. Widows seldom remarried. That man was someone from their own economic class and ethnic group. In such a world, diversity in sexual practices and in genital alterations could persist, across space and social groups. In such a world, circumcised Jews could coexist, albeit uneasily, with intact Christians.

    Over the past 50 years, taboos established when our ancestors were still cave dwellers, have crumbled. First it was established that almost no fiction was prosecutable for obscenity. The naked female body was commercialized; the vulva was simply the last body part to come to this party! Gay male porn flourished. Fellatio moved to center stage among commercially depictable sexual acts, perhaps because it is relatively safe sex and is easy to photograph. With the invention of the VHS, young women began to view porn in the privacy of home. Internet porn and broadband have simply taken this women viewing porn business to a higher level. Like it or not, porn focuses on the penis, if only because the vulva is hard to photgraph.

    Immigration to the USA surged. American universities filled with foreign graduate students. The Latino population surged. Casual sex between American young women and the foreign born became much more common.

    The American status quo re neonatal circumcision is breaking down. The American silence about the practice became untenable. Significant numbers of young women now have intimate knowledge of both flavours of penis.

    The fraction of Jewish women who have had casual sex with gentile lads in high school and college is much higher than it used to be. I bet that more often than not, a Jewish women under 35 years of age, who is not frum and who has a college degree, has had at least one sexual fling with an intact penis. And that fling includes more than simply the missionary position with the lights off. She has also studied the Pig in a Blanket with her eyes and hands. Today’s young Jewish women are the first generation of Jewish women for which intimate knowledge of the intact penis is not rare. Moreover, it is my impression that Jewish girls are less likely to feel guilt about this sexual experimentation than their Christian sisters.

    Aliyah is not a solution; Israel is not a protective cage against the Pig in a Blanket. A lot of young people of Christian ancestry visit Israel, for perfectly legitimate reasons. I suspect that quite a few unmarried Israeli women are not averse to a brief fling with an intact English speaking tourist.

    The upshot is that the social processes that allowed bris to continue as a minority practice are breaking down. Evidence of this breakdown include Auslander’s memoir, the films of Danae Elon and Ungar-Sargon, and the activities of Jewish intactivists such as Ronald Goldman, Norman Cohen, Laurie Evans, and Miriam Pollack.

    There are two YouTube videos starring Miriam Pollack, shot by someone else. They reveal her to be a frumpy woman, the mother of two sons who are about 30 years old. She looks like an old fashioned and less than sophisticated Ashkenazim housewife, the sort of women my mother had as girlfriends for years and years. And then she opens her mouth and out comes some of the most strongly worded praise of the intact penis I have ever encountered, and my heart leaps into my mouth. Dear Reader, there is no human force like an angry Jewish mother, and Mrs Pollack is one angry mother, and one fire-breathing friend of the foreskin. The pot called the age old Jewish patriarchal denigration of women is a pressure cooker about to explode.

    Once again, I am moved to tears by how some women go into Xena Warrior mode in the defense of that intensely masculine bit.

  11. hugh7 permalink
    November 9, 2009 8:20 pm

    RD: You confused me when you said “It has never ceased to dismay me…”

    It is not only Christians in Israel who are intact. Many emigres from Russia, born when Communism forbad it, have turned down the offer to become circumcised, and I’m told that a high proportion of Israelis are fully secular.

    I think you exaggerate both the age and prevalence of our particular sexual taboos: classical Greeks and the Maori of New Zealand both considered only the exposed glans to be obscene. I think you’ll find horror of the genitals is confined to the Abrahamic religions and the cultures they founded. Consider the exuberant erotic carvings of India.

    It is possible that fellatio moved to centre stage because it can deliver the addition stimulation that the circumcised penis needs.

    Other significant Jewish Intactivists are Dr Mark Reiss of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, Dr Leonard Glick, author of “Marked in your Flesh”, and the late Edward Wallerstein, author of the pioneering “Circumcision, an American health fallacy”.

    • November 9, 2009 8:54 pm

      Thank you for bringing Reiss and Glick to the attention of readers of this blog.
      Reading Wallerstein 26 years ago made me an intactivist. However, dear reader, he is long dead, and his 1980 book is now obsolete. But Wallerstein was a pioneer: although himself a circumcised Jew, he had a strong and warm feel for the sexual role of the foreskin. Even more moving is

      You are right that many, perhaps most Russian immigrants to Israel have said “no thank you” to a belated bris. I fear that they will be eager to circumcise their boys born in Israel, out of a desire to conform, the strongest driver here.

      I too have noticed that in many traditional cultures, the penis covered with foreskin is at worst indecent. No visible glans means no evident sexual excitement. The bared glans is obscene because evidence of lust.

      Fellatio is sex that can be done in a car parked in a lover’s lane. No need to disrobe. No pregnancy risk, no need to fiddle with condoms (which American young people used to be very ashamed to be seen buying). VD risk is low and was thought to be zero in my youth. In the 1940s and 50s, it moved from the American brothel to the mouths of middle class women in high school and at varsity. There is a drawback: she can get nauseated if he’s uncut and has not rinsed himself off immediately prior to getting down to business. But universal neonatal circumcision meant no worries, mate! Thus the Great American Blowjob was born…

      Hugh, you may not be aware that when young Brits, Canadians, Yanks, and Aussies visit a kibbutz, some unmarried young women residents acquire a roving eye. And some go a step further and see a rare opportunity to taste unkosher flesh, as it were… I promise you that I am not speaking from lived experience, LOL! Honest, I’ve never set foot in Israel. When it comes to living the lad life, I am all bark and no bite…

  12. February 28, 2010 11:51 am

    Ms Polansky:

    Bris is central to Jewish identity because historically, it made intermarriage with the Christian majority very difficult. In particular, it meant that a Jewish young man did not have the option of quietly walking away from his family, moving to the city, taking up a trade, and marrying a Christian woman. It meant that a Christian man who wanted to marry a Jewish woman could not do so by falsely representing himself as a Jew. In both cases, the lie would be found out on the wedding night. Over the past 150 years, intermarriage with Christians has become extremely common anyway, and bris is failing in its purpose. I am not surprised to discover that a few eloquent Jewish voices are denouncing the practice, and more than a few Jewish families around the world have abandoned the practice without public comment.

    Look up Miriam Pollack and Laurie Evans on YouTube. These are Jewish women who are intactivists. Also the writings of Debra Ollivier in Salon. Of Nelly Karsenty, a French Jewish woman who married an American and is in Facebook. It was Karsenty who taught me that bris is gone from French Judaism. (The unspoken reason, I bet, is to spare their sons embarrassment when attend public schools and serve in the French Army. France was the first nation in the world to pass a law stating that a Jew was a citizen like any other, with full civil rights.)

    Andrea Askowitz, also on YouTube, did circumcise her son, but you may find instructive her mixed feelings about bris and Jewish identity.

    An American intactivist in contact with Latin American Jews recently told me that about half of Jews in Argentina and Brazil are intact.

    I agree that brit milah is simply incompatible with the progressive Jewish commitment to gender equality and to the Jewish warm acceptance of sexual pleasure.

    Mull over the following 3 questions:

    * Do I believe in G-d?
    * Do I believe that Jews are G-d’s Chosen People?
    * Do I believe in G-d’s Covenant with the Chosen People?

    A Jew should circumcise his/her child only if (s)he can happily answer Yes to all three questions. And it would be far preferable if Jewish circumcision were to become a free choice made after one’s 21st birthday. A freely made adult gesture of loyalty to the Jewish people and their tradition has far more meaning than something imposed on a week-old infant.

    Finally, I see no religious reason why bris should be painful. Seeing the film “Cut,” in which the recently cut baby sobs his heart out after his bris, tore something deep in my soul. That scene was a harsh reminder that circumcision without anesthesia, both religious and medical, is barefaced sexual violence.

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