Health & Wellness: The puzzling rite of circumcision in the 21st century
Dr. Lisa Rosenkrantz
By Dr. Lisa Rosenkrantz
“We are having a boy!!”
Usually I hear
about this announcement through e-mail, after the parent-to-be, or
parents-to-be, have had their ultrasound and identified the sex of their baby.
In the 22 years I
have been doing brit milah, as a mohelet, a lot has changed.
Those number of
years ago, parents or the new grandparents were calling me after the baby was
born, to make arrangements for the brit milah. I would ask questions to
understand their family situation, how extended family may be affected, what
this child means for them, understand what their values are, and finally why
they want a brit milah.
would include: “It is what we do, right?” “This is for my parents,” “I want my
child to be Jewish,” and “This is important to me.” It was mostly taken for
granted that the birth of a Jewish boy generally entailed a ritual circumcision
eight days later.
conversations often take place a lot earlier. Parents-to-be have looked up
things on the internet, weighed the medical opinions, gone to social media. And
some parents ask, “Why are we still doing this barbaric act?” Choosing not to
circumcise their child, is a lot more common, than 22 years ago, for Jewish couples.
It cannot be taken for granted anymore that our children will circumcise their
children, never mind have a brit milah.
Forty years ago,
Erich Isaac, a professor at the City University of New York, wrote that ritual
observance of all kinds has become problematic not only for non-believers, but
for the thinking adherents of various faiths. As we come to understand the
historical roots of various practices, they may have made sense at the time,
but not as much now.
What are we to
make of the mysterious rite of circumcision?
It was practiced
by the ancient Hebrews, as well as by Israel’s pagan neighbours. As a general
statement, the whole Bible is against pagan practices, and bodily mutilation of
mentioned in Genesis 17, when it is used as a sign of the covenant between God
and Abraham and his descendants. The eighth day is stipulated in Leviticus 12:3
and a flint knife was used for the operation as mentioned in Joshua 5:2-3 and
Exodus 4:25. It does not talk about place, but it is never to occur in a
sanctuary or be conducted by a priest.
Today is not the first time that rite of circumcision has been
challenged by Jewish families. In the Greco-Roman period, incomplete
circumcision was practiced. Jewish males would undergo surgical procedures to
conceal their circumcisions, as they were the object of derision in the
gymnasium. It was at this time that the rabbis demanded that the whole glans be
exposed. It was also at this time that the ‘throne of Elijah’ was introduced,
and this derives from the thrones that the Romans used for divine visitors,
when a child would be named.
What do I think my
role is, today, as a mohelet?
Words have power.
Rightly spoken with proper intention, coming from the heart, words can turn the
everyday into something remarkable. My role is to facilitate and connect the
child and the family to this amazing covenantal Jewish experience.
In conversations with parents I often begin talking about the brit milah
ceremony, to explore and strengthen the parents’ attachment to the larger
Jewish community, to welcome them and to facilitate this process. I also
mention Shalom Baby, PJ Library, and events at the Soloway Jewish Community
Centre if they do not yet have a connection to a synagogue to reinforce the
opportunity and choice of this Jewish experience.
Ideally, they will
experience living a Jewish life as a source of joy that binds people together
in celebration and community rather than as laws that restrict and constrain
To be a Jew is to
become more than what we think we are. As a mohelet, I have the responsibility
of changing the personal, private event for the parents, into a public and
momentous event for their family, for the House of Israel and for the Divine.
Dr. Lisa Rosenkrantz is a family
physician and mohelet in Ottawa.