Eight days after birth, a Jewish male infant is circumcised in a ceremony called the bris milah (bris means “covenant” in Hebrew). It’s a party: relatives and friends gather to watch; the baby gets a drop of wine to dull the pain and then sits on his grandfather’s lap; his grandfather holds him steady. The mohel—a specialist trained in both the Jewish ritual and medical procedure of circumcision—says the prayers and then quickly cuts off the baby’s foreskin. The whole thing is done in less than a minute, and then the guests talk and eat while the infant, after a storm of crying, usually falls asleep, exhausted by the commotion.
Bris Milah is the oldest ritual in Judaism, dating to the patriarch Abraham, who, according to Genesis, had himself circumcised at the age of 99 in order to mark his covenant with God—the birth of the Jewish people. Since then, circumcision has been seen as an essential aspect of Jewish identity, marking the individual Jewish male’s entry into the Jewish people’s collective covenant with God.
The weight of this symbolism is powerful, even for secular Jews like me, who live at a critical distance from Jewish religious tradition. I think of my friend Sarah, for example. She and her husband at the time, who was not even Jewish, were living a completely secular life in rural Guatemala when she gave birth to her son, Logan, and decided that he would have to be circumcised. Sarah’s family were orthodox Jews, with several rabbis in her family line, and though she was in rebellion against her traditional upbringing, when the time for a decision came she ultimately wanted her son to identify himself as a Jew.
Since there was neither synagogue nor mohel anywhere near them in the Guatemalan countryside, Sarah had to try to explain what she wanted in Spanish to the local doctor, who was apparently mystified by the idea—till her husband drew him a picture.
The decision should have been far less dramatic for me, since my husband was also Jewish and we lived in New York, where a mohel was just a phone call away. Circumcision is, of course, common in the U.S., and is done routinely in hospitals across the country for male infants, regardless of religion. Nevertheless, agreeing to a bris milah for my sons was always an extremely difficult decision for me, one that I had to revisit each time.
Though I felt the pull of tradition much as Sarah had in the jungles ofGuatemala, I could not bear the thought of giving pain to my children. Each time I tried to convince my husband not to have our sons circumcised. But it was so important to him that each time I submitted to his wish and the religious necessity. My oldest son’s bris was in the hospital and in a fit of cowardice I did not attend. At my second son’s bris I went into another room at the actual cutting of the foreskin.
My daughter has also faced the complicated emotional conflicts caused by the bris—even more complicated in her case, since her husband is not Jewish but Greek Orthodox Christian. Though they had decided early in her pregnancy to make both religious traditions available to their son as he grew up, they had also agreed not to get him circumcised; the thought of giving him unnecessary pain was simply too upsetting. But everything changed for my daughter after the baby was actually born; suddenly she felt the same powerful tug of tradition as my friend Sarah did all the way in Guatemala, as I did with her brothers. She had to reopen the question with her husband at the worst possible time, just days after the baby’s birth, when they were physically and emotionally exhausted. Nevertheless, he agreed, and the baby had a bris.
I was there, of course, listening to the mohel say the prayers, feeling all the deep, bittersweet emotions of the occasion: sorrow at the baby’s pain, but pleasure at his entry into our family, and a kind of awe at the way tradition connects us with previous generations, over the passage of centuries. But I was especially moved, frankly, because I was sure that it was love for her deceased father, rather than a concern with abstract religious doctrine, that had propelled my daughter to finally decide to give her son a bris. Her son would never have the chance to know his grandfather, sadly, but he would nevertheless be connected to him in this profound way, through the Jewish covenant of bris milah.