Some Jewish parents break ranks over circumcision

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

They recited Hebrew blessings, lit 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 the baby be given a Hebrew name in memory of Wandner's mother. But neither Wandner nor her husband, Robin Grossinger, wanted to inflict pain and trauma on their new baby for a surgical procedure doctors say is not medically necessary.

The couple, of Berkeley, Calif., are among a small but growing number of American Jews who are 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 Jewish ethical imperative not to harm another human being.

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

But it would be difficult to overstate the significance of the practice in Jewish life, even for the non-observant. There are 613 commandments in Judaism, said Rabbi Moshe Kushner, director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, but "that single commandment [to circumcise] 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 Jewish parents hold a bris in the home, where the cutting is done by a trained person called a mohel. Others have their sons circumcised in the hospital.

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 parents 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 knows "at least a couple of dozen practicing Jewish families" who don'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 we don't all follow."

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."

It's hard to know how many Jews are giving up the practice, as statistics are not broken down by religion. But an unscientific survey conducted recently by MAMY, an Israeli parenting Web site, found that 3.2 percent of Israeli Jews no longer circumcise.

In the Chicago area, only Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in the northern suburbs will officiate at a non-cutting bris.

Chalom performs naming ceremonies for babies of both sexes, but in his six years as a rabbi in the Midwest, he has done only two for baby boys whose parents decided not to circumcise. "It's definitely a minority perspective," he said.

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

Rabbi Jay Heyman, who officiated at Leo Grossinger's alternative bris, said he does 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," said Heyman. "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."

Greg and Rachel Danzig decided not to circumcise the baby boy they're expecting in July. But the Ft. Lauderdale couple thought long and hard about it, fearing some relatives would feel betrayed.

"Some Jews feel this is what makes you a Jew," said Greg Danzig.

Thomas Wolfe of Wheeling, W.Va., discovered that even progressive rabbis will refuse to budge on this point. When his son, Charles, was born in March, the rabbis at his Reform synagogue would not even consider an alternative bris.

Unwilling to subject Charles to the possible complications of an irreversible surgical procedure, Wolfe and his wife decided to hold their own "baby arrival shower" at an indoor playground.

Many rabbis defend the practice of circumcision by citing its medical benefits. There is some evidence it can prevent urinary-tract infections in infancy, reduce the already-small risk of penile cancer later in life and provide some protection against sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics says the "potential benefits" don't clearly outweigh the risks, which include pain, bleeding, infection, permanent injury and reduced sensation.

"People fall back on medical benefit when 'God commanded us' isn't strong enough," said Chalom. "In the end, that's a rationalization. The reason they're doing it is it's the Jewish thing to do."

Chicago filmmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon, who was brought up in an Orthodox family, didn't think that was a good enough reason.

Ungar-Sargon recently completed a documentary, "Cut," about the conflict of values he sees in Jewish ritual circumcision: The ancient faith demands that Jews carve a sign into the flesh of their newborn males, but modern ethics holds that performing an unnecessary operation on a child too young to consent is a violation of human rights.

"I hoped to start a much-needed discussion about a practice very few people think about seriously," he said. "Through that discussion, my hope is that people will confront important issues about what it means to be Jewish."

Ungar-Sargon has great respect for Jews -- including his own father, a physician and Talmudic scholar -- who view circumcision as abusive but do it anyway because they are in a covenant with God.

But for himself, Ungar-Sargon said, being Jewish "means knowing when to be disobedient."