In the same week in which a San Francisco judge struck from the city’s November ballot a controversial measure aiming to ban circumcision of any male younger than 18, two reputable media sources reported on a relatively new, little-known ceremony that its proponents say may serve as a Jewish alternative to brit milah, or ritual circumcision.
The New York Times and National Public Radio both reported that the alternative, known as “brit shalom,” or “covenant of peace,” is a small but growing phenomenon among opponents of circumcision, the “covenant of blood” ceremony that Jews have practiced for millennia and that tradition traces back to the patriarch Abraham.
If you have never been to or even heard of the ceremony, you are not alone.
“I have never had the pleasure of attending a brit shalom,” said filmmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon, whose 2007 documentary, “Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision,” presents a critical look at the common surgical procedure.
Ungar-Sargon calls circumcision “physically harmful, medically irresponsible, and morally wrong,” but says that while creating an alternative to brit milah was “a great idea,” it clearly is one whose time has not yet come. “Calling it a marginal phenomenon would be generous,” he said.
A survey of mohelim (Jewish ritual circumcisers) and brit shalom “celebrants” working in and around Los Angeles confirms Ungar-Sargon’s impression.
Interviews with 12 of the 22 Jewish mohelim practicing in the greater Los Angeles area found that they had collectively performed approximately 1,400 traditional Jewish circumcisions in 2010.
By contrast, there are just five known brit shalom celebrants in Southern California. Of the four who could be reached for this article, two had never performed the ceremony.
The third, Rosalie Gottfried, a secular humanist “madricha” (Hebrew for leader), estimated that she had done six in the past decade, and always for parents opposed to circumcision.
“The only time I’m called upon is when a couple chooses to use ‘naming and welcoming’ instead of cutting,” Gottfried wrote in an e-mail.
The fourth, Hershl Hartman, is the secular Jewish “vegvayzer” (Yiddish for leader) of the Sholem Community in Los Angeles. He has been naming Jewish baby boys without circumcising them since the mid-1980s – “several dozen” in all, he says – at a rate of about five every year.
That annual number, however, includes both girls and boys – which is appropriate because secular Jewish leaders such as Hartman, who were among the earliest proponents of non-cutting naming ceremonies for Jewish baby boys, were motivated not by opposition to circumcision, but by a commitment to egalitarianism.
According to Gottfried, the earliest known brit shalom ceremony was performed around 1970 by her mentor, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism.
In 2002, the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews issued a statement about circumcision and Jewish identity that focused much of its attention on gender parity in religious practice.
“Our profound belief in the equality of men and women requires/ensures that Jewish welcoming ceremonies are not different for infant males than for infant females,” the statement’s preamble said.
“We actually take a really open and welcoming perspective that you don’t have to be circumcised in order to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Chalom, leader of the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago and dean of the North American branch of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
Saying that you do not have to be Jewish to be circumcised, however, is not the same thing as saying that you are opposed to circumcision. At least some of the secular Jewish leadership apparently is not anti-brit milah.
In June, for example, Chalom contributed an entry to a Chicago Tribune religion blog titled “Circumcision is Up to Parents,” in which he said that although “circumcision is non-consensual, irreversible, and painful,” there were valid medical, historical, and cultural reasons for parents to choose circumcision for their sons.
“If anyone asks me, I say do it in an antiseptic setting,” said Chalom, whose name is pronounced “shalom.”
He said he gets “one or two” inquiries every year about brit shalom and has done “four or five” ceremonies in the past 10 years.
The most complete list of celebrants of brit shalom includes five prominent Jewish leaders in the anti-circumcision movement among the 50 people who perform the ceremony worldwide. Many of the others named on that list, which is hosted on a prominent anti-circumcision website, are secular Jewish leaders.
Mark Reiss, the 78-year-old retired Jewish doctor who is executive vice president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision, maintains the list – although he had not performed a brit shalom until earlier this year. Since he turned firmly against circumcision in 1999, however, Reiss has worked to gather the names of rabbis and other Jewish leaders willing to perform brit shalom ceremonies.
Moshe Rothenberg, a New York City social worker and literacy teacher, is believed to have performed more of the non-cutting ceremonies than anyone in the world.
A Reconstructionist Jew and an active member of the anti-circumcision movement, Rothenberg estimated that he has performed the ceremony 150 to 200 times over nearly 25 years.
Unlike brit milah, which has liturgical elements that remain largely consistent between one ceremony and another, the Jewish boys’ naming ceremonies that do not feature circumcision are often tailored by parents and leaders, and therefore vary widely.
Judith Seid, a secular humanistic rabbi and cantor who leads Tri-Valley Cultural Jews in Pleasanton, does not usually even refer to the ceremony as a brit shalom. “We usually just call it a baby naming,” she said. “Same like with a girl.”
Seid presided over the naming of a baby boy in San Francisco on July 30 that included remarks about Jewish tradition, the child’s parents and grandparents, and the Jewish community. No mention was made of the circumcision that did not take place.
At other brit shalom ceremonies, however, officiants do talk about what is not going on.
In a booklet circulated at a Los Angeles naming ceremony in June, brit milah is referred to as “the prehistoric custom of the hunting/gathering/herding Hebrew tribes.”
“This is a ceremony of brit shalom, the peaceful covenant,” the text continued.
All the major branches of religious Judaism require – or at least encourage – brit milah.
And not all liberal rabbis who perform brit shalom ceremonies are sold on the new ritual. “I may not favor it, but I do it,” said Jerry Levy, 69, a Reform rabbi near San Francisco.
Levy said he believes that parents should be able to choose the content of their religious practice. He added, however, that brit shalom appeals mostly to parents who have a weaker sense of Jewish identity and less interest in Jewish continuity.
“I think that this not wanting to circumcise your sons is part of this process of diluting Judaism and assimilating into a very bland culture,” Levy said.
Jewish Journal of Los Angeles