Jewish Life

KOLOT: The status of Brit Milah today

By Rabbi Gary Atkins


Rabbi Gary Atkins

Rabbi Gary Atkins

Although the covenant of brit milah – ritual circumcision – goes back to earlier Torah portions in the book of Genesis, brit milah as a fundamental Jewish act occurs in many books of the Tanach [Tanach is the name used for the canon of the Hebrew Bible. It is an acronym formed from the first letters of the books of the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings)]. We read about it extensively in relation to Passover (in both Torah and haftorah readings) and we read it again recently as a commandment in Vayikra, Chapter 12, verse 3. Jews have been faithfully performing this mitzvah for thousands of years and have been maintaining the covenant in the face of persecution and condemnation. Thinking back to Chanukah, history teaches that Antiochus’ edict forbidding ritual circumcision was a proximate cause of the rebellion that was the basis for the holiday.

However, brit milah is increasingly under attack today, sometimes for the same reasons that were brought up millennia ago: that it is a mutilation of the body; that it is done without consent; that it is somehow “unseemly.” The news reports, sometimes making it even to the general press, are full of stories from Germany and other European (especially Scandinavian) countries where politicians are trying to forbid its performance. Ironically, this is an area where Jewish and Muslim interests coexist. Recently in San Francisco, a small group of activitists tried to bring a “referendum” on all types of circumcision. This referendum was squashed by a court and has not been heard of since. But the movement is much stronger and more politically supported in Europe.

This is especially ironic as, for the first time in decades, the American Association of Pediatrics recently issued a recommendation that declares that there are health benefits to circumcision. Before they were always studiously neutral on the topic, allowing it for religious reasons but not feeling that the procedure should be routinely endorsed. Now they state, quoting from their website:

“Male circumcision is a common procedure, generally performed during the newborn period in the United States. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) formed a multidisciplinary task force of AAP members and other stakeholders to evaluate the recent evidence on male circumcision and update the Academy’s 1999 recommendations in this area. Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits identified included prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed this statement.”

As a second form of irony, there is also ongoing controversy in New York City. In certain ultra-Orthodox circles (though not all), part of the ceremony (discussed but given a wide berth by most commentators) is known as “metzizah b’pe,” oral suction of blood from the cut area by the mouth of the mohel. Aside from any aesthetic considerations, the practice has resulted in a few mohelim infecting, with tragic results, several babies, even leading to deaths. Today, most Orthodox mohelim who feel oral suction is necessary do this via a pipette, which avoids any risk of infection. However the ultra-Orthodox feel, in my opinion, that, as in other areas, the “wagons must be circled” when there is any attempt to criticize one of their practices, and there have been literally dozens of articles in the New York City area as the issue is debated within the New York City Board of Health and the court system.

Happily, the vast majority of American Jews continues to feel the value of this mitzvah and its power from generation to generation. It is reassuring to know there are health benefits to this mitzvah, but its essence remains the act of covenant, the continuation of Judaism throughout the generations.

Anyone with any questions on brit milah is welcome to contact me.

Rabbi Gary Atkins is spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Synagogue and a board-certified mohel.

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