Thursday, April 11, 2013

The State of Jewish Intactivism in the USA and Israel

The State of Jewish Intactivism in the USA and Israel

Today's Judaism is ready to reject traditional circumcision and to move to non-violent symbolic rituals. The interpretation of Jewish law is constantly in a state of development, flux, and evolution, expanding as the realm of human rights expands. As Jews, we are regularly evolving our lives and practices to adjust to the constantly evolving moral arc of human rights. This is not to say that all Jews, including the Orthodox will suddenly abolish circumcision surgery, and move to a symbolic interpretation without a period of reflection and forethought. However, progress is being made.

As Jews, we always behave in the best interest of humanity, and the greater good of the world in general. Jewish laws prevent us from hurting or causing pain to ourselves, others, and even animals. Each of us expresses our Judaism in our own ways, and based on our own beliefs, and today many young Jewish couples are coming to recognize that surgical circumcision is wrong. As Orthodox intactivist Eli Ungar Sargonhas invaluably explained, for most of today's Jews, moral and humanitarian behavior towards others is at the forefront of Judaism. These moral principles of Judaism are in direct conflict with the tradition of surgical circumcision.

At this time in history, aren't we ready to let go of traditions that no longer serve a constructive purpose in our lives, communities, and the lives of others? Aren't we ready to reform our rules to serve our highest ambitions, rights, morals and values instead? In most other areas Judaism has found the correct moral distinction between action and symbolism. Why not in this area as well?

Intactivism is a new form of human rights activism. Respectful intactivists criticize religious and historical excuses for circumcision without denigrating any group of people. We respect the peaceful elements of religion while criticizing violent traditions and their history. Throughout the religious history of circumcision ethical issues have been widely acknowledged to some degree, including by Rabbis. Intelligent intactivistsare respectful and effective when criticizing the religious history of circumcision surgery. Writings among Rabbis working to abolish circumcision in favor of a gentle welcoming have roots that are over 200 years old within the Reform Jewish movement.Almost 100 Rabbis in America, Israel, the UK, and elsewhere perform Jewish covenant ceremonies that respect the babies full physical integrity.

The body is an delicate biological eco-system, and damaging or removing any part has an effect on the whole. The integrity of the body is a moral value in Judaism. Jewish law already opposes damage to the body such as tattooing, cutting or piercing, and circumcision surgery should be perceived by 'today's Judaism in the same way. Surgery that is not necessary to avoid health problems is prohibited by Jewish law.

More Jewish voices in the USA and Israel are speaking up for a respectful and inclusive form of intactivism. 
"Shalom. I’m Israeli, I’m Jewish and I’m an Intactivist, which means I strive to end male circumcision performed on infants and children in Israel and around the world. My journey to Intactivism began seven years ago when my son was born.... I learned about the foreskin anatomy and its functions. I read testimonies by intact Israeli boys about their experiences growing up in Israel, who said it was no big deal. I read the statements by medical associations regarding circumcision, saying there was no medical indication for routine infant male circumcision... The next day I told my wife that I had doubts. She told me: “You don’t want to cut? We will not cut.” And that was it for her... Thanks to Kahal—a group of Israeli parents who did not circumcise their sons—I had the chance to meet face to face with other parents who have made the same decision I did."
Eran Sadeh, Israeli Intactivist, and founder of Gonnen Al Ha-Yeled (Protect the Child), one of Israel's largest Intactivist groups, Eight Reasons Why an Intact Penis Is Better Than a Cut Penis,, August 9, 2012.

"I say this as a Jewish parent from a proud rabbinic lineage, with relatives killed in the Holocaust; I say this as the maker of "It's a Boy!" - the 1995 British TV documentary that first broke the taboo on showing the hidden toll of circumcision. It demonstrated how a rite ingrained in Jewish and Muslim culture, and said to be divinely commanded, regularly results in acute suffering, injuries, mutilation and deaths.... Religious Jews manage without animal sacrifices, without polygamy, without a range of practices that enlightened rabbis found reasons to dispense with over the centuries.
Ironically, there was a time in Germany, long before the Nazi era, when some rabbinic leaders advocated abandoning circumcision; they termed it barbarism. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, refused to have his son circumcised.... I think about this positively: For my daughter's generation and those following, shouldn't Jewish and Muslim identities embrace children's rights? Nonviolent welcoming ceremonies would be equally meaningful for baby girls and boys. A handful of rabbis in America and Germanyhave been pioneering "brit shalom" ceremonies. These celebrate the perfection present at the birth of all children. That's the true praise for a Creator, after all, rather than "corrective surgery" for every newborn boy... Jewish and Muslim children deserve protection from a hurtful, dangerous custom overdue for replacement."
- Victor Schonfeld, An end to the agony, Haaretz (Israel), October 12, 2012.

"I’m opposed to circumcision. To me, it echoes one too many abusive procedures, on top of the whole consent problem. An eight-day-old child cannot consent to any kind of procedure."
Amy Soule, Cantor and Bris Shalom Celebrant, Parshat Lech L'cha: Why Infant Circumcision in Judaism Isn't, August 16, 2012.

"The Sadehs describe themselves as secular people with a deep bond to the country. “We feel that we are part of the community in which we live. Our son speaks Hebrew, is familiar with Hebrew literature and knows all the Jewish festivals. There is no way that children who grow up in Israel and attend the school system miss out on the country’s Jewish and Zionist character and on the ethos of Jewish life here.”

Galit, from the parenting forum, says her decision not to have her children circumcised actually helped her crystallize her Jewish identity. “I did not arrive at that decision from an anti-religious posture: I am against the act itself. After the decision was made I started to think more deeply about what Jewishness means to me. I discovered to my happiness that the ability to stand fully behind my traditional choices, in terms of my relations with Judaism, had deepened.”

Ido recalls that when the rabbi came to teach him the weekly Torah portion ahead of his bar mitzvah, “he explained to me about who a Jew is. One of the things he mentioned was that a Jew is someone who has undergone circumcision. I was 12 and a half at the time, and I remember smiling to myself and thinking that he didn’t have a clue. Already then I understood that being a Jew goes far deeper than what the rabbi thought regarding me − that a slice of the body is not a guarantee that I will feel true identity with Jewish culture.

“Rabbis can say whatever they want,” he continues. “I know that my Judaism cannot be taken from me, because I am part of a particular cultural history. I am a Jew who believes in precepts such as ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’; ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’; and ‘Remember the stranger, because you too were a stranger in Egypt.’”

"I hereby call Jews in Israel and anywhere in the world: learn about the advantages of an intact penis, learn about the disadvantages of a cut penis, and join the unstoppable movement of tens of thousands of Jews all over the world who welcome their sons to the world without violating their bodily integrity, without hurting them, and without putting them at risk. Here ends a year and its maledictions and a new one begins with its blessings. Happy New Year / Rosh Hashana.
Eran Sadeh, Founder, founder of 
Gonnen Al Ha-Yeled (Protect the Child), one of Israel's largest Intactivist groupsPress Conference in Germany in support of Germany's potential genital integrity law, September 12, 2012 (English translation from Hebrew.)

"The Jewish opposition to circumcision was just beginning 24 years ago when my wife Yehudit and I decided to leave our newborn son intact. We were not the only Jewish parents of our generation to reject circumcision, but we were among the first.
I performed my son’s birth ceremony and it was beautiful. We called it a brit b’lee milah or “covenant without circumcision.” The gift of life came unencumbered by any cutting and joy permeated the room...
Samuel was accepted and welcomed everywhere he went, in and out of the Jewish community, and within all of the relationships we had among the different Jewish denominations, including our Orthodox Jewish friends. To my knowledge, no one ever teased Samuel while he was growing up about his being in a distinct minority as a Jew with an intact penis....
Samuel’s birth ceremony was the first that I conducted, but would not be the last. Over the past several decades, I have officiated at more than a hundred birth ceremonies for intact Jewish boys in New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. The ceremony I have developed includes blessings associated with it being a joyous event (candle lighting and Shehechiyanu); honoring the parents and grandparents; and creating, along with the parents, a meaningful alternate ritual. Non-cutting ceremonies for Jewish boys are called by different names, including “brit b’lee milah” (covenant without cutting), “brit shalom” or “bris shalom” (covenant of peace), “brit ben” (covenant for a boy)...
Judaism has evolved through centuries. It is inevitable and right that parts of Judaism have changed. We who oppose infant circumcision believe further change is needed. Circumcision, despite its historic centrality, has to go. It is nothing short of child abuse. No parent or religious leader would ever choose to carry out or endorse such a heinous act if they held this point of view."
- Moshe Rothenberg, Bringing a Jewish Circumcision Alternative (Brit Shalom) to New York Metro Families,, March 17, 2012.

"The issue of circumcision, in my view, is whether we want submission and wounding, as a symbolic act, to mark a man's relationship to God and to the community in general. I no longer believe such a wounding is defensible."
"There is more emotion about eliminating circumcision than perhaps any other traditional practice. But it is time to find a different symbol of a boy's entrance into the community. Instead of cutting our sons, we might celebrate their masculinity. A more appropriate symbol would be a nurturing act, one that would affirm a boy's relationship to a loving father, both his own and that of his God. We might, for example, feed our sons, since a meal is also a traditional symbol of covenant. Indeed, in one text, Moses and Aaron and the elders go up to the top of the mountain, and when they see God, they eat and drink. Feeding our sons, rather than wounding them, would be a symbol of our nurturing relationship to them."
- Rabbi and Professor Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, A Masculine Critique of a Father God, Tikkun, September/October 1995

"I am a Jew and I question circumcision. I have been questioning circumcision ever since I learned of the rite as a girl. At that time I questioned circumcision because it seemed wrong to cause pain to infants and because it seemed strange to surgically alter a healthy God-given part of the body. As I grew into adulthood I added questions. I continue to add them. I question circumcision because of its risks. I question it because it is seen by many as a perfunctory act rather than a spiritual one. I question it because it seems to require parents to take advantage of their infant's dependence and weakness. I also question it because of the paradox that those who support infant circumcision often cringe at the idea of circumcision of an older child as a puberty rite. I am sure all of these concerns are familiar to health professionals, who also question circumcision."
Lisa Braver Moss, The Jewish Roots of Anti-Circumcision ArgumentsPresentation at The Second International Symposium on Circumcision, San Francisco, California, April 30-May 3, 1991.

"In fact, Dr. Avshalom Zoossmann-Diskin, one of the most vociferous objectors in Israel to circumcision and the founder of Ben Shalem – an organization which fights circumcision – says that in his many years of anti-circumcision activism he has encountered only one harsh response...
... Eran and Maya Sadeh, who live in the north of the country. They say that the most shocking piece of information they came across about circumcision, and the one that influenced them most deeply was the view of Maimonides on the subject (see Circumcision in Judaism below). The great 13th century physician and philosopher “accorded emasculating justification to circumcision,” Eran Sadeh says. “He maintained explicitly that it is done in order to affect male sexuality and reduce the pleasure of the sex act. For me, that connected with female circumcision and shocked me. I immediately read up on the physiological aspects and understood that what Maimonides said is correct: Circumcision affects the functioning of the genital organ in sexual relations.
“I connected that with my legal knowledge about human rights and understood that it’s wrong from that point of view as well. You take a person in the most vulnerable and helpless condition and amputate part of his body. Maimonides talks about that, too. Circumcision is performed when the infant is eight days old, because the bond between the parent and the child is not yet very strong and the parent is capable of inflicting this on his son. It is a gross violation of human rights, perpetrated by none other than the child’s parents, those who are responsible for protecting him.”
"Of course, my brother, Naphtali, is part of the film. You see in the film [that his first reaction] was: "Oh no. Not another one of Eliyahu's controversial subjects!" and then I started telling him some things and he was very receptive; in the film, you see him sort of struggling a little bit with some of the information. Now, he's very strongly against circumcision; he said he would never do that to a child—[but] not so much for the same reasons that I have, and this is something that I've found is very interesting: People who are opposed to circumcision often have different emphases: What is more important to them, what is less important to them, what they think is a bigger problem or not such a big problem, etc. [In any case], my brother definitely agrees with me that [circumcising a completely healthy child] should not be done, and he would never do it to a child of his... The only ritual religious consequence of being an intact Jewish male is that you're not allowed to eat from the Paschal Lamb, which was a sacrifice that was brought when the temple was around, and hasn't been brought since the temple was destroyed—and we don't know when the temple is going to be rebuilt. That's it!
So, I think [that] as more people become aware of this information and leave their boys intact, we're going to have a situation where there are lots of intact Jewish [men], some of [whom] are going to be religious and are going to be participating in everything [in which] circumcised Jewish men are participating."
Circumcision of boys amounts to bodily harm, German court rules (June 27)

"As a liberal Jewish woman, I agree 100 per cent with the German court’s decision [to ban circumcision].
Maimonides knew, centuries ago, that circumcision impacted men’s sex drive, making sex and masturbation more difficult and less pleasurable, in addition to leaving penises weaker. According to him, circumcision’s job is to cause pain to boys’ members in order to accomplish the objectives stated above; it’s not about any covenantal accord referred to in scripture at all.
It’s also interesting to note that the first people to be circumcised in the Torah are teens and adults capable of making the decision on their own terms, something that makes sense given a comment in the Talmud that somebody ready for circumcision is akin to a groom.
On first glance, they’re not similar at all, since eight-day-old infants are vulnerable and deserve to be protected from anything unnecessary that can hurt them and grooms are older, capable of independent decision-making.
However, if we return to the Scripture and think about everything in a marriage context, perhaps the similarity is this: if someone ready for circumcision is akin to a groom, he has to be capable of rational decision-making and ready to live with the consequences of his actions."
- Amy Soule, Hamilton, The Spec.

"As a proud Jew and an opponent of infant male circumcision, I wanted to join this protest in a meaningful way. It is my belief that a deep concern for ethics lies at the core of the Jewish tradition and it is this concern, along with the ability to adapt to new information, that gives meaning and relevance to my heritage in the 21st century... Although we are a marginal voice within the Jewish community, there have always been Jewish opponents to Brit Milah. It makes me proud that some of us are leading the current movement against this cruel and unusual practice both within the Jewish community and in the world at large."
Eliyahu Ungar-SargonFacebook Campaign Protests AAP Circumcision Policy,, September 2, 2012

"…As a progressive Reform Jew I was raised to believe that any conflict between human rights and Jewish law and/or tradition, is always resolved in favor of human rights, and that this does not diminish Judaism, but in fact makes it stronger… So when does circumcision become a bad idea? If a single child suffers from it directly, or indirectly from complications, or ... a single child should die (which is not common but does happen) isn't that enough warrant a re-evaluation? ... I believe it is time for the Reform movement to consider how contemporary medical and ethical studies on circumcision put the practice at odds with its cherished values of human rights and social justice -- values which, in my opinion, are truly what defines and are central to Judaism."
- Thomas Wolfe, Why do we need an alternative Brit Milah (Bris) ceremony?


Jewish Intactivist Resources and Groups
Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective By Ron Goldman, Ph.D.
Beyond the Bris by Rebecca Wald.
Jews Against Circumcision
Cut: A Movie by A Orthodox Intactivist

Israeli Intactivist Groups (Mostly in Hebrew)
Protect the Child
The Israeli Association Against Circumcision / Intact Son
Kahal (Israeli Group for Parents of Intact Sons)

Peaceful Covenant Texts for Jewish Parents. 
100+ Rabbis who lead covenant without cutting ceremonies
Song for an Intact Jewish Boy’s Welcoming Ceremony
Brit B'lee Milah Ceremony
A Brit Shalom Ceremony

Judaism, the Foreskin and Human Rights.Rabbis on a Covenant without Circumcision
Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 1.
Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 2.
Jewish Law, the Foreskin, and Human Rights | Part 3.

Jewish Parents' Experiences Keeping their Sons Intact.
Humanistic Judaism is Increasingly Intactivist
Dear Elijah: A Conservative Jewish Father's Letter to His Intact Son | Published on Peaceful Parenting.
Moshe Rothenberg: Ending Circumcision in the Jewish Community? | Envisioning an Intactivist Judaism..
Michael Kimmel: The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin | Published in Tikkun. 
Sarah Rockwell: Lucking Into Bris Shalom | Published on Beyond the Bris.
Laura Shanley: A Jewish Woman Denounces Circumcision | A Jewish Childbirth Educator keeps her sons intact.
Stacey Greenberg: My Son: The Little Jew with a Foreskin | Published in Mothering Magazine.
Intact & Jewish | Published on the Natural Parents Network.
The Naming | Published on Very, Very Fine
Diane Targovnik: How "Cut" Saved My Son's Foreskin : A Movie Review | Published on Beyond the Bris.
Circumcision Questions (letter from an intact Jew). |  Published in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin.

Jewish Intactivism

1 comment:

  1. Foreskin feels REALLY good. Seriously, it's the best part.