Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tikkun, Jewish Intactivism, and Human Kindness

Tikkun, Jewish Intactivism, and Human Kindness

Judiasm, Intactivism and the Movement to Enlarge the Scope of Human Rights

Jews and the Jewish world have been deeply involved in the many of the latest movements for human rights. The 1960’s and 1970’s were the beginning of the women’s and racial equality movements, and the environmental movement began to make inroads into general American consciousness. The 1990’s and 2000’s marked the beginning of the LGBT equality movement in the United States. In the 2000’s, ecological issues began to be acknowledged even by government and industry. In 2013, the Occupy movement that emerged in New York City spread worldwide as people began to consider economic necessities as a component of human rights. As the moral arc of human rights has increased, Judaism began to address similar issues. The rights of women were taken into account. All non-Orthodox Jewish traditions began to welcome gay congregants and perform weddings for gay couples. In many Jewish congregations environmental issuesadvocacy for peace, and humanitarian activities are viewed as more central than specific observances such as the minutia of Kashrut food preparation.

As we become aware of new ideas and strive to live in the most ethical ways possible, we review our beliefs and adjust them regularly to improve our own lives, and those of others.

On Babies and Bodies: Jewish Ethics, Intactivism and Social Responsibility

According to the religious interpretation of Halachah, all Jewish laws are interpreted within the framework of moral and human rights. Morals and human rights are always placed above laws, ritual, and scripture. This is a constantly evolving process as the realm of human rights continues to expand. Slavery and animal sacrifice were outlawed from Judaism thousands of years ago. Women increasingly gained rights, and eventually entered into the Rabbinate. Most Jewish communities are fully accepting of gays and lesbians and most non-Orthodox Rabbis will perform gay and lesbian weddings. Issues like the environmentcreating a compassionate world, and global human rights affect the ways that Jews adjust their lives to act in more ethical ways. Today children and babies are seen as possessing more human rights and more Jews are questioning circumcision as a result, even Rabbis. Some are questioning circumcision from a historical perspective. There are even some Jews who support laws against circumcision. Some Jewish Intactivists like Moshe Rothenberg and Ron Goldman have been pushing Jews to acknowledge these issues for decades, while many younger Jews are adopting Intactivist views more easily due to the use of the internet and holistic parenting ideas. The rise of Feminist thought and gender equality are also factors in the rise of Intactivism among a younger generation of educated Jews.
Many intact Jewish males feel comfortable in religious Jewish environments and are glad that they were kept intact. Intact Jewish males can be Bar Mitzvahed, read from the Torah, have a Jewish wedding and can do any other Jewish religious service in practice today.

The Evolution of Jewish Ritual and Practice

Blogger and lawyer Rebecca Wald and novelist and writer Lisa Braver Moss, both Jewish mothers, are working on a guide to these new rituals. Titled ‘Brit Shalom, a New Jewish Way to Welcome Baby’, it will contain the text of various peaceful Jewish covenant rituals, and contain the words of parents and Rabbis who favor it. Dr. Mark Reiss has compiled a list of more than 200 Brit Shalom celebrants, mostly Rabbis and Cantors, who perform these humane welcoming rituals.A couple of the experiences of Jewish parents who’ve chosen a Brit Shalom can be read here: Natalie Bivas (performed by two Rabbis), Shawn Stark’s son’ Brit Shalom led by Rabbi David MivisairStephari (with photos), Moshe RothenbergMichael S. Kimmel(in Tikkun magazine), Diane TargovnikSara RockwellRabbi Steven BlaneSome Jews who are rejecting circumcision are basing their beliefs in fundamental Jewish moral principles.
Young Jewish Families Keeping Their Newborn Sons Intact
Over 100 years ago, one of the most important leaders of the Jewish Reform movement, Rabbi Abraham Geiger wrote "I cannot support circumcision with any conviction, just because it has always been held in high regard. It remains a barbaric, bloody act, which fills the father with anxiety and subjects the mother to morbid stress. The idea of sacrifice, which once consecrated the procedure, has certainly vanished among us, as it should. It is a brutal act that does not deserve continuation. No matter how much religious sentiment may have clung to it in the past, today it is perpetuated only by custom and fear, to which surely we do not want to erect temples."

Today Jewish parents are finding many choices other than Brit Milah, including other covenant rituals, such as 
the well-popularized Brit Shalom. With more than 200 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbis and Cantors officiating at them, these peaceful welcoming are becoming a much more mainstream Jewish phenomenon.

Here are what some Jewish leaders are saying about the subject today.
“Question: Can a child who has not been circumcised have a Bar Mitzvah?

Answer: There is no doubt that, according to Jewish law, status is automatically conferred from mother to child, and that a child is considered Jewish solely by virtue of his or her birth. A Brit does not make a child Jewish, and the lack of Brit Milah has no impact on a child’s status. Not fulfilling the Mitzvah of Brit is no different from not keeping kosher or not observing Shabbat. There is no inherent Halachic reason why an uncircumcised person should not be called to the Torah or be allowed a Bar Mitzvah or a Jewish wedding or any other Jewish activity.”
Rabbi Chaim Weiner, 
To Include Or Exclude?, A Question of Jewish Law, February 2, 2011.

“…many committed and affiliated Jews… are choosing to welcome their male babies with a brit shalom, a covenantal ceremony without cutting…. Circumcision may be an ancient rite, but it is wrong. It is wrong in terms of Jewish values for it violates the most fundamental Jewish principles of sanctifying life. Spiritualizing the wounding of circumcision does not change the damage, nor make it ethical. As Deuteronomy 30:6 teaches, what is truly required of us in order to contact the divine has to do with the architecture of the heart, not the alteration of male genitals.

Over the ages Judaism has demonstrated a remarkable ability to mutate in practice and retain the integrity of its spiritual legacy. It's time that our gatekeepers lead the way, the people of Israel, will demand the gates be opened.
Miriam Pollack, Rite is ancient, but wrongBoulder Daily Camera, 07/27/2014.

“One of those officiants is Elyse Wechterman, a Reconstructionist rabbi based in Massachusetts. (She also leads inclusive services for families with special needs in Rhode Island.) She calls her ceremony a brit atifah, a Covenant of Wrapping. The ritual involves wrapping the baby in a tallit, as a sign of the covenant between God and humanity—the ritual can be used with boys who aren’t being circumcised, boys who are, and girls. For Wechterman, the fact that the ritual is so broadly embracing is important. “I feel like this normalizes the conversation and welcomes the child into the Jewish people in a way that is meaningful, speaks to the needs of the parents and is reflective of the wisdom and depth of the traditions,” she told me. “For many people, the tallit is a symbol of protection, a loving embrace under the ‘Wings of Shechinah.’ I’m framing what I do in the positive: What authentic Jewish wisdom and insights can we bring to the welcoming of this child?”
For Wechterman, brit atifah lacks the defensiveness that sometimes defines brit shalom and those who advocate for it. “I’m not saying brit shalom isn’t meaningful,” she said. “But it seems more defined by what it isn’t then what it is. I am not interested in doing ‘not-circumcision’—I’m interested in welcoming the next generation of Jews into the covenant in the most meaningful ways possible, which does not necessarily have to include brit milah for boys.” (The fact that different practitioners of circumcision-free rituals have issues with other practitioners of circumcision-free rituals reminds me of the joke, “two Jews, three synagogues.”)
Wechterman enumerated some of the reasons people choose not to do brit milah: “One of the biggest impetuses is the growth of the natural childbirth movement; parents are questioning a whole bunch of previously held conceptions, for good reasons. And I think the impact of feminism can’t be understated. A core predicate of contemporary feminism is the notion of bodily integrity and physical self-determination.”
And having a ceremony, rather than simply doing nothing, can help distressed family members process. “I’ve seen grandparents who were so shocked and upset that their children weren’t circumcising, and I do a ceremony that affirms a Jewish life for their grandchild and they’re moved to tears,” Wechterman said.
She continued, “I’m not opposed to circumcision. But if I were going to stake a claim on what’s essential for Jewish people to do, I’m not sure brit milah would be it. I’d rather focus on getting people to observe Shabbat and make meaningful choices about food. Jewish continuity is more about embracing Jewish practices that enhance our lives, not this one moment of a son’s life.” The resistance to opting out of brit milah, she thinks, has manifold reasons. But one of them is that the deciders have always been men who are circumcised. “Men who are circumcised can’t imagine not doing it, just as men who aren’t circumcised can’t imagine doing it,” she pointed out. “But with significant numbers of women rabbis, things are changing.” And with more parents questioning everything from vaccines to genetically modified food to the need for organized religion, things may be changing pretty rapidly.
To Cut or Not To Cut: Finding Alternatives to Circumcision, Marjorie Ingall, Tablet, July 9, 2014.

“There are really no practical religious ritual consequences - and I’m speaking about this from an Orthodox perspective too - to not being circumcised… The only exclusion in Jewish law – even from an Orthodox perspective, for an intact Jewish male is the Pascal Lamb, the Korban Pesach which hasn’t been brought in 2,000 years, and it won’t be brought again until the Temple’s rebuilt ostensibly. If it’s even brought when the Temple’s rebuilt, if the Temple’s rebuilt.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Georgetown University, Washington DC Q&A with Ryan McAllister & Rabbi Binyamin Biber, September 22, 2011.

"Because slavery, in any form, is a blatant human rights abuse, no Jew alive today keeps slaves, despite the many mitzvahs that an institution of slavery would bring him. Judaism always prioritizes human rights, so much so that thousands of opportunities for mitzvahs were abandoned with a tradition deemed to be a human rights violation...
As per rabbinic sources, present day bris milah at eight days old is done for the purpose of injuring an infant and permanently mutilating his sex organs. It is important to read that sentence again. If the reader has understood, he will find it impossible to defend this practice further. If he cannot find grounds to disagree with it, he must ask himself why he dismisses the Torah's inherent mitzvahs associated with human slavery. Such a train of thought inevitably begins: “Slavery is wrong because it forces something upon someone against his will.” This train of thought must be carefully examined and reapplied accordingly.

One may well make the assertion that while one is not required to own slaves, bris milah is seemingly mandatory. However, there is no Torah verse discouraging slavery either, and it stands to reason that the practice would bring with it numerous opportunities for mitzvahs. Despite this, no posek would permit a person to keep a slave nowadays, even if he merely wanted more mitzvahs to fulfill. The 21st century views slavery as a human abomination, and despite its prominence in the Torah, Jews have recognized this practice as harmful and unproductive for human welfare, even in its most compassionate of forms.

Circumcision of an infant is increasingly being viewed a human rights violation, and must certainly be viewed as such... However, no one in the modern world has the right to do this to another human without his permission. Circumcision of a baby is a serious malpractice and human rights violation, and must accordingly be viewed the same way all human rights violations are viewed within the Jewish faith."
Yechiel Weiss, 
Judaism, Bris Milah, and Human Rights: A Torah Perspective, 

"…the ritual and religious consequences of not being circumcised amount to nothing. There is absolutely nothing that an intact Jewish male today cannot do. Contrast this with - I'm talking from the Orthodox perspective - non-Sabbath observance. Jews who are not Sabbath observant are not trusted in Halachic courts of law, they cannot be witnesses at people's weddings, they cannot be trusted with issues of Kashrut, making sure that things are Kosher... Here's an issue that is very easy to solve. You don't even have to argue for the eradication of male circumcision in the Jewish tradition for everyone to be happy. All you have to do is say that this will be a decision that an individual makes at an age when they can make the decision.
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, NYC Q&A with Rabbi Steven Blaine & Laurie Evans.

"Yes, I have a son, and when he was born, I hired a mohel to cut him. What a dolt I was. An ignorant fundamentalist, nothing more. My wife, born and raised Catholic, had to quash the urge to seize the boy and vanish into the woods behind our house before the mohel began. I wish she had."
Scott Raab, 
A Jew Against Circumcision, Esquire, July 31, 2013.  

 "[Circumcision] be it religious or secular, has no place in a humane society, nor in a religion or culture, such as Judaism, that emphatically values the protection of the helpless, the pursuit of justice, and reverence for life.
As a strongly affiliated Jew, Hebrew speaker, and lover of Israel, I will continue to do what I can to educate other Jews about the very serious harms of circumcision. Certainly, no parent intends to inflict damage upon his or her child, but the misinformation, disinformation, mythologies, and deeply held allegiances are profound and widespread. As couples realize how unholy it truly is to hold another individual down and take a knife to their tender genitals, more and more Jews, both in the U.S and in Israel, are choosing to welcome their babies into the Jewish community with a non-violent ceremony, a brit shalom.

As secular Jews, and even, some orthodox Jews, question and reject circumcision in greater and greater numbers, a tipping point will occur. Certainly, no amount of scientific evidence documenting the suffering of the newborn, or the anatomical importance of the foreskin, will dissuade many of the orthodox from changing this practice, but, hopefully, in the not too distant future, they will be the anachronistic few; the rest of us will have moved on to a more enlightened, gentler and kinder embrace of our precious, newborn baby boys, and redefinition of the most fundamental mitzvah: above all, choose life."
Miriam Pollack, NORM News, 
Winter 2013/2014.


A New Guide to Intact Jewish Welcoming: Review of Celebrating Brit Shalom by Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald


A New Guide to Intact Jewish Welcoming
Review of Celebrating Brit Shalom by Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald
(Notim Press, 2015)

Copies available at and

Guest Review:

Rebecca Wald and Lisa Braver Moss have followed a time-honored tradition in Judaism, one followed by Rabbis, scholars, and the Jewish people for centuries. They've looked at our world, the way we practice Torah, live our lives, and proposed adjustments to accommodate a more ethical approach. The guide, titled Celebrating Brit Shalom is the first published prayer book for leaders of this new Jewish ritual. So far, the book has won good reviews from Jewish celebrants in the UKprogressive Jews in California,Orthodox-raised Jewish Intactivist Jonathan Friedman and others.

A surgical, violent practice that is somewhat unquestioned in Judaism, is finally being discussed widely in the Jewish press. The subject of the book is bris ceremonies that exclude circumcision, for Jewish boys who are not going to be circumcised. These rituals emerged in the 1970's and 1980's and there are many beautiful stores about them. They are called a variety of different names, but they share in common a rejection of circumcision. Occording to one estimate, more than 1,000 of these rituals have been done in the United States since the movement began. Moshe Rothenberg, an early Jewish leader estimates that he himself has performed more than 100 of them on the East Coast, beginning in the early 1980's. Parents are creating a variety of rituals to name newborn Jewish boys, and Rabbis are starting to think and talk about these in new ways. Among the Reform, Humanist, and Reconstructionist movements and the non-denominational, which make up more than 75% of American Jews, acceptance of these rituals are increasing.

The writers of this guide, Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald are both fully engaged in talking about the subject among Jewish audiences, and in the Jewish media. Between the two of them, they've been featured in Jweeklythe Jewish Reporterthe Jewish WeekBoulder Jewish NewsTabletLilliththe Jerusalem PostTikkun, and many others. Rebecca Wald is the editor ofBeyondTheBris, a blog for Jewish Intactivists, and Lisa Braver Moss is a novelist who wrote the first work of fiction about Jewish Intactivism.

Wald and Braver Moss aren't the first Jews to question circumcision. Jewish scholar and historian Leonard Glick,MD, PhD, psychologist Ron Goldman, PhD, doctor Dr. Mark Reiss, Jewish Feminist Miriam Pollack, and movie maker Eli Ungar-Sargon are just some of those who led the way. Each made fundamental steps in convincing Jews to rethink the subject. Goldman wrote the first book to talk about the subject at length, but Braver-Moss and Wald's book is the first ritual guide for Jewish parents. A variety of important Jewish Intactivists including Ungar-SargonJonathan Friedmanand others originally come from Orthodox backgrounds. Each has made fundamental steps in convincing Jews to rethink the subject.

A Jewish Legacy of Human Rights
Jews played an active role in many of the human rights causes of our time. The civil rights movement happened and many Jews took part in the freedom rides and other acts of protest of that day. Women's rights happened, with many Jewish women actively involved and Jewish women entered the Rabbinate. Gay rights happened, and today we have Jewish gay and lesbian clergy and marriages. Judaism evolved and improved as a result, and there are a plethora of creative responses to these issues regularly coming from a wide variety of Jewish groups, individuals, and movements. Today many among a wide range of Jewish movements are talking about social consciousness and sustainability as issues of spiritual responsibility.

Judaism evolves and expands. There was a time when the Bat-Mitzvah was a radical idea. There was a time when a female Rabbi was unthinkable to some. I remember many years ago attending high holiday services at a large reform synagogue on the East Coast and seeing for the first time a female Rabbi at the pulpit wearing a kipot and tallit. In the 1990's, that was a rarity. Today it's a common sight in synagogues everywhere in America. We've created Jewish naming rituals for baby girls, and they caught on very quickly. The Bat-Mitzvah emerged in the early 1900's, and today even the daughters of Orthodox Rabbis celebrate some variation of it, showing that progressive movements like Reconstructionist Judaism influence Orthodox practice. These are signs of how far we've come as a people in 25 years. As a people, we've made enormous progress correcting racism, sexism, and homophobia, and we are in the process of addressing how issues of social justice, classism, and caring for the earth fit into Jewish practice.

Wald and Braver Moss two Jewish mothers who are leading us one step farther on these issues. They are pioneers pushing us to address another issue that must be fundamentally questioned according to Jewish ethics.Their guidebook, "Celebrating Brit Shalom" is a huge step forward. With almost 150 Rabbis actively and publically doing these welcomings, they are quickly becomming a part of the Jewish mainstream. Parents looking to find a Rabbi, Cantor or other Jewish celebrant to perform a Brit Shalom, can find more than 200 of them on Dr. Mark Reiss' list. Free of the contentious arguments on the subject, Celebrating Bris Shalom is welcoming and perfect for young Jewish families.
I especially like that the book sidesteps the contentiousness of circumcision, and directly addresses parents who choose to keep their sons intact, and want a ritual to connect them to Judiasm as well. The writers did a good job of including Jewish songs in the book, but I hoped to see more Jewish themed artwork and even images and words of Jewish families who've already opted for these peaceful newborn blessings. Images of families holding Brit Shalom events would greatly strengthen the book. Perhaps the next printing will contain some of these as well as more artwork.

The audience for this book is clearly Jewish families rather than just Intactivists. Wald and Braver Moss's guide is being well received in the Intactivist community, but it is also generating talk in the Jewish media. Eli Ungar-Sargon gave the book an enthusiastic review, focusing heavily on the ritual aspects of the book, in the influential Jewish magazine Tikkun. The book is already endorsed by a variety of Rabbis from some of the progressive Jewish movements. Not everybody in every movement of Judaism is ready for this guide, but many are, and more are becoming so. This book may lead to deep connections between young, holistic, progressive, Jewish parents, and a new generation of Jews who are wrestling with and redefining the way that Jewish practice evolves.

There are many young Jewish parents active in finding their own ritual to name a Jewish son who will remain intact. This book will be a blessing for those families and their sons.

Copies available for purchase at and