Rav Hayim Leiter
At the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade this past year, someone on sidelines stood out more than the marchers. And that’s no small feat at an event like this. No, it wasn’t one of the Satmar Hassidim dressed in sackcloth, protesting the parade. Nor was it one of the flamboyantly dressed marchers taking a breather. And it wasn’t even the brother of the Hareidi man who stabbed participants during the previous year’s march. So, who stole the show, you ask? It was the man wearing white pants with a blood stained crotch.
For those who are not mohalim, you might have had to read his sign to understand his message; I got it right away. His sign had a picture of a neonatal child in the throes of a blood-curling scream. It read “ברית מילה, פולחן פיראי” which translates, “Brit Milah, a cruel ritual”. He was a lone soldier for his cause that day. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.
The movement against Brit Milah is growing, both on a political level and on a grassroots level. What unifies these movements are their demands and the reasons for their demands. They all want to end circumcision, but they're not fools. None of the groups is calling for its complete eradication. They call for the child to have a choice. When he reaches 18 years of age, let the child choose if he wants a circumcision.
But maybe even more troubling than the demands are the reasons for them. Some of the groups focus heavily on the loss of penile sensitivity and claim to ensure a healthy sexual future for all mankind. As Jews, for those who believe Brit Milah to be a heavenly imperative, this is a harder sell. It is true that the loss of sensitivity resonates on some level, but most feel that it’s not a strong argument against both national identity and the divine imperative.
The most challenging attack to respond to is the humanitarian one. These groups charge that circumcision is barbaric and inhumane. This challenge, at first glance, seems almost impossible to answer. Who would want to perform such an act-- on babies, no less? And even worse, who would want to be associated with a God who demands them to do such a thing?
It is at this point that I want to ask these activists and politicians a single question: “Have you ever been to a Brit Milah?” Because, to my mind, these claims make it evident they have not. A Brit Milah service is far from a cold, barbaric experience. The baby is not strapped to an operating table; rather he’s lovingly held by his grandfather or some other family member or friend. Unlike medical circumcisions which can take upwards of a half an hour, a Brit Milah is halachically required to be as quick and painless as possible. Most Britot, on a physical level, take less than three minutes. And when it comes to the tools of the trade, a mohel can only use tools that don’t add pain to the child’s experience, for example using a knife as opposed to scissors.
The reason I know these anti-circumcision groups do not understand Brit Milah is the naming ceremony. Every time I perform a Bris I get emotional. Generally I don’t know my clients beforehand, but it makes no difference. When the baby’s name is called out and the congregation lets out a unified sigh of elation, even though I don’t know who the baby is named for, I am always moved. Just knowing that the family has chosen a name latent with such meaning, love, and hope for this child’s future, who wouldn’t kvel over that? I find it very hard to see barbarism here.
For these reasons, it is evident that this act of Brit Milah is an act of love. I will grant that this act is not something painless, but to call it barbaric is a gross misrepresentation. To all those out there who have never been to one, we invite you to come off the sidelines. Go to a Brit Milah and see if your feelings change. But you better bring some tissues.
This first appeared in the Times of Israel