Jewish Celebrities Make A Vocal Case for Intactivism
Famous celebrities such as Rosanne Barr, Howard Stern, and Alicia Silverstone are breaking the mold as a new kind of Jewish Intactivist.
Actress Alicia Silverstone is Jewish. She had a usual Jewish childhood going to Hebrew school three times a week and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. Her family lit candles on Friday nights and celebrated important Jewish holidays. As a child she went to Temple Beth Jacob, a Reform synagogue in San Mateo, California. But she broke with tradition in an important way. She chose not to circumcise her son, Bear, who remains intact at three years of age.
As well as being aJewish Intactivist and actor, Silverstone is a vegan activist, blogger, and writer on parenting issues. For Hanukkah this year, she released a vegan recipe for a Jewish holiday food on each of the eight days. The movie actress and parenting writer hasn’t said if she chose a non-cutting welcoming ceremony like the well-popularized Brit Shalom, a new Jewish ceremony for Jews who choose to keep their sons intact. She has said that she chose to keep her son intact for medical, moral, and sexual reasons.
Celebrities are not the only Jews to begin questioning circumcision. These days more and more young Jewish parents are keeping their sons intact. This phenomenon has gained the attention of the New York Times and Jewish press. Jewish Intactivists are blogging, making religious cases for a shift in tradition, and are holding their own peaceful covenant blessings. Almost 200 Jewish leaders, mostly Rabbis and Cantors in the Reform and other progressive Jewish movements, are performing and celebrating such covenants.
Read real accounts of Brit Shalom: Natalie Bivas (performed by two Rabbis), Shawn Stark’s son’ Brit Shalom led by Rabbi David Mivisair, Stephari (with photos), Moshe Rothenberg, Michael S. Kimmel (in Tikkun magazine), Diane Targovnik, Sara Rockwell,Rabbi Steven Blane.
Jewish Intactivists areactive in Israel, where they are making their case in the mainstream media. Kahal is a community group for parents of intact sons in Israel. In the ten years since its founding more than 1,000, mostly Jewish parents have been members.
Rosanne Barr, Jewish Grandmother and Intactivist
More than 200 Jewish Leaders Lead ‘Brit Shalom’ Ceremony for Intact Jewish Boys
The movement to welcome newborn Jewish boys into Jewish life without the surgery of circumcision has reached a milestone—over 200 officiants are now available to perform thepeaceful welcoming ceremony. Over 120 of these are rabbis. Many of these officiants are members of the Reform, Humanistic, Renewal, and Reconstructionist Jewish movements. Not all of the officiants on the list are opposed to circumcision, but some are. Several Rabbis on the list have intact grandsons, some have intact adopted sons.
While most celebrants are Rabbis and Cantors a variety of other Jewish Leaders are available to lead these rituals. Other celebrants include professors of Jewish Studies, Synagogue leaders, leaders of Jewish retreats, and Rabbinical students in a variety of Jewish movements.
Called brit shalom (Hebrew for covenant of peace), this alternative naming ceremony corresponds with traditional brit milah welcoming ceremony, except that there is no cutting of the baby.
“They’re especially happy ceremonies, for that reason,” says Mark Reiss, M.D.
Jewish parents including Natalie Bivas, Moshe Rothenberg, Diane Targovnik, Michael S. Kimmel,Sara Rockwell and Shawn Stark have written about their experiences holding a Brit Shalom and raising intact Jewish sons.
For 14 years, Dr. Reiss, has been recruiting celebrants of brit shalom for his web page. He estimates that an annual 300-500 boys are welcomed into the Jewish community with brit shalom ceremonies in the United States. Most U.S. states, several Canadian provinces, and other countries are represented on Dr. Reiss’ celebrants list. Many celebrants are in Israel, where a young Jewish Intactivist movement is budding.
“The celebrants include rabbis, cantors and other lay leaders, who need not reject circumcision themselves, but want to accommodate parents who do. New celebrants are always welcome,” says Dr. Reiss.
Those who wish to contact Dr. Reiss to request an officiant, to add their name to the list of celebrants, or to learn more about brit shalom may do so by phone (415) 647-2687 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision
Censuring circumcision in Europe is about child protection, not anti-Semitism.
Still, I was luckier than the Council of Europe: After it passed a motion declaring the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons “a violation of the physical integrity of children,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused it of fostering “hate and racist trends in Europe.” With accusations flying, the Council’s special rapporteur, Marlene Rupprecht, countered that the “vote does not intend to stigmatize any religious community or its practices,” but to reach “a wide consensus on the rights of children.”
So, who’s right? Those who say censuring circumcision is a manifestation of anti-Semitism, or those who say it’s a necessary step in child protection?
I think the latter are right, but I also understand why some think it’s anti-Semitic: Circumcision is a profoundly meaningful Jewish practice imbued with great cultural value. Consequently, attempts to limit it have sometimes been part of broader efforts to suppress Jewish practice. Antiochus Epiphanes, the draconian ruler of Judea in the second century B.C.E., imposed severe penalties on circumcision as part of his attack on Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition and Nazism were both accompanied by restrictions on circumcision. In 2011, an attempt to ban infant circumcision in San Franciscocoincided with the publication of a cartoon calledForeskin Man, replete with anti-Semitic imagery.
Understandably, this has left its imprint on Jews’ collective memory. It makes sense that the journalist Tanya Gold asked whether the recent motion is “an attempt to achieve with paper what other methods could not – the removal of Jews from Europe?”
These are grave concerns. But do they stand up to scrutiny? It seems ethnocentric given that two thirds ofthe world’s circumcised males are actually Muslims and only 0.8 percent are Jewish. If anything, in Europe, hostility toward Muslims is a more likely motivator, as the anti-circumcision bill recently introduced by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party could suggest.
Rather than prejudice against religion, I think it makes more sense to interpret criticism of circumcision as theconsistent application of human rights to both boys and girls. This is clear in the special rapporteur’sExplanatory Memorandum. Concern about the genital cutting of children is best understood within thecontext of Europe’s, especially Germany’s, focus on human rights and medical ethics following the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Hard though it may be to hear, irreversibly removing a healthy body part – in this case, part of a boy’s genitals – without consent, violates a person’s right to bodily integrity, a cornerstone of post-Holocaust human rights law. It also undermines that child’s right to an open future, since a boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice.
Supporters of circumcision counter that parents’ rights to religious freedom, and the significant cultural value they ascribe to the practice, must take priority. They argue that even if the intention behind those censuring circumcision in Europe is not to harm Jews, harm to Jewish life and traditions will be the outcome.
It’s true that censuring circumcision could curtail the expression of an until-now definitional Jewish practice. But the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute – it is limited by the harm caused to others. In 2011, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life-threatening hemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision in Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the United Kingdom. In the United States, it’sestimated that 100 boys die as a result of circumcisions every year. Can religion per se justify this?
Supporters of circumcision also say it’s an ancient, meaningful practice. But neither longevity nor meaning is usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”
From a Jewish perspective, there are other issues. First, circumcision does not confer Jewish status. As Shaye Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explains, “Male and female offspring of a Jewish mother are Jewish by birth under Jewish law; the male offspring are Jewish by birth even if they are left uncircumcised.” Second, biblical circumcision was not as extensive as today’s variant, which is actually an innovation of rabbis in the Hellenic period trying to stop Jewish men from restoring their foreskins. Evidently, definitional Jewish practices can and have evolved.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that some Jews are questioning the practice. A 2006 online survey reported in Haaretz found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Israel is now home to the intact support group Kahal, while in the United States, Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision have sprung up.
Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should be respected, not demonized. But all critics of circumcision must be vigilant about the company they keep, distancing themselves from anyone not exclusively motivated by child protection. There is no place for anti-Semitic arguments or imagery.
Equally, well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned. The significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision must be appreciated and understood. But reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged, as should non-surgical rituals, such asbrit shalom.
I know this isn’t easy – the weight of God, history and human rights hangs in the balance – but what we need in Jewish communities is debate, not denunciations.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe should stand firm. If it backs down and denies some children their rights because their parents adhere to the Jewish tradition, it would single out only those children for lack of protection. Now that really would be anti-Semitic.
Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a political scientist at SOAS, University of London. She tweets @beccasteinfeld
By Larry Derfner
|Published June 29, 2012
Stand up for your son: Say ‘no’ to ritual circumcision
Even if criminalization is impractical, this week’s German court ruling against circumcision on children, except for medical purposes, sent a much-needed message.
I’ve been an atheist since adolescence, but being a Jew has always been a vital element of my identity, something I can’t imagine not being, and for this reason, above all others, I knew as a matter of course that I would have my two sons circumcized. It was only after going through it, with the blood and the boys’ wailing and our anguish and worry – with the realization that this mohel was actually taking a knife to the foreskins of our eight-day-old sons’ penises – that I began to think about it.
And what I arrived at was this – I am somewhat ashamed that I was willing to put my infant boys at risk, that I was willing to put them through such severe pain, for fear that if I didn’t, it would mean they weren’t Jewish and it would be my responsibility.
How ridiculous. I never believed in ritual circumcision, if I’d ever thought about it I’d have said it was barbaric, risky and fairly insane to inflict on infants – but I never thought about it. What I did was accept it – as the absolute minimum requirement for being a Jew. I don’t fast on Yom Kippur, I’ve lived very happily without a mezuzah at my front door, but I’m am so glad my atheist father had me circumcized, and I would never have dreamed of not having it done on my sons – because otherwise, according to my unconscious belief (and no doubt my father’s, too), we’re not Jewish.
So I put my boys through it, 12 and 16 years ago. And since then, although the bleeding and crying stopped and everything turned out alright, I realize that this Jewish (and Muslim) tradition is a bad one. It should be replaced, like some of the Torah’s other horrific injunctions, and instead of cutting off the foreskin, a few strands of hair should be removed, or a fingernail should be dyed, or the boy should get a little tattoo at age nine or something. I very much like being a member of the Jewish tribe, and I don’t have a problem with parents harmlessly “marking” their infant sons (or daughters) as members of their tribe. But ritual circumcision for an eight-day-old boy, as the absolute mandatory condition of his being a Jew, is barbaric, risky and fairly insane.
On Tuesday, a district court in Cologne, Germany outlawed circumcision on children except for medical purposes. From The Guardian:
The court weighed up three articles from the basic law: the rights of parents, the freedom of religious practice and the right of the child to physical integrity, before coming to the conclusion that the procedure was not in the interests of the child.
It rejected the defence that circumcision is considered hygienic in many cultures, one of the main reasons it is carried out in the US, Britain and in Germany.
After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent.”
Commentators said it’s unlikely the decision will be binding, or that circumcision will end anywhere in Germany anytime soon, but they also said it would influence future legal decisions. I hope so. I don’t think it’s wise to outlaw ritual circumcision, any more than it was wise to outlaw alcohol, abortion or drugs, because it’s unenforceable and by driving it underground, you create many more problems than you solve. But the principle that ritual circumcision is harmful to infants, that it inflicts on them a purely elective surgery that is acutely painful, and that while accidents are very rare, the victims are literally scarred for life – this point has to be made loudly and repeatedly to all Jews, Muslims and other tribal types who feel they have no choice but to put their sons through this.
There is a small but growing movement of Jewish parents who reject ritual circumcision, and I think it’s going to spread fast because they’re saying out loud what so many Jewish parents are thinking: ”Why?” And this, I believe, is the best answer to the problem: Stand up for your kid and say no. If you fear and abhor the ritual, don’t let anyone perform it on him. He’ll still be Jewish if you raise him Jewish – whatever anyone says.
And if my sons one day have sons of their own and decide not to have them circumcized, I will be one proud father and grandfather. Herzl didn’t have his sons circumcized, and if it was Jewish enough for him, it’s Jewish enough for me.
Russell: Circumcision: an unnecessary, brutal practice for those who can’t consent
Natalie Russell / Columnist | 0 comments
“Here’s this little bundle … First let’s find a sharp stone or knife and start hacking at the genitalia,” begins journalist Christopher Hitchens, setting up a scenario that about 58 percent of male infants born in the United States went through in 2010. “Because, as it turns out,” Hitchens continues, “the design isn’t that great, and in a crucial feature, too.”
He concludes, “No morally decent person would do this if it wasn’t for superstition.”
Infant male circumcision is a practice not often questioned by new parents. It’s either divinely warranted or it’s just something that people do. But witnessing a ceremony like this should cause outrage in any morally normal person.
Reputable studies by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have shown that there is evidence of circumcision preventing the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases such as HPV and HIV. This is reasonable, considering there is a 44 percent lower rate of HIV infection among circumcised men.
“But doesn’t that contradict your point?” you might ask.
I would answer: no. My point isn’t that male circumcision is always morally wrong, but that it’s a sinister practice to inflict on non-consenting infants.
These studies are likely as significant as they sound, but we can rest assured that a child is not at risk for STDs in his infancy or in childhood. A procedure that is unnecessary, painful, traumatic and even life-threatening should never be inflicted on a child until he is able to consent to the operation himself.
Alternatively, circumcision in the late teenage and early adult years is a relatively simple procedure that affords safe administration of anesthesia, typically costs less than $1,000 and, more importantly, allows the person to give consent. According to Dr. Aaron Tobian from Johns Hopkins University, infant circumcision typically costs between $250 and $300.
But, let’s talk about hygiene — a favorite subject of circumcision advocates. Is there any evidence to conclude that an uncircumcised penis is less hygienic? It’s a popular truism, but certainly not a well-supported one.
It’s true that an uncircumcised penis is generally more difficult to clean compared with one that is circumcised. But it’s no more difficult than proper cleaning of a woman’s genitalia. If hygiene were a standalone argument for circumcision, there would be no reason not to circumcise the labia on female infants.
Worse than the hygiene argument is reasoning backed by social standards, such as meshing well socially in the locker room or embodying the stereotypical traditions of their fathers. No one wants their child to be uncomfortable with his body or outcast from his peers. But if the cost of fitting in is subjecting an infant to torturous levels of pain and high volumes of blood loss, the better choice should be obvious.
It’s unlikely that an uncircumcised penis will even be all that unusual in social circumstances in the future anyway, since the rate of procedures has been steadily decreasing.
Over the past three decades, the rate of circumcisions performed on newborn boys in U.S. hospitals has dropped six percentage points, according to U.S. government data. The rate was 64.5 percent in 1979, with an all-time high of 64.9 percent in 1981. An all-time low was recorded in 2007 with 55.4 percent of newborns circumcised, and more recent data has shown just a slight increase at 58.3 percent in 2010.
Part of this decline has to do with greater public awareness of the risks of the procedure, but another major driving force is perhaps even more telling. The federal Medicaid program has cut off funding for circumcisions in 18 states under the premise that the procedure hasn’t proven to be medically necessary. Insurers have also increasingly limited coverage for infant male circumcision for the same reason.
Maimonides, the canonized Jewish philosopher, argued that the primary purpose for circumcision was to reduce a man’s sexual desire and pleasure. This is a likely consequence, since the foreskin can contain as many as 70,000 erogenous nerve endings, which, I might add, speaks volumes about the potential pain of circumcision. It’s under this same premise that women across the world are regularly circumcised — where the clitoris, labia or both are removed — particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Although it has no basis in Islamic texts, female genital mutilation is commonly performed in Islamic countries as a means of preserving the purity and chastity of women.
If “religious freedom” gives parents the authority to subject their infant children to genital mutilation, perhaps a circumcision should be performed on this immoral bind of church and state.
The last 100 years have been marked by the declaration and protection of universal human rights, and a marked increase in the quality of life, both in America and worldwide. With these improvements, higher expectations regarding a child’s right to bodily autonomy have become socially accepted and legally mandated. Many argue that since female children in the U.S. are protected by a 1996 law banning female circumcision, this law should be expanded to include the protection of male children as well. The groups Jews Against Circumcision, Jews for the Rights of the Child and the Israeli Organization Against Genital Mutilation have all endorsed laws that would outlaw child circumcision.
There are an increasing number of Jews who are vocal in questioning both the ethics and the legality of circumcision surgery. Jews in the Reform movement have already been advocating for an end to circumcision during the past 170 years. Influential Jews including radio personality Howard Stern and filmmakerEli Ungar-Sargon also called for laws against circumcision. What follows is a collection of statements from Jews who question the ethics and legality of forced infant circumcision.
Jews who Support the Circumcision Referendum and Legal Issues
• Jews for the Rights of the Child
• Jews Speak in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors
• The Forward: Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews? by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
• The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective by Sandford Borins, Ph.D.
• Jewish Journal: Circumcision critic has Board links
“Good afternoon. My name is Brian Levitt… I am Jewish, the eldest of 3 children and the son of a doctor… I feel deeply harmed by circumcision, and this view has only been confirmed over time. I do not feel closer to Judaism because of my circumcision. On the contrary, I deeply wish one thing had nothing to do with the other. The genital cutting of infants has driven me away from my religion, and I’m far from alone in this view. Eventually my father understood these issues, and even apologized for having allowed my brother and I to be circumcised at birth… There are hundreds of thousands of men who resent their infant circumcision. There are tens of thousands of intact Jewish boys and men around the world who thank their lucky stars they were not circumcised.”
– Brian Levitt, Jewish Intactivist, co-founder of Jews for the Rights of the Child
Testimony at the California Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing on Circumcision.
“The human right to body integrity would, in this instance, override their religious right.…non-fundamentalist Jews, who constitute a very large number of Reform, Conservative, and even some Orthodox Jews, believe that human ethics are an essential element in the Jewish tradition. … This should give pause to any non-fundamentalist religious Jew, and it is a black eye for the liberal movements that they have not taken this issue more seriously. Perhaps a law prohibiting circumcision is just what these Jews need to start a serious discussion about the problem of brit milah.”
– Eli Ungar-Sargon, Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews?, The Forward, the Jewish Daily, May 20, 2011.
“I happen to agree with you that foreskin removal should be illegal. It is a mutilation… I agree with you that men should not be circumcised… I don’t know where this circumcision came from… There’s been all kinds of myths. I think it’s nonsense. That if you’re born that way, it seems to me it’s a mutilation to cut it off. The same way in Africa they sometimes cut off a woman’s clitoris and they think that’s justified. I think our foreskins were cut off in order to desensitize us, and I think it was a bunch of religious nudnicks who decided they didn’t want us going around fornicating so they cut off some of our penis skin.”
– Howard Stern, Talk Radio Host
Howard Stern, Jewish Intactivist by Rebecca Wald, J.D., BeyondTheBris , March 31, 2011.
“Laurie Evans, the Jewish director of New York’s National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource CentersNOCIRC), told the Committee that under Jewish law, the son of a Jewish mother is Jewish, whether circumcised or not, and that despite great pressure she had kept her son intact. She said that many Jewish mothers confide to having been horrified by their boy’s circumcision ceremony. She said that initially the ceremony involved removing only a small amount of foreskin, not all of it, and that several Jewish organizations recommend a peaceful birth ceremony instead. She urged the panel to watch a circumcision and raised the issue of botched circumcisions. The second Jewish mother to speak,Kathryn Mora, testified she had been devastated that her son was taken from her in the hospital and circumcised without her consent.”
– Peter W. Adler, A Bird’s Eye View of the Hearing On the Massachusetts Bill to Outlaw Genital Mutilation
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child Newsletter, Summer 2010.
“Jewish baby boys are human and have rights too, and those rights are violently trampled by his (and my) religion, in the case of brit milah. We must all learn to take the blinders off and somehow stop this heinous practice — yes, by a law, if necessary.
– Tina Kimmel, PhD, MSW, MPH, co-founder of Jews for the Rights of the Child.
Letter to the Bay Citizen.
“In Massachusetts, two Jewish mothers testified in favor of a law making circumcision illegal. Moreover, several Jews and Jewish organizations throughout the country are backing a proposed national law against circumcision. Jewish groups such as Jews Against Circumcision and the Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation have endorsed the proposed American MGM bill, which would rewrite the U.S. Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 so that boys are also protected from genital mutilation.”
– Questioning circumcision, by Shani McManus and Sergio Carmona, Florida Jewish Journal, June 06, 2011.
“I’d heard how my uncle had fainted during my bris and what a horrible event it was. This was the thing everyone would talk about at the Passover seder… The ban on circumcision that’s on the ballot in San Francisco is a triumph for intactivists… I’m totally for it. San Francisco has often lead the country in elevating our consciousness. It has already helped spread awareness of this human rights crime to other states and hopefully will lead people everywhere tobe more compassionate, thoughtful and rational not only towards their own fragile newborn children but to other fellow men and women as well.”
– Jason Paige, Jewish Singer
Blood, Sweat & Tears Lead Singer Protests Infant Circumcision, by Rebecca Wald, J.D., BeyondTheBris, July 1, 2011.
Intactivist Jewish Voices – Many Jews Question Circumcision
• Jewish Voices: The Current Jewish Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1
• Jewish Voices: The Current Jewish Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2
• Jewish Voices: The Current Jewish Movement to End Circumcision: Part 3
Some International Jews Also Favor Outlawing Child Circumcision
“What about religious freedom? Certainly, the ability to freely practise one’s religion remains a vital component of any liberal democracy. But should this trump an individual’s right to their bodily integrity? And shouldn’t such a principle be extended to all those who, by virtue of their age, are too young to decide on which body parts they would or would not like to keep?…
“Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights outlaws the kind of “harm” that circumcision can cause; article 14 forbids the discrimination that prevents baby boys from enjoying the same protection of their genitalia as baby girls. In the 21st century, it is time to remember that men, too, can be victims of unjust hegemonic systems tolerated in the name of tradition, culture or religion. If we oppose female genital mutilation, has the time not come for us also to oppose male genital mutiliation?”
– Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld, Time to ban male circumcision?, Guardian (UK), June 14, 2011.
Rebecca Steinfeld, is a PhD. candidate at Oxford University. She served as an under-35 director and as an associate of the Board of Deputies for New West End Synagogue.
“It seems to me that for liberal Jews the choice comes down to this. Do we want to in some way circumscribe the sexual possibilities of our sons by performing a body modification when they are infants so as to bear witness to the covenant? Are there not other ways to bear witness? Are there not other ways to maintain our distinctiveness from the society around us? Despite having circumcised my two sons, the more I think about the issue, the more likely – were I a resident of San Francisco – I would support the referendum.”
– Sandford Borins, Ph.D., The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective.
Sandford Borins, Ph.D., is a professor of Management at the University of Toronto.
Jewish Religious and Historical Issues