Identity, Peoplehood, Religion, Sex & Gender

Why Is The Reform Movement Scared of Circumcision?

This past week 600 Reform rabbis met in Irvine for the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) convention. The event included workshops with titles like “Mitzvot and Medicine: Values That Inform a Jewish Position on Healthcare,” “Gender Justice: Then, Now, Next,” and “Celebrating Israel at 70: What Our Students Are Thinking About Israel.” In addition to the workshops, there were also a small group of exhibitors including companies that sell Judaica, Jewish-themed travel businesses, and J-Street. But one exhibitor was conspicuously absent.

Lisa Braver Moss
Lisa Braver Moss, author and active member of Temple Sinai of Oakland, has been speaking out about her opposition to infant circumcision for decades. In 2010, she published a novel called “The Measure of His Grief” about a Jewish man who, having recently lost his father, starts railing against the Jewish tradition of Brit Milah. In 2015, together with Rebecca Wald, Braver Moss co-authored a book of alternative welcoming ceremonies for both boys and girls called “Celebrating Brit Shalom.” Armed with their publication, Braver Moss and Wald bought a booth at the URJ’s Biannial in 2015 where they promoted their new non-cutting liturgies. Braver Moss had every intention of being an exhibitor at this year’s CCAR convention when in late February, she was suddenly informed that there was no longer any room for her. LBM is convinced that her ouster from the conference was politically-motivated.
“I’m shocked by this treatment, because I have deep ties in the Reform Movement and I do play by the rules. They may view this issue as a can of worms, but I think they don’t realize just how many Jews are opting out.”
When I contacted Rabbi Steven A. Fox, the man in charge of the CCAR convention, I got the following statement:
“Unfortunately, Ms. Moss did not submit her exhibitor fees by the deadline, and because of high demand to attend this year’s CCAR Convention, the spot went to another exhibitor. This has nothing to do with the nature of any positions or products she promotes or sells. We have a broad array of exhibitors with differing views on many subjects.”
The problem with this statement is that it doesn’t account for the manner in which LBM was ousted. Based on an extensive email correspondence that I have obtained, Braver Moss was in constant contact with the CCAR as far back as August of last year and even paid the $200 exhibitor’s deposit. Is it possible, as Rabbi Fox claims, that this was all just a miscommunication about payment deadlines? Given numerous proactive emails in which LBM explicitly asks for information about when and how to pay the remainder of her fees, I find this version of events hard to believe. As late as Monday February 12, Braver Moss was still receiving official exhibitor emails, but something happened after that and the CCAR seems to have chosen to retroactively boot her from the conference.
I sent a follow up email to Rabbi Fox, explaining that I had seen the correspondence and that something just wasn’t adding up. I never heard back from the Rabbi or his office so I’m left to speculate about the motivating factors, but it appears that the window of time in which CCAR reversed course lines up nicely with the emergence of Jewish media coverage of a recent push for anti-circumcision legislation in Iceland. It’s not hard to imagine that someone at CCAR read about the situation in Iceland in the first weeks of February and wanted to insulate the organization from potential controversy.
What’s particularly strange to me is the caution on display here. It is, in my experience, part of a puzzling pattern that I have never fully understood. In 2011, when I went on a North American tour with my film Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision, I discovered to my great surprise that it was much easier to have a conversation with Orthodox rabbis about circumcision than it was with Reform rabbis. I had a number of Orthodox Rabbis and teachers as panelists and as guests on my podcast, but I was completely shut out of the Reform world. Given all of the radical decisions that the Reform Movement has embraced over the years, why are they so skittish when it comes to the issue of circumcision?
To properly answer this question, we need to go back to 19th century Prussia, the birth place of the Reform Movement. Recall that this was a time when European Jews were recently emancipated and looking for new ways to integrate into European society. All sorts of Jewish laws and customs were being brought into question by the reformers from the dietary laws of kashrut to those surrounding menstruation and the sabbath. On the issue of circumcision, the founding fathers of the Reform Movement were mixed.
Leopold Zunz, a leader in the Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars argued that the state of being circumcised was the point of the practice and so unlike other rites, abandoning this one was simply a non-starter. His fellow scholar Abraham Geiger disagreed. In a private letter to Zunz he wrote: “I am unable to support circumcision with any conviction, just because it has always been so highly regarded. It remains a barbaric, bloody act which fills the father with anxiety and subjects the mother to morbid stress…It is a brutal practice that should not continue.” The most radical of these early Reform scholars was Samuel Holdheim who publicly took issue with the covenantal overtones of Jewish circumcision. He called circumcision “the expression of an outlived idea” and urged “self-conscious” Jews to reject it.
The strongest arguments against circumcision at this time came from a grassroots group of lay Reform Jews who called themselves “Verein der Reformfreunde”(Society of the Friends of Reform). Established in Frankfurt in 1842, this band of passionate individuals declared their intention to renounce “allegiance to all objectionable commands and all antiquated customs.”Circumcision was definitely in their crosshairs and anticipating Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald’s ceremonies by a century and a half, they proposed a replacement ritual for both male and female infants called the “Sanctification of the Eighth Day.” Shortly after the Verein was established, a massive controversy erupted in the Prussian-Jewish community over a Frankfurt Health Department regulation that sought to make the practice of circumcision medically safe. Remarkably, the controversial part came from a throwaway sentence which stated that the regulation applied to local Jews “in so far as they want to let their children be circumcised.” It turns out that there were quite a few Jewish fathers who did not want to let their sons be circumcised and the entire Jewish community was divided over what to do about these fathers and their sons.
As David Ellenson has argued, Jewish status, a matter of Jewish law, and Jewish identity, the subjective sense of being Jewish, were virtually one and the same in the medieval setting, but with the advent of modernity, this changed. The possibility of these two facets coming apart became a reality. Indeed, by accidentally implying that under Prussian law an intact Jew might still be considered Jewish, the Frankfurt Health department had unwittingly stuck a wedge between Jewish status and Jewish identity in a way that was totally novel in European history. Circumcision, therefore, came to represent more than just an important religious rite. It was now a fulcrum between Jewish status and Jewish identity.
Between 1844 and 1871, the rabbis of the Reform Movement held a series of conferences and synods. In the first one, the issue of circumcision came up, but was summarily dismissed on the logic that the matter aroused too much passion and threatened to disrupt the conference. At the next conference, when the topic was raised, there were some limited closed session discussions, but the rabbis again punted on any public pronouncements. At the third conference in 1846, the rabbis also avoided talking about the subject, but they did rule on a specific case of hemophilia, loosening the Talmudic edict that a mother needs to lose three sons to circumcision before she is allowed to not circumcise her fourth son. In 1866, sixty-six Jewish physicians sent a memorandum to the community council in Vienna opposing the continued practice of circumcision. Clearly this grassroots movement had gained steam and the religious authorities were now split on whether a Rabbi was allowed to marry a Jewish woman to an intact Jewish man. In 1871, the synod resolved:
“While the synod assumes that the highly important meaningfulness of circumcision in Judaism is beyond any doubt, it nonetheless declares that a boy born to a Jewish mother, and for whatever reason not circumcised, is…to be regarded as a Jew and treated as such in all matters of ritual practice.”
What we see here is a pattern of avoidance that is quite striking. In the face of a strong Jewish anti-circumcision campaign that included medical authorities, the Reform rabbis chose to talk about it as little as possible. This pattern was mirrored in the United States. In 1869, when the American Reform Rabbis gathered for the first time in Philadelphia, Moses Mielziner abstained from the decision to accept intact Jewish boys as fully Jewish, for fear that the statement might be misinterpreted to mean that circumcision was not obligatory. The American Reformers eventually did remove the requirement for male converts to be circumcised in 1892, but the circumcision of Jewish infants was never questioned.
As circumcision became a mainstream non-Jewish practice in the United States, the Reform Movement basically stopped worrying about it. Most Reform Jews would have it done in the hospital by a physician alongside their gentile compatriots. After World War II, for a whole host of socio-political reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, there was a return to tradition in Reform Judaism. For circumcision, this meant asking a Rabbi to officiate a Reform version of the ceremony before the surgeon operated, but in the late 70’s, the ground began to shift. In 1979, the CCAR came out strongly in favor of Brit Milah saying “It is a mitzvah to bring a male child into the covenant through the rite of circumcision.” Going further than any Reform statement had gone before, they added “Circumcision alone, without the appropriate prayers, does not constitute entrance into the covenant.”
To fully appreciate this shift, it’s important to take a closer look at what is arguably the most radical decision in the history of the Reform Movement: The decision to accept patrilineal descent. In March of 1983, the CCAR dropped the following bombshell:
“The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.”
The idea of accepting as Jewish the child of a non-Jewish mother was so novel, that many people misunderstood just how radical this statement actually was. As Mordechai Finley has argued, “patrilineal descent” is a misnomer. What was really being argued for here is non-lineal descent. But further than that, according to this statement, in a mixed marriage, no matter who is Jewish, be it the father or the mother, lineage alone is insufficient. Some performative action needs to be taken on the part of the children for the attainment of Jewish status. And what more convenient action can one think of than the one-time ritual of circumcision? A year later in 1984, the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism was formed to train physicians, both male and female, in the Jewish rite of circumcision.
So why are Reform rabbis so reluctant to talk about circumcision? I think the above history demonstrates that the Reform Movement leans on the rite of Brit Milah as a proof of their commitment to Jewish continuity. Protecting this rite also seems to serve as an anchor that is useful in adjudicating the modern tension between Jewish status and Jewish identity. In the wake of the landmark 1983 decision, it literally establishes Jewish status for the boys of intermarried couples. But this doesn’t explain why the rabbinate has always been so reluctant to talk about it. Why did the 19th century synods all avoid the topic instead of facing it head on? Why did Rabbi Fox and the CCAR go to the trouble of retroactively ousting Lisa Braver Moss on a technicality instead of just saying no to her up front? What are they afraid of?
I think the obvious answer here is the correct one. The Reform rabbinate has always feared that the Jewish critics of infant circumcision have a point. It is not difficult to understand why engaging in a painful and permanent alteration of an infant’s body, absent medical necessity, is morally problematic. It is also not difficult to understand that the more importance one invests in the Jewish rite of Brit Milah, the less important Jewish women become. To be consistent with their own values, Reform rabbis have always feared that were they to actually discuss the matter, they might have to come out against Brit Milah. And doing that would risk the legitimacy that they so desperately crave from the rest of the Jewish world. The problem with this calculation is that it is based on fear and it forces a movement that so courageously took on the task of redefining Jewish identity to irrationally exclude a valuable perspective that is in perfect harmony with their core values. Core values privately expressed by Abraham Geiger, publicly stated by Samuel Holdheim, and echoed by Eugene B. Borowitz, who would write more than a century later: “Our sense of reality demands that we give greater weight to the human partner in the berit than did our tradition.”

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