British rabbis this week began to address a new Jewish ceremony originating in America called a ‘brit shalom’, described as a ‘peaceful welcome’ into the world, for Jewish boys without the element of traditional brit milah, or circumcision.
The idea, increasingly popular in America, has been discussed at length in the UK in recent days after Icelandic politicians moved the Nordic country closer to a ban on the practice for non-medical reasons for boys aged under 16.
A brit shalom, or Jewish naming ceremony, is being promoted by human rights activists and advocacy organisations such as David Smith from Genital Autonomy group, and Dr Antony Lempert from Secular Medical Forum.
Speaking to The Times, Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said the concept was of increasing interest, especially for interfaith couples.
“It does happen and is a new phenomenon, a result of parents wanting to have an initiation ceremony into the Jewish faith but without circumcision,” he said. “Whereas the Jewish parent is used to circumcision and has 4,000 years of history propelling them along, the non-Jewish parent is not comfortable with it and wants an alternative.”
Discussing the changing emphasis, he added: “The major celebration has shifted to the less medical blessing in synagogue, which never used to occur for boys.”
Smith said his group had “worked to promote” the brit shalom, while Lempert, a GP who grew up in a Jewish household, told Emily Maitlis on BBC’s Newsnight last week that “there are quite a lot of Jewish people having a brit shalom”.
While Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush said it was not possible to have a ceremony without the circumcision in Jewish religious law, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships, said: “Parents need to be supported in making autonomous choices. As rabbis, we have a responsibility to hear parents’ concerns and discuss through options with them…
“That said, it is also really important that the Jewish community as a whole speaks up for the ritual of circumcision.”
She added: “I would never try to pressurise a family to circumcise their son, but I think that we must counter the negative media coverage of circumcision with the stories of how an ancient ritual can be transformative, important and connecting within our modern Jewish frameworks.”
In agreement was human rights barrister Adam Wagner, who is Jewish. He said there was now “a noisy and growing opposition to the millennia-old ritual”.
Wagner, who founded influential blog Rights Info, said: “In countries such as the UK, where there are fewer religious believers, it is becoming harder for religious communities to find kindred spirits in government to mount their defences.”
He added: “World medical opinion, which is central to the debate, is a mixed bag. Some medical associations say the benefits outweigh the risks, others the opposite.”
Asked about the emergence of the brit shalom as an alternative, Senior Masorti Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg said: “I have become aware that some families do not arrange a brit for their baby sons,” adding: “Parents’ anxiety for their new, vulnerable, tiny baby is deeply understandable.”
Wittenberg, himself a father to a boy, said parents could indeed leave it for the boy to grow up and decide for himself, but this could be counter-productive. “According to Jewish law, if a boy has not yet been circumcised, arranging his brit becomes his own responsibility when he reaches the age of 13,” he said.
“Some parents may see this as offering their son the freedom of making his own choice. Yet it is also a significant burden to leave to a young man and, arguably, less compassionate than carrying out the ceremony when the baby is eight days old.”
Wittenberg said his son’s brit milah was “deeply moving” while Baginsky, a mother, “remembers clearly the angst beforehand”, adding that – in the end – “it was the most meaningful and special of ceremonies”.
Asked about the move away from circumcising baby boys, Wagner said: “While there is no direct threat in the UK, the debate in Iceland follows a number of similar battles in Europe in recent years, most notably in Germany, where the parliament had to legislate to overturn a legal ruling, which said the practice amounted to grievous bodily harm.”
He continued: “In the UK, circumcision has mainly been an issue in the family courts, when warring couples have different views over whether to circumcise their son.
“Judges have carefully avoided making general statements about circumcision, but have also tended towards ordering [that] the boy should be allowed to decide for himself when he’s older.”
Wagner added that while human rights laws protect religious practices, they also protect the privacy and bodily integrity of children, so “it is difficult to predict how a court asked to balance those rights would respond… If it reached the European Court of Human Rights, the court would face one of the most controversial rulings in its history”.