Bris Guilt: Claiming the Mother's Role in a Ritual Circumcision

Don't get distracted. Your son's shrieking cries serve as an acute reminder that your baby is a part of something beyond the womb now.

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Sleep-deprived, I heaved my leaking, swollen breasts into the third non-maternity-but-very-forgiving-baby-doll-waisted dress, hoping it miraculously wouldn't make me look six months pregnant. A small crowd awaited me downstairs, gathered in the great room of my row house on the eighth day following my son's birth. Only immediate family, I had demanded. ("Oh but please can we come?" extended relatives and misguided friends had begged. There is something about the snipping of a foreskin that makes the masses come running.)

As I dressed, for the first time since his birth, I was not exactly sure where my son was or who was holding him. I glared disapprovingly at the unfamiliar figure in the bedroom mirror one more time and trudged deliberately downstairs, careful not to aggravate my new scar.

I approached my son's bris with the silent ambivalence that had become characteristic of my Jewish observance. I have felt equivocal about Judaism ever since a friend introduced me to the concept of Secular Humanism at age 17. Surprisingly, I found my 12-plus years of day school education challenged by late-night conversations about Tom Robbins' Skinny Legs and All.

Choosing to circumcise your son involves making a difficult and significant decision on his behalf -- but what in parenting doesn't?

Ever outspoken about what I considered the "barbaric" nature of the bris ritual, it is no wonder I was blessed with two sons. Experiencing it once was pure agony. But it was as I stood on the sidelines awaiting my younger son's circumcision, in pensive conversation with my brother, that I realized I -- and women like me -- deserved to shed our status as victims and claim our own meaning in this tradition.

During my first son's bris, I spent the length of the ceremony sobbing uncontrollably into my mother-in-law's arms. Resentful of a male-dominated faith that prioritized exalting masculinity at the expense of the freshly post-partum woman, I wondered, what insensitive tradition expects a new mother to host and entertain a mere eight days after giving birth? And all while bearing witness to a stranger causing her perfect newborn to writhe in pain?

While the joy of caring for my new baby boy quickly eroded the painful memory of the bris, my second pregnancy brought with it renewed discomfort over the ritual, along with my second son. Shortly after his birth, I conducted an informal survey among Jewish mothers, questioning their experiences of their own sons' britot milah, the pressures they felt, their motivations and reactions.

I heard from women who would have forgone the bris, but for familial expectations; women who reveled in the large gathering of friends and family assembled to welcome their sons into the Jewish community; women who could not imagine such fanfare -- in one mother's words: "The idea of 'celebrating' this event with people, food, and small talk was so counter to everything I was feeling;" and at least one woman who believed the pain inflicted upon her son during his circumcision affected him -- and his relationship with her -- for life.

While many of these mothers shared my "bris guilt," the overwhelming majority spoke of the importance of bringing their sons into the covenant and the connection they felt to generations of Jews who have carried out this same ritual. Brilliant friends of mine in fields of flux such as medicine and education reported to me that they followed through with the ceremony solely out of a commitment to tradition. (Ironically, almost immediately afterwards, one of these same friends, a doctor, chastised me for not administering vitamin D drops to my baby. Apparently, although never recommended before, a recent study revealed that our natural vitamin D levels are now deficient enough to warrant intervention.)

It has been a long time since tradition, in and of itself, has been reason enough for me to do anything. If it's simply because we've been doing it this way for hundreds or even thousands of years, I figure I may as well give my child a cigarette and sleep him on his belly from day one. (Fine, religion is different than science -- I know. But why? Why does religion seemingly get a pass when it comes to the need for evolutionary relevance?)

I looked to the source. But the references to the ritual in the Bible are far too paradoxical to provide reassurance: Circumcision first comes on the scene when God commands Abraham to circumcise all of his descendants as a symbol of His covenant with them (Genesis 17:9-14). According to the midrash, when Abraham attempts to circumcise himself at the ripe old age of 99, he falters, requiring God's assistance to do the deed (Genesis 17:24). Then, Moses apparently does not circumcise his own son; his wife, Tzipporah, only later does so after Moses faces the threat of death (Exodus 4:24-25). And circumcision serves a disturbingly prominent role in one of my favorite biblical narratives -- the story of Shechem: After Jacob demands the circumcision of all the men of Shechem before he would agree to give over his daughter, Dinah, for marriage, two of Dinah's brothers (Shimon and Levi), to avenge their sister's alleged defiling, murder all the freshly cut men while they lay weakened by the pain of their recovery (Genesis 34). (Is it any wonder a woman named Dina would find the act of circumcision so troubling?) Seems you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

These days, the recent ballot initiative in San Francisco to ban the circumcision of minors (ultimately stricken by a local judge on a technical matter) is the latest manifestation of the growing anti-circumcision movement. Like shirking vaccinations, shedding strollers in favor of "baby wearing," and embracing co- sleeping, it is increasingly popular to resist subjecting your newborn to such a "barbaric" procedure against his "will," and to casually throw around terms like "genital mutilation." Great. Just what I needed to add to my ambivalence over the decision to circumcise my sons -- a healthy dose of the liberal guilt I thought I safely had left behind in college.

But I did not find the cries of the hyper-liberal terribly persuasive. Yes, choosing to circumcise your son involves making a difficult and significant decision on his behalf -- but what in parenting doesn't? And, after all, isn't the irrationality bred of cult-like child-centric parenting ultimately akin to religious zealousness? Just trendier.

It's not my role to try and justify the act of circumcision to its increasingly impassioned opponents, though. Truth be told, I'm not so sure the anti-circumcision advocates are wrong. Surely, we all share more than a little discomfort at the prospect of causing unnecessary pain to a newborn, without obvious benefits. I do not seek to resolve the largely inconclusive medical evidence of circumcision's health benefits or defend one approach over another. I am but one mother struggling to find meaning in this perplexing, yet perpetual, Jewish ritual.

In my most honest moments, I realize it's not the act of circumcision that troubles me, but the ritualized publicity of it. (Like Hanna Rosin admits in New York magazine's "The Case Against the Case Against Circumcision," "I am Jewish enough that I never considered not circumcising my sons.")

I've never been comfortable wearing my Judaism on my sleeve. Growing up a fair-haired, green-eyed girl with the name Dina Lucas, my Jewish identity was not apparent upon first meeting. And I liked that. I suppose it is due to years of identification as "The Rabbi's Daughter," or being taught in day school to self-describe as Jewish above all else, that I desperately craved religious anonymity.

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Now my sons are blonde and blue-eyed; by happenstance, their last name is not identifiably "Jewish;" by choice, their first names aren't either. Interesting how the mark of affiliation performed through the bris ritual is also one that can be concealed. Surely, I would have put up greater resistance had the bris required branding my sons with a distinguishing mark on their faces or arms. Or if I lived in a country where routine hygienic circumcision was less widespread.

And yet, Jewish culture has re-defined the bris as a decidedly public event. We gather around, greedily stealing a glimpse of the newborn as he is readied for his fate. We expect the new mother, reeling and raw, to present herself in all her post-partum glory for our critical examination.

"Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn't solely him and me."

Many of the women I interviewed described how, to soften the spectacle, their mohels used a seemingly popular method of attempting to distract the parents during the actual circumcision -- by giving them a passage to read, singing songs, or telling (often distasteful) jokes. Those same women, without exception, reported that, despite these methods, they were unable to tune out the sound of their newborn's cries.

Not infrequently, science is at odds with religious observance. But perhaps when it comes to the bris, they work in tandem: a new mother is biologically programmed to respond to her baby's cries -- it's how we somehow rouse ourselves even in the darkest hours of the night from the smallest peep, while our partners continue sleeping soundly by our side. Likewise, perhaps the bris ritual is designed to elicit a reaction from the mother, one that cannot be stifled or sidelined. One from which there is no distracting. We are meant to hear our baby's cries, meant to react, meant to instinctively want to comfort him immediately, and yet be forced to wait -- just a moment more -- before we can scoop him into our arms.

The bris serves as a shrill reminder that the mother's control over her son's well being is incomplete. This ritual acts as the first separation following the birth. It represents the harsh, but true, reality that the baby is now subject to external, unpredictable, and varied forces. "Quite convincingly, circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life.... The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start, marking your genitals as its own," Philip Roth writes in his novel, The Counterlife. Or as Rabbi Elyse Goldstein reflects: "Tender male children are taken from the safety of their mothers, the female world they have known for eight days, and given into the hands of men, who then cut them."

One mother's prayer for her son during his circumcision poignantly acknowledges:

A mother learns at her baby's circumcision that she suffers
the pain of her child, so recently parted from her.
If all men and women learn to feel the suffering of others,
life can be preserved on this planet.

During my second son's bris, I stood alone, stronger somehow, a Mother of Two Boys, able to weather the tumultuous emotional toll. I could not sleepwalk through this ritual, allowing it simply because it was expected of me. Instead, I chose to be awakened from my womb-like slumber, along with my new son, and confront that, while his pain may be my own, I cannot always protect him. Neither from physical discomfort, nor from the weight of the traditions into which he was born. For me, the bris served as an important reminder that there are things larger than me and my quest for rationality. Larger than my son and this brief encounter with pain. As one parent wrote about giving his son over for his bris, "I submit him [for circumcision] because I hope there is more to this than I can see or understand." There are things I can't explain, things beyond my control, even -- especially -- when it comes to this new life.

I don't know precisely what kind of future I want for my boys. I don't know what lives they will lead, what they will believe in, or what decisions they will make for their bodies or minds. I know where they came from, but where they go from here is not entirely -- or even mostly -- in my hands. In the midst of my agnosticism, I chose for my sons to bear the mark of the outside world and its imperfect impact upon them. I hope they are forever vulnerable to the external influences in their surroundings, not righteously impervious to them.

Perhaps this is the perpetual value of religion, even in our secular, self-important lives. It comes to teach that the world we inhabit is bigger than any one of us. As Roth remarks, "Circumcision confirms that there is an us, and an us that isn't solely him and me." Maybe I can even make peace with the public gathering that accompanies the modern bris; through it, the mother appreciates that, although she cannot carry this baby within her any longer, she is surrounded by help and love and hundreds of generations of women who have confronted this same jarring revelation.

Now, if and when I attend a bris, I never watch the baby. My eyes rest squarely on the new mother. Not to evaluate whether she fit into her pre-maternity wardrobe for the occasion, but to somehow transmit a silent reassurance. To telepathically communicate that there will be moments -- many -- where she may feel like her baby boy is out of her hands. But it will be okay, and beautiful independence and communal influence emerge as a result.

It is my hope that new Jewish mothers at the brises of their sons try to shed the expectant gaze of the gawking crowd and focus on the raw pain of the moment. Don't get distracted. Your son's shrieking cries serve as an acute reminder that your baby exists on the outside now. Once my son was here, we both had to realize that we are part of something beyond the insular protection of the womb -- a community full of history and love and the people we consider home.

Images: Yehuda Boltshauser/Shutterstock.

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Dina Lucas Relles is a Philadelphia-based attorney in the product liability litigation practice group at Blank Rome LLP.

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