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“Do You Know?” About Brit Shalom

by Lisa Braver Moss & Rebecca Wald

In many cases, Jewish families who opt out of circumcision make a decision of omission — circumcision is simply skipped. But more and more parents are choosing an alternative ceremony known as brit shalom (“covenant of peace” in Hebrew) as opposed to brit milah (“covenant of circumcision”).

Brit shalom is an uplifting, celebratory baby-naming ceremony specifically designed for non-circumcising families. It’s an affirmation that despite what may be seen by others as a radical choice, the family still considers themselves to be Jewish. And it’s a beautiful symbolic acknowledgment of the ancient Abrahamic covenant.

Brit shalom ceremonies can be tailored to what’s meaningful to the family. Its liturgy may be modeled after that of brit milah, with the circumcision being replaced by a symbolic act such as the cutting of a pomegranate.

Throughout Jewish history, there have been those who didn’t circumcise, but alternative ceremonies for traditional brit milah are relatively new. We believe one of the earliest such ceremonies was officiated by Rabbi Nathan Segal (1949-2019) in the mid-1980s. The movement grew from there.

Various naming ceremonies for intact babies came into being—for example, “brit ben” (covenant for a boy) and “brit b’lee milah” (covenant without circumcision). The ceremony known as brit shalom has become the most common. Since the etymological root of “shalom” in Hebrew can mean both “peace” and “wholeness,” there is perhaps no better name.

At first, it was difficult to find officiants to lead brit shalom ceremonies, and families often created and led their own, culling liturgy from various Jewish sources (or borrowing from Jewish naming ceremonies for girls). Over time, an underground grass-roots movement evolved, with names of willing officiants shared informally and photocopied pages of newly-created ceremonies stapled together and distributed as needed. Until our book Celebrating Brit Shalom came out in 2015, there was no published resource specifically designed for these families.

Thanks to Dr. Mark Reiss, who, over a period of years, painstakingly amassed a list of officiants willing to lead brit shaloms, more non-circumcising families began to hold ceremonies. In more recent times, many progressive rabbis, such as those from the Reform movement, will also officiate if asked.

Brit shalom is an expression of pride in both being Jewish, and deciding not to circumcise. We hope more and more families will choose this option.

Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald are the authors of Celebrating Brit Shalom and the co-founders of Bruchim, a new Jewish nonprofit advocating for the open inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish spaces.

Voices — R.F. of New York

R.F., a proud mother of 2 intact boys, is the first and only parent in her large Jewish family to keep her sons intact. The following is a letter she wrote to her cousins who were expecting a boy and had recently been persuaded by a mohel to go forward with the circumcision (despite their exposure to intactivism). “The pressure to stay silent in a Jewish family is massive and intimidating,” R.F. says. “But I will continue to use my voice to advocate for these infant boys.”

I am writing today because I need to do everything I can to convince you not to let your son’s penis be permanently mutilated. I purposely did not use the word “circumcised” because that word hides and trivializes what it really is. It’s a word we are used to as American Jews. But we are not used to looking deeply at the truth of it.

Yes, I am putting pressure on you, because I know infant genital cutting is wrong. Your mohel is wrong. Whatever she said to make you feel this is a good idea — it’s wrong. If she said the baby won’t feel pain — she is wrong. If she said that it’s just a “little snip” — she is wrong. If she said there are medical benefits — she is wrong. If she said the risks for infection or complications are low — she is wrong. If she said the baby will just “go to sleep” afterwards — she is wrong (babies often go into shock and “pass out” in a traumatized state). If she said you need to do this to participate in the Jewish community—she is wrong.

She has to believe these things because this is the life she has chosen for herself. But you do not have to buy into her mindset.

If she said this will make you part of a long-standing tradition — she is right. But that long-standing tradition is one of abuse. You are too good for this. You have access to too much information to do this. Our parents (and theirs) did not have the Intact America and Your Whole Baby websites. They were much more insulated in a Jewish/American world without easy access to different ideas and different voices. When they find out and understand the truth, they can say “We didn’t know better.” But you are different. You have the internet and the book about Brit Shalom, and articles and YouTube. You have me! You DO know better.

Female genital mutilation is condemned worldwide, and I am sure this makes sense to you. The baffling thing is how, at the same time, male genital mutilation is normalized and encouraged in America and in certain religions. It is the pinnacle of hypocrisy to look down on FGM but endorse MGM.

Imagine your daughter being strapped down by her wrists and ankles, and then someone taking a knife and cutting off her labia or clitoral hood. Take a moment and really picture it in your mind. What could possibly be the benefit of such a violent act? This is what you are considering doing to your eight-day-old son. It’s not different because he is smaller or younger or because he is a boy. The clitoral hood is her foreskin. Its purpose is to protect her clitoris and maintain its sensitivity. The male foreskin is there to protect the glans of the penis, maintain its sensitivity— and more. The male foreskin is live, sensory tissue that has a role in sexual function.

It might feel stressful to change the bris into a Brit Shalom so late in the process. People have expectations; maybe you even made a payment. But this is nothing compared to what it means for your baby to keep his foreskin and avoid a profound, painful, irreversible trauma. If you decide to cancel the genital cutting and change plans, I will drop everything to help you. I will make all the calls for you. You don’t have to rush. You can cancel everything now and do a Brit Shalom when he is 1 month or 3 months or 5 months or 1 year. The well-being of your baby is all that matters.

You might be thinking, “We are the parents, and it is our choice.” But it is not parents’ prerogative to sacrifice their child’s bodily integrity, to injure their children. They are not allowed to tattoo their children, or remove the foreskin of their daughters. The legality of infant boy genital cutting is a tragic loophole in our culture. What would you say if a religious leader or doctor suggested that you cut off your son’s pinky finger on the 8th or 1st day of his life? It would be the most absurd thing you ever heard. This is the same. A child has a right to his whole body.

You might think that the event will be “quick” and then over. But it is not quick. It is forever. You will see your child’s penis every single day for years. You will be reminded of what you allowed to be done to him. Or you can keep him whole, and you will see that his penis, with foreskin, is perfect and beautiful, as God and Nature made him. You will be so grateful that no one took a knife to it. And when he comes to know the sexual functions of his foreskin, he will thank you.

If you allow someone to cut your son’s penis, what will you say to your son when he asks you why you chose to do this to him? What will you say when he finds out that a natural human penis has a foreskin, but his was removed? What if he feels it should have been his choice? This will affect your relationship with your son forever. It will affect his sex life forever. Yes, “circumcised” penises are also beautiful, as are all people and bodies no matter what we have been through. But cut men are survivors of unnecessary violence and loss. And our bodies remember even when our conscious brains do not.

You do not want to become regret parents. It is such a horrific thing to realize what you have done to your child but it’s too late. You are here now! You can make the right choice — the fair and loving choice for your child, for your sweet boy, whose body is absolutely perfect just as it is.

I love you.

R.F.

Interested in lending your voice? Send us an email, giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.

We Do Remember

One rationale people give for male newborn genital cutting (aka circumcision) is “do it, he won’t remember it.” This is a bogus claim. First, it presumes circumcision is a better-do-it-now-rather-than-later birth imperative. The second rationale, a fallacy which follows closely on the first, is that the boy’s still-developing brain is incapable of creating long-term memories. But this is not entirely true. Research has shown that the more traumatic an early experience is, the more likely it will be remembered.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations with men about circumcision. Out of curiosity—and because of my own night terrors I associate with my own newborn circumcision—I asked them if they have an early recollection that they think may be related to their newborn circumcision. What surprised me was that about one out of five said yes.

In 2010, I surveyed men to determine if experiencing newborn circumcision, could lead to acquiring alexithymia, the inability to identify and express emotions. It does. Out of curiosity, I asked them if they have an early recollection, a “snapshot,” or night terror that they associate with their circumcision. Of the men in the study who were cut as newborns, 20.3 percent answered yes or maybe. Recently, I conducted a survey regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and 23.4 percent of the men also answered yes or maybe to the same question.

Granted, it is impossible to verify if an early memory is true. But before you pooh-pooh these early memories, consider that the large and consistent percentages across these surveys strongly suggest that they are true. Regardless, listening and acknowledging these stories should be part of the circumcision debate.

By Dan Bollinger

“Do You Know?” About Smegma

Smeg​ma  \ ˈsmeg-mə \ : the secretion of a sebaceous gland, specifically: the cheesy matter that collects between the glans penis and the foreskin or around the clitoris and labia minora

Yes! That’s right. Smegma was recognized by the Ancient Greeks (who had a sophisticated understanding of the body and abhorred circumcision) as a beneficial and cleansing substance. That white stuff that builds up in our genitals – under the foreskin in intact males, and around the clitoris in intact females – is as natural as the saliva in your mouth. And just as helpful!

Smegma serves important functions. Fresh smegma is smooth and moist. In adult men, it helps to keep the foreskin and the head of the penis soft, and eases intromission (insertion) during sex. Understanding this makes it easy to see why men who are missing their foreskins need to use lubricants for both masturbation and sex. And it makes it easy to understand why partners of circumcised men sometimes complain of pain and dryness during intercourse.

Circumcision removes nature’s perfect lube — forever!–

Smegma also keeps the penis and clitoris from adhering (sticking) to the adjacent skin in a mature adult. Of course, in baby boys, the foreskin is naturally attached to the head of the penis – that’s for protection, too. As the boy grows and the foreskin begins to separate from the glans, smegma sometimes appears in the form of small white lumps (some people call them “smegma pearls”) underneath the foreskin. This is perfectly normal, and no intervention is required. The pearls will be discarded once the foreskin separates from the glans. Smegma will then take over to do its important work!

And remember: Nobody – not a parent or a doctor or a nurse or a babysitter – should EVER forcibly retract a child’s foreskin!

Just as no special care or attention is required for an intact baby, nothing special is needed to keep an adult’s genitals healthy. Again, nature’s best rinsing agent – plain warm water (with a mild unscented soap, if you wish) will take care of any build-up of smegma or any odor you might find offensive.

Here’s something else to think about. A study published in 2016 found that nasal mucous contains a natural antibiotic substance (called lugdunin), which is uniquely effective in fighting drug-resistant staph infections. Another natural substance that fights infection is Lysozyme, a crystalline, basic protein present in human saliva and tears, where it functions as an antibacterial enzyme. Isn’t it likely that smegma also fights infection? Could this help to explain lower rates of STDs in Europe, where relatively few men are circumcised, compared to the United States, where three-quarters of adult men are missing their foreskins and the natural protection this body part offers? Let’s hope that future research will explore this question. Sometimes the facts are right under our noses — or under our foreskins!

By Marilyn Milos, RN and Georganne Chapin, IA Executive Director

Voices — Brad Christensen

Brad Christensen

My story with circumcision began as most did: in infancy, when I was restrained against my will and mutilated. I grew up from that into a difficult child. I was easily angered and I clearly remember the more aggressive version of myself where I would hit people, not with any intention to hurt them, but just as an almost uncontrollable fit of rage. In addition to that, I had an incredible difficulty paying attention and would often get stuck in my learning. I was told I would have to be evaluated and medicated if I were to stay in school, and so, I was taken to doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and put on numerous medications so I would fit into society.

When I was around 5 years old, I found out about male genital mutilation when a friend of mine, who had an intact father, showed me his intact penis. One day, he showed me how he could roll back the foreskin to take out the glans and I instantly knew something was wrong with me since it was a natural-looking function that I could not replicate. Having found my father more difficult to deal with in those years, I went to my mother and confronted her about it. Not knowing what circumcision meant, she had to explain to me rather bluntly that they had the doctors cut off that extra skin and that it was her idea because it was cleaner.

Cut it off? How dare they? It seemed so perfectly suited in both form and function, and the shiny glans in particular looked a lot better than what I had. I asked her if it could grow back and she replied it won’t. I punched her in the shoulder as hard as my little fist could in a fit of rage. This seemed to upset her, but not enough for her to admit she had done anything wrong. Instead, she suggested it was a “boy thing” and that I should speak to my psychiatrist which I didn’t.

Eventually, when I was growing up in middle school, I had yet another problem with my genitals. I had what felt like a bag full of swollen worms drooping down by my left testicle. Not trusting doctors or my parents, I waited a year or two before telling them. When I did finally see a urologist, it turns out I had a varicocele which, if not operated on, might prevent me from having kids by bringing too much heat into the scrotum, crippling production of sperm. To this day, I’m still not sure if there is a correlation between the varicocele and my violent circumcision. Not wanting another doctor near my genitals, but realizing the implications I consented and had a nervous breakdown the day of the procedure, talking a thousand miles per hour until I finally calmed down.

I’ve remained on medication to manage anxiety and depression, have had numerous sleep issues, nausea, and other stomach problems that went with all that, some of which made it difficult if not impossible to perform my job on certain days. Also, I would have existential crises and thought about ending my life more than once so I would be in a better place, or maybe have better luck being reborn into a family that wouldn’t mutilate me so I could experience a proper life as an intact male. I think often of how much more I could be capable of both at work and in my personal life if I didn’t have the internal turmoil to fight with or the drain in self-confidence holding me back.

Circumcised infants create dysfunctional children and adults in more ways than American society and the world realizes. Without a shadow of a doubt, I am sure that my psychological problems were caused in large part by MGM. Nobody should be denied the right to be intact, no matter their race, religion, gender, or country of origin. Right now in the world, being intact is a privilege that comes from the stars aligning to put you in the right family or being born into fortuitous situations that spare you what can be a lifetime of pain. It is my hope in sharing this story that readers can understand just how bad circumcision really is and refuse it for their children so they don’t have to go through the problems I did. Trust me when I say from experience that this procedure often billed as just a quick snip can permanently ruin lives.

Becoming a dedicated intactivist at a young age I made a promise to myself to do whatever I could to speak out against this procedure and try and turn the trajectory of a society that had been culturally conditioned against neonatal ethics and male bodily integrity. While I had known about Intact America for a while it was seeing Sarah Zeimet or Mom4Intact as she is known on Twitter coming forward with her story that finally inspired me to have courage to do the same. It is my hope that the United States of America can join Europe and the rest of the intact western world in rejecting circumcision and realizing that knives and surgical instruments have no place near baby boys or young mens’ penises.

Brad Christensen

Interested in lending your voice? Send us an email, giving us a brief summary of what you would like to write about, and we will get back to you.

A “Coming Out” Story

When I began my work in 1979, gay men were coming to San Francisco so they could come out of the closet safely. By the early 1980s, I was becoming known in the San Francisco Bay Area as the nurse who was telling the truth about the harm of circumcision. Bud Berkeley, the editor of Foreskin Quarterly, a magazine about the normal penis, invited me to have lunch with him. That was the beginning of an extensive education about the penis and its functions from the gay men who were willing and eager to talk to me. Until then, I was simply trying to stop the screams of babies. Now I was listening to the screams of men, too.

Bath houses in San Francisco were in full swing and gay men had an opportunity to see lots of penises and the scars of circumcision on most penises. Men were shocked by the damage they saw. They told me about the extensive scarring, skin bridges, curvatures, and missing hunks and slices. Many recognized their own scars and shared their reactions to the realization of what a doctor or mohel had done to them. This openness is something most straight men had never experienced; instead of witnessing the harm, they often tout the benefits of circumcision and chose to pass the scars on to their sons. As gay men began to educate themselves and others, that began to change.

I asked Paul Tardiff, a gay man who had been circumcised as an adult, if he’d be willing to talk about the differences he felt for a mini-documentary we were making to air during Dr. Dean Edell’s medical segment on the televised evening news. Paul agreed, and on the show, he said the difference between being intact and then circumcised is like first seeing in color and then only seeing in black and white.

With those men as my teachers. I learned more than I ever knew was knowable about the male organ of pleasure and procreation. I’m grateful to all who came out of the closet first regarding being gay, and second regarding the damage circumcision causes. Their stories continue to be a reminder of the importance of protecting all children from genital alterations and amputations. Let them grow up and decide what parts of their own body they want to keep or not. It is their body and should be their choice!

— Marilyn Milos, Intact America board member