Brit Shalom ceremonies – resources

brit_shalomThis page includes a huge array of information about Jewish circumcision (brit milah), and its modern alternative, brit shalom (with no cutting, or drawing blood). As Mark Reiss says: “Brit Shalom can be similar to the naming ceremony traditionally used for baby girls, sometimes called Brit Bat (daughter). Other names for Brit Shalom include Brit Ben (son), Brit Rechitzah (covenant with foot-washing), Alternative Brit (or  Bris) Naming Ceremony, Brit HaLev (covenant of the heart), Brit B’li Milah (covenant without cutting) and Brit Chayim (covenant of life).”

Brit milah is a vast subject, and tends to provoke strong emotional reactions on both sides of the argument. I am a deeply committed Jew, and active in the Jewish community as a prayer leader, teacher, celebrant, and composer and performer of sacred music. I do not support ritual circumcision that is done without the free, conscious and informed consent of the individual undergoing the circumcision. Even by the most stringent halachah (Jewish law), Jewish status does not require circumcision – for either a newborn child or a convert. I would push back on, therefore, any emotional, psychological, or social pressures – or specious medical or religious arguments – urging brit milah or hatafat dam brit, that are brought to bear on parents of a newborn boy, or an adult male candidate for conversion. I recognise that for many Jews, cutting a male’s genitals is an integral part of expressing Jewishness. But to insist – in our age – on circumcision for all male Jews, or all males who wish to become Jewish, is unnecessary, unkind, and unjust, and not the best way to maintain Judaism or renew its wellsprings.

As part of my own exploration of these issues, I have written a couple of articles on this website looking at the topic of brit milah for male candidates for conversion to Judaism:

While I have strong views, I do not campaign against brit milah. I have no wish to fight with my Jewish friends and my people on this issue. Rather, I prefer to put my energy into offering information on what I believe to be real alternatives to brit milah – alternatives that enable people to express and refresh their deep commitment to Judaism, Jewish identity and Jewish values.

I profoundly support the practice of brit shalom – naming and welcoming infants into their Jewish life and people through a ceremony that does not include cutting anything or drawing any blood.

This is a big subject. Where to start? I would recommend that you read these four resources first. They give a good overview of the territory. After that, take your time to explore the articles, websites, videos and audio interviews, the excellent books that are available (including a novel), and the sample brit shalom ceremonies.

  1. Reiss, Mark M.D. (2003) American Circumcision and Brit Milah in 2003, speech given after the Kol Nidrei service at The Shul of Marin County, San Francisco Bay area, 5 Oct
  2. Reiss, Dr Mark (2011) Brit Shalom: An Alternative Naming Ceremony
  3. IntactNews (2012) Progressive Rabbis On Creating A Jewish Covenant Without Circumcision, 27 Jan
  4. Intact News (2011) ‘Jewish Law, the Foreskin and Human Rights’, 28 July – three pages presenting extended quotations from all the key pioneers and commentators in the anti-milah movement – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

I believe that the many resources that explain and oppose brit milah and support brit shalom can speak for themselves. My time and energy is devoted to those who wish to explore Jewishly grounded alternatives to the circumcision rituals. If you would like me to help you plan a brit shalom – for your son or daughter –  which I can do via phone, Skype and email, or for me to actually lead it as well, please contact me.

Videos & audio
  • Denniston, George C.; Hodges, Frederick Mansfield; Milos, Marilyn Fayre (eds.) (1999) Male and Female Circumcision: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Considerations in Pediatric Practice, Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, New York
  • Glick, Leonard (2006) Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America, Oxford University Press, New York – “This important book traces the history of circumcision from the ancient Middle East to the modern US and its transformation, from a blood ritual to a surgical procedure with extraordinary cultural power, weaving history and analysis together in a very readable way.”
  • Goldman, Ronald (1997) Circumcision – the Hidden Trauma: How an American Cultural Practice Affects Infants and Ultimately Us All, Vanguard Publications – “This book is the first intensive exploration of the unrecognized psychological and social aspects of this increasingly controversial American cultural practice. It has been endorsed by dozens of professionals in psychology, psychiatry, child development, pediatrics, obstetrics, childbirth education, sociology, and anthropology. Without much knowledge, the American public generally assumes that our cultural practice of circumcision is a trivial and benign procedure. As discussed in Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma, plain facts and recent research results conflict with these beliefs and raise questions. Dr. Goldman’s application of psychological and social research coherently explains both the tenacity of the practice and the contradictory information and beliefs about it. After a review of the surprising abilities of infants and their responses to circumcision pain, the long-term psychological effects of circumcision are examined from the perspectives of both traditional and more recent, innovative psychological theories. We learn that circumcision has potential effects not only on men and sexuality, but also on mother-child relationships, male-female relationships, and societal traits and problems. The text is supported with clinical reports, interviews, surveys, and thorough documentation.”
  • Goldman, Ronald (1998) Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective, Vanguard Publications
  • Hodges, Frederick M.  and Fleiss M.D., Paul M. (2003) What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision: Untold Facts on America’s Most Widely Performed-and Most Unnecessary Surgery, Little, Brown & Company
  • Hoffman, Lawrence (1996) Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism – “Central to both biblical narrative and rabbinic commentary, circumcision has remained a defining rite of Jewish identity, a symbol so powerful that challenges to it have always been considered taboo. Lawrence Hoffman seeks to find out why circumcision holds such an important place in the Jewish psyche. He traces the symbolism of circumcision through Jewish history, examining its evolution as a symbol of the covenant in the post-exilic period of the Bible and its subsequent meaning in the formative era of Mishnah and Talmud.” This book traces Jewish doubts about circumcision over the last 150 years, and the progressive separation of women from the rite over centuries. The writer himself does not take a stand, at least in part because he is part of the system he is trying to analyse.”
  • Moss, Lisa Braver (2010) The Measure Of His Grief: a novel, Createspace – “In Berkeley, at his father’s shiva, a Jewish doctor experiences a sharp groin pain for which he can find no explanation. So begins a series of events that will find Dr Sandy Waldman railing against the one Jewish tradition that’s still observed even in the most iconoclastic of towns and among the most assimilated Jews: circumcision. In her witty, thought-provoking debut novel, Lisa Braver Moss interweaves Sandy’s story with that of his wife, Ruth – who will lose patience as Sandy lives and breathes the circumcision controversy – and of their college-aged daughter, Amy, who’s contacted by her incarcerated birth father just as she’s trying to sort out her future. Sandy, neurotic but visionary, deepens his understanding of Judaism even as he’s jeopardizing both marriage and career with his anti-circumcision activism. Along the way, he’s appalled – yet intrigued – by a curious discovery: a local support group for men ‘restoring’ their foreskins.”
  • Moss, Lisa Braver  and Wald, Rebecca (2015) Celebrating Brit Shalom, Notim Press – (For my own notes on this book, click here.) “Today’s Jewish parents have choices – and infant circumcision is one of them. For those who decide not to circumcise, the brit shalom ceremony is an alternative way to welcome a newborn son, give him his Hebrew name, and bring him into the Abrahamic covenant. Until now, there has been no comprehensive resource about this important emerging ritual. ‘Celebrating Brit Shalom‘ provides readers with everything they’ll need to host a brit shalom, whether it’s being officiated by a rabbi or held more informally. Included are three complete ceremonies to choose from – along with sheet music to ‘Songs for Celebrating Brit Shalom‘, the beautiful music composed to accompany these ceremonies. Part handbook, part Haggadah-style prayer book, part keepsake, this book is a must for Jewish parents who are questioning circumcision and for rabbis eager to meet the ceremonial needs of today’s families.”
Sample Brit Shalom ceremonies

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