Two obstetricians are working together, examining a Jewish woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. One of the obstetricians asks the patient, “Why does a brit (circumcision) have to be on the eighth day, anyway? Why couldn’t it be when it is more convenient for the family?” Before the patient can reply, the second obstetrician, who is not Jewish, looks at her partner incredulously. “Because it says so in the Torah, Tom!”
This true story begins to hint at some of the tradition and clearly well-known history of the tradition of brit milah (ritual circumcision), entering a newborn male into the covenant of Judaism through circumcision. The Maryland obstetrician who gave her partner a Bible lesson as they worked on their patient was right. Genesis 17:11-12 explains God’s directions to Abraham, “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”
While the directive from God does appear in the Torah, many people say that they have a brit for their son because it is part of tradition. They speak of the importance of making their son part of a family tree, male ancestors who have come before the baby and were circumcised. Cheryle Atkin, mother of a five-year old daughter, Sara, and a three-year-old son, Brian, noted that “There was no decision, it was just a fact of life. It’s just what you do.” But Atkin recalls the importance of tradition at their son’s brit. “You look around the room, and see Andy, Brian’s father, and his grandfathers. You think about who did it before you. This is way beyond a cleanliness issue. It’s important to keep tradition.”
But while tradition and family ties top the list for many parents, some recall the covenant that Abraham made with God as the reason they circumcised their son at a brit. Adina Amith, mother of two daughters, Rachel, six; Leah, six months; and a son Noah, four, recalls her belief in the mitzvah, the commandment, of circumcision: “Because it is a requirement in Judaism, and it’s part of the covenant. A brit is meaningful because it [the covenant] is 5,000 years old. The ritual exemplifies better than any other the continuity of Judaism. Although certain things change, this covenant with God won’t change.” Atkin agrees that the celebration holds a sense of holiness. “It’s a spiritual moment when special prayers are said that you never say any other time.”
Whether the reason is tradition or celebrating the boy’s welcome into the community of the Jewish people, celebrating brit milah at home is becoming more popular than ever before.
Brit bat, an eighth day ceremony celebrating the entering of a baby girl into the covenant, is also growing in popularity. Examples of this ceremony are found in Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Baby Book, as well as in the home prayer book for the Reform movement, On the Doorposts of Your House. At the brit bat, similar prayers are recited for the baby girl, with the exception of the service that celebrates the circumcision.
A return to tradition and a renewed emphasis on family have greatly increased the demand for Reform mohelim–trained physicians and midwives who perform circumcisions. Now in its fourteenth year, the Reform mohel program have trained over two hundred mohelim/ot who have performed over eight thousand circumcisions in homes and synagogues around the country.
Communicating the meaning of a brit to parents-to-be or new parents can be a challenge. Some couples see the only difference between a brit at home and circumcision in the hospital is the food following the ceremony that takes the form of a celebratory meal. However, the purpose of the service at a brit is to celebrate the welcoming of a son into the covenant with the Jewish people. When the covenant with God is completed, the boy is given his Hebrew name and is blessed and honored by various relatives and friends. The traditional light meal is a celebration of the community which is welcoming this child with loving arms.
Each family must decide for itself how and why to have a brit or a brit bat for their newborn child. As the importance of tradition and a search for spirituality continue to fuel the popularity of these ancient ceremonies, Jewish professionals and mohelim/ot from all parts of the Jewish community will continue to happily guide and counsel new parents as their children are welcomed into the Jewish community.