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Morah Yehudis Fishman
Morah Yehudis Fishman

Reflections on Brit Milah

Morah Yehudis Fishman

By an interesting stroke of fate – whose Jewish translation is Hashgacha – a boy I taught in the first grade around 30 years ago, popped into Boulder to show his controversial film, ‘Cut,’ about his perspective on circumcision. By another act of Hashgacha, I was asked to be on a panel discussing the film, and as much as I tried to get a wide assortment of Rabbis to join me, for one reason or another, no one I contacted could or would come. So there I was, a woman with no biological children, confronting a former Torah student, who the sages say is like a child, and challenging the premises upon which he had built his obviously biased ‘no-circ’ case. Does G-d have a sense of humor, or what?

Sitting next to him on the panel was a woman who arranged the appearance of Eliyahu (the student-filmmaker- not the prophet by the same name who is said to visit-chuckle- every Brit Milah in history.) Both of the latter have written extensively and obviously about Brit Milah from a primarily negative perspective. Therefore, I who have not written about the subject, feel called to challenge their agenda. As much as I tried to present counter arguments that evening I felt I could not express my thoughts in the given time frame. Also, many people in Jewish Boulder were not able to come that night, so it is for their benefit too that I am writing. Appropriately, this is also the week of Parshat Lech Lecha, where Abraham, at the age of 99 was commanded to circumcise himself.

One preliminary clarification: There is no mandate for Jews to insist that non-Jews undergo circumcision for either health or religious benefit. The Talmud speaks of seven Noahide laws, mentioned in last week’s Torah portion, that apply to all humanity. Brit Milah or medical circumcision is NOT one of the Noahide laws. The only exception might be if it were proven that circumcision were a clear and unequivocal health benefit for all. Then this could go under the general Noahide law of establishing a public monitoring of areas affecting critical life issues.

I began my response to the film by highlighting the three primary issues cited: pleasure, health, and religion, all of which, including the third, I felt might not be coming from a true Torah outlook. Let me explain why.

Pleasure is the most obvious contrast. Maimonides was cited in a sarcastic tone as stating that circumcision lessens the man’s sexual pleasure, and many ‘patriarchal’ rabbis accept that premise. In the film a couple where the man had a circumcision later in life was extensively interviewed. They reported how much each one’s sexual pleasure was decreased from what it was before. I don’t know if this couple was even Jewish but what caught my attention was that each one reported the decrease in his and her OWN pleasure, rather than in relating to the other. And that is exactly the point of Maimonides et al.

Man’s instinctive or animal nature is such that, if unrestrained by Mitzvot- legislated commandments – or if necessary, added boundaries, individuals would not recognize the needs and sensitivities of others, in the pursuit of personal gratification. The Torah’s commandments most abound in those areas where callousness and mindlessness would set in, such as sex, food, speech, etc.

The complex laws of Mikvah, Kashrut and blessings; Lashon Harah, etc. are all meant to elevate areas of instinctual reactivity to higher places of soulfulness and caring relationships.

There is a Hassidic story of a wealthy miser who was visited by a Rabbi who needed money for some orphans. Before expressing his request, the rabbi led the man to the window, and asked what he saw. After the man replied, ‘people walking back and forth,’ the rabbi then led him to a mirror and asked the same question. The man responded, ‘I see myself.’ Exactly, said the rabbi. ‘As soon as a little silver covers the glass, you can’t really see anyone else.’

I think this story captures the Torah’s perspective on the pleasure principle, and how a small sliver of flesh is like the silver in back of the mirror. Of course, the question often arises, as it did in Hellenistic times and in more recent eras, ‘if G-d wanted the male body circumcised, why didn’t He create it that way?’ This too is an age old question and was explicitly addressed in the Talmud by the Roman general Turnus Rufus to Rabbi Akiva. In stead of a direct answer, Rabbi Akiva had a tray brought in with raw grain on one side, and fresh baked bread on the other and asked the general which he preferred to eat. (This did not take place in Boulder.)

This contrast is actually very profound. From a Torah point of view, G-d deliberately designed nature with imperfections, so that we should be able to perfect it. This is a key understanding of the idea of being created in the image of G-d- that humans are supposed to be partners in improving life on many levels. This is the idea of Tikun Olam, as so many Jews in Boulder speak about. And to paraphrase, ‘Tikun begins at home,’ which for a male is, health permitting, on the eighth day of life.

As a fascinating premise, the sages actually connect permission and obligation to intervene medically, to the mitzvah of Brit Milah. If not for the premise of G-d allowing or even creating imperfection in nature, with the corollary mandate of Tikun Olam, Judaism might be more like religions that say, since everything is G-d’s will, who are we to make changes?!

This touches on the second issue, of health. Here too the Torah addresses these concerns in no uncertain terms. There are tomes and tomes of Rabbinic writing about the care that is needed to make sure the Halacha, Torah law, is carried out in the most hygienic manner, and that the baby has no even slightly possible medical issues that could be the least dangerous. And of course, if new medical concerns and issues arise, like all areas where health is involved, the family and the Mohel must consult with the latest medical findings. If there is even one suspicion of danger in that particular case, the Brit must be postponed. Or, G-d forbid, if there were some kind of plague that put male infants at risk – that would obviously be possible cause for at least postponing a Brit Milah. However, the tone of the film even from liberal Jewish proponents of Brit would make it sound as if, in the case of overwhelming contemporary health issues, Jews should consider abrogating Brit Milah in general! This is a far cry from caution in specific circumstances.

Now let’s look at what I would consider the critical question that needs to be asked: ‘What is a person’s ultimate life principle, or overarching value?’ If for a Jew, it is living a Torah life, then one abides by thousands of years of Torah values to decide the risks and benefits of any procedure not as an either or choice of Halacha OR health, but as a combined assessment. However, if one’s standard is health at any cost, then the choice would be similar to that which people make, for example, of eating organic chicken over kosher. The false premise is that a Jew must choose sides between ‘the G-d of Torah and the G-d of science or health.’

There was another argument that the film as well as some of the panel made against circumcision which I did not explicitly bring up, and that was the ethical question of imposing an act that causes pain on a helpless child. This is probably the most passionately expressed protest, but also, I feel, the most theologically as well as philosophically weak. First of all, any definition of pain and suffering is very tenuous. In this context, when used negatively, it becomes synonymous with ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. But is changing a diaper, or giving a sharp vaccination, or eliminating sweet but harmful foods, or ‘forcing a child’ to get an education, in this category? If not, it is because there is a premise that these acts are necessary for the well being of the child, and are decisions that parents, of necessity, have to make.

This takes us to the religious question. If Brit Milah is not accepted in the category of necessary minimal pain, then it’s mainly because Brit Milah is already assumed to NOT be of similar primary value to the above examples. In this case, it seems to me that a definition of what is ethical depends on a choice between whether ethics are divinely ordained, or subject to social, cultural, or individual standards. If Brit Milah is merely sociological, cultural, or even religious if religion can be defined by relative standards, then it would more easily give way to ‘progressive’ concerns.

I mentioned on the panel that halachically Jews do not perform Brit Milah merely as a covenant going back to Abraham, but rather because of the collective covenant at Sinai when the nation declared ‘with one voice,’ ‘Naaseh v’nishma, we will accept and then understand.’ Eliyahu Ungar stated that he thought to be a Jew was to argue with G-d but I think he is conflating the areas where one is encouraged to debate, learn, understand, and apply to ongoing situations, in contrast to an acceptance of the Torah as Divinely ordained, i.e., we will accept and THEN understand. Of course there have been and still are fuzzy edges even among the most traditional rabbis, but those debates involve peripheral areas. In the case of Brit Milah there are ongoing discussions about what kind of implements, how to draw out a minimal drop of blood, etc. but NEVER about the fact that the Brit needs to be physical.

There is a famous story of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe when he was in prison. Someone pointed a gun at his head while he was praying. The Rebbe calmly replied, ‘the only people who are afraid of that ‘toy’ are people who have one world and many gods, but those who have many worlds and one G-d, are not afraid.’ I think this story is also relevant in defense of Brit Milah for Jews. Jews throughout the ages and up to this day have risked their lives to fulfill commandments- especially that of Brit Milah, because, consciously or unconsciously, they knew that it touched the very core of Jewish identity and existence. Note, in particular, the gut wrenching story of the woman in the Holocaust who asked a Nazi for a knife before he killed her son so that she might ‘return him to G-d, as a complete Jew.

The rabbis have many teachings about the supreme importance of Brit Milah. I want to conclude with just a sampling of them:

Before I do, on a personal note, my research on the topic has led me to an interesting personal observation. The Talmud states explicitly that ‘a woman is considered circumcised at birth.’ This too became an object of derision at the film discussion, and I tried to defuse the negative note with a humorous comparison that seemed to go over most people’s heads. I referred to the anecdote of two elderly women who were vacationing in Miami, and complaining about the hotel. One said to the other, ‘wasn’t the food horrible? It tasted like poison, and they gave us such small portions!’ Similarly, I said, some of you seem to make the argument: ‘Circumcision is barbaric, and women are ritually excluded!’

Now for a few sayings:

Great is Brit Milah for no one was as diligent as Abraham in fulfilling G-d’s commandments, yet he was called ‘complete’ only because of the mitzvah of Milah (Talmud: Nedarim 31)

The sages say, ‘Great is Brit Milah, for were it not for Brit Milah, heaven and earth would have not endured, as it is written, ‘Were it not for My Covenant, I would not have created day and night and the laws of heaven and earth.’

Milah is equivalent to all the other 612 commandments combined. The Zohar brings al allusion to this by pointing to the numerical equivalent of the word, Brit, to be 612.

The Orlah, the foreskin, represents a barrier between a Jew and his connection both to Torah, to his fellow human beings, and to G-d. Removing the foreskin reveals the inner levels of the soul and therefore opens the channels to a holy relationship with all three.

The Hebrew root word of Milah is related, says a contemporary Rabbi, Rabbi Shwab, to the word, ‘Mahul,’ meaning blended. The import of this connection is elaborated upon in Hassidic teachings. A primary purpose of a Jew’s existence in the world is to close the gap between spiritual and material realms. As expressed in the classic Hassidic work, Tanya, from the Midrash, ‘G-d desires a dwelling place in the lowest of worlds,’ meaning in the most material planes of existence. The mystics teach that the physical Brit Milah actually imprints the divine ineffable Name on the reproductive male organ responsible for the continuity of life in this world. No amount of ceremonies, verbal expressions of contractual agreements, or well-meaning wishes or philosophical musings, can substitute for this very real, down to earth and therefore most holy, act of ‘sealing the covenant in the flesh,’ that is expressed through Brit Milah.

May Jews everywhere continue to engage in religious dialogue about their tradition, but with an open and humble mind and heart, and not one covered up by a foreskin of sarcasm, closed-mindedness, and unwillingness to deepen their understanding of a heritage that has brought the world so many of its positive values like universal justice and education, the right to health and happiness, and ethical monotheism.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

Morah Yehudis Fishman
I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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  1. Thank you for your insightful comments about this very sensitive issue. I learned so much!
    Sharlene Ancell Kark, Boulder

  2. Questioning circumcision is for those Jews who generally evaluate an idea not solely based on its conformance with the Torah, but also in light of its agreement with reason and experience. They believe that Jewish practice must be consistent with what they think and feel. If you are in the 90% of Jews who include these values in your decisions, please visit the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center at http://www.jewishcircumcision.org.

  3. More and more parents — including Jewish couples — are deciding to leave their baby boys intact. That’s because circumcision is now known to cause the infant pain and distress, as measured by heart rate, respiratory rate and cortisol levels. Circumcision involves surgical risks, and can adversely affect the mother-infant bond. And the foreskin, now shown to be comprised of highly sensitive tissue, serves an important physiological function.

    How are we to regard this new information? Pronouncing that the Jewish anti-circumcision perspective is closed-minded or sarcastic is not a Jewishly ethical answer.

    From the point of view of Jewish law (halachah), any alleged medical benefits of circumcision are wholly irrelevant; circumcision is strictly a sign of the covenant. And yet, newly revealed risks, drawbacks and ethical concerns are of great halachic pertinence.

    Judaism embraces new insights; indeed, there’s ample halachic precedent for re-evaluation of practices based on new knowledge.

    Lisa Braver Moss, author of The Measure of His Grief, a Jewish novel about the circumcision controversy

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. It misses the central issue of the film and the opposition to infant circumcision in general.

    Circumcision makes a lifelong change to _someone else's_ body. In communal societies, this did not matter, the individual (except in the rulling class) was nobody. Now we have national and international guarantees of indvidual security of the person, freedom from unreasonable seizures and individual freedom of religion. All the reasons you give may be excellent reasons for a person to choose to have _himself_ circumcised, but not to have it done to him without his informed consent.

    You rightly ask "‘What is a person’s ultimate life principle, or overarching value?" but he or she can not give his or her answer to that for a good few years after birth. I like your story about the women in Miami, but nobody is suggesting that girls be circumcised – in fact it is against the law to make even the most token, sterile pinprick "much less extensive than neonatal genital cutting" as the AAP's bioethics committee put it. It is the double standard that is at issue here.

    Contact details for celebrants of non-cutting Brit Shalom (including a number of rabbis) are at http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish-shalom.html

  5. The 'Cut' postcast of the event was most fascinating. You can hear Morah Yehudis Fishman and the other panelists field questions from the audience. The other 'Cut' podcasts are very informative as well. They are available at http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-cut-podcas

  6. Morah Fishman should watch the movie again and rethink her response. She states that there is a couple in the film where the man was circumcised late in life and both he and his wife's sexual pleasure had decreased. What movie was Morah watching? Certainly not "CUT"! The couple in
    the film each reported increased sexual pleasure after he restored his foreskin as an adult. If Morah wants to comment on the film, she should get her facts about the film in order.

    • sorry, I meant to say that the decrease in pleasure was prior to the restoration of foreskin. But my point still remains that each one was focused on their own pleasure. I did see the film several times, but in an attempt to write the article in a timely manner, I reversed my description. Again, I apologize for that.

  7. There are so many edicts in scritpure which we don't or can't follow today. Why cling to this one, instead stoning adulterers, instead of steering clear of women during menstruation, instead of having raped virgins marry their attackers?

    I see the point of Cut as forcing us to think about which elements of ancient culture we follow and which we don't. As soon as we do that, we have to recognize the newborn male as a future rational adult who has a right to deliberate and ponder the same question.

  8. First of all, I want to honor and thank Morah Yehudis for her courage and willingness to attend the presentation of "Cut: Slicing through the Myths of Circumcision" and to participate in a challenge both from the film, from the audience and from myself about that which she and the Tradition holds dear and beyond question. I once felt that way myself. However, what all of this elegant verbal scaffolding and pilpul does is completely ignore the reality of the infant and the science that we now have about the structure and function of the foreskin, and the neuroscience which tells us about the reality of cellular memory and the serious implications of causing excruciating pain to newborns (even with the application of analgesics).

    The traditional response which Morah Yehudis cited that Judaism gives boundaries, laws, etc. to restrain our excessive instinctual impulses seems reasonable. Certainly, discipline is needed in all walks of life: eating, sexuality, etc. But altering and diminishing a sexual organ is more than discipline. Would we cauterize a portion of the tongue to teach restraint while eating? Certainly, the same is true of sexual activity: mutual respect is learned from how one is raised, not by amputating the zone of highest pleasure. Those who persist in claiming the necessity, indeed, the divine mandate, of cutting away the most highly sensitive skin on the sexual organ of a baby boy, are also obliged to honor the principle of informed consent. Parents should be told:

    1) your child's foreskin contains over 20,000 of the most erogenous nerves on his penis
    2) in adulthood the foreskin would normally represent nearly 1/2 of all penile tissue
    3) it protects the glans from feces & urine during infancy, and provides a lubricating, mobile sheath in adulthood during coitus
    4) removing it, externalizes the glans, changing it from a soft, mucosal covered surface, to a dried & thickened one, further desensitizing this organ
    5) it needs to be removed because we can't assume he will be able to control his sexual urges as an adult
    6) even though Jewish identity is determined through maternal lineage and trumps circumcision, both in halacha and the Israeli Supreme Court, this "makes this child a Jew"


  9. Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder

    just curious. How many of you who are "anti-circumcision" are "pro-choice"?

    • There is a group "Catholics Opposing Circumcision" that is predominantly "pro-life". Abortion and circumcision are two different issues, with different beings involved. Nobody is FOR abortion, we just disagree about when, in the course of the extraordinary journey that is a pregnancy, it should no longer be permissible. But whenever they may begin, human rights do not END at birth.

      • I am curious, when does the anti-birth movement begin? G-d has set up such an excruciatingly painful experience for both newborn and mother. Some woman and children die in the process. When will this be taken up "need I say" with G-d? We've learned to rationalize, ponder, and impart the meaning and beauty brought forth through this pain…
        Is it possible for Jews, feeling strongly enough and connected enough to the wisdom and meaning within Torah and their relationship to G-d, to also impart meaning from the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. Like Eliyahu, I too held my son at his circumcision. It isn't just tribal or a male bonding need… It goes much deeper than that for me. I attended the movie and would not recommend circumcision to my gentile friends. I see the higher purpose and a great value of Eliyahu's work in informing non-Jews and stimulating(minus a few nerve endings) the conversation amongst Jews.

  10. I’d like to start by stating that it was an absolute pleasure to share the stage with a teacher who I hadn’t seen in so many years. Moreover, it speaks volumes about Morah Fishman that of all the Jews in Boulder, she was the only one willing to engage me publicly on this issue. It is a travesty that in 2011 a devout woman who is so articulate and knowledgable is not given the title Rabbi. Having said that, I would like to respectfully correct my former teacher on a number of points. First, in her discussion of the central themes of my film, she left out a very important one: Ethics. The commandment to circumcise requires us to literally harm our children. This presents an obvious conflict of values between the Jewish tradition and ethics. How one negotiates this conflict will determine what kind of a Jew one is and this is the crux of my film. I would further like to reject Morah Fishman’s concept of “a true Torah outlook”. In the Jewish tradition, there is a famous adage that there are “seventy faces to the Torah”. Indeed, our proudest achievements as a people have always come from this pluralistic approach. The Orthodox propensity to constantly police the boundaries of “legitimate discourse” comes from a deep-seated fear of change. I am much more afraid of the consequences of not changing. What Morah Fishman refers to as “the ethical question of imposing an act that causes pain on a helpless child” is in fact but one element of the ethical case that I make against circumcision in Cut. I also focus on the effects of circumcision on male sexual experience. This is not to elevate the “pleasure principle” above all others. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the harms of circumcision last a lifetime. It is true that parents make all sorts of decisions for their children, but this fact alone does not mean that these decisions are always right. If Christian parents choose, for example, to tattoo a cross on their infant’s chest, such a procedure would arguably be less harmful than infant male circumcision and it would still be ethically wrong. As to the supposed contradiction of pointing out that women are excluded from Brit Milah while discussing its ethically problematic nature, I don’t see a contradiction here at all. Aderabah (that’s Talmud for “on the contrary”)! The more you argue for the centrality of Brit Milah in the Jewish tradition, the more striking it is that women are excluded from it. In the end, Brit Milah is both unethical and sexist. I can but echo my former teacher’s closing pleas that we all deepen our understanding of our heritage, both as Jews and as human beings. May we be honest enough to admit when our cultural traditions cross the line into human rights violations and bold enough to make the necessary changes when they do.

  11. Eliyahu’s posting reveals the emotional potency of this issue, and warrants a response, I think.
    First, an apology for speaking up, when I have not seen the film. Second, Morah Yehudis is regarding be myself and my colleagues in the fellowship of Boulder rabbis (Haver) as a rabbi’s rabbi, our teacher and guide in Torah and life, questions of title aside. Third, my own approach to the evolution of Jewish life and tradition is an ethical or values-based one, in which “Jewish law/tradition has a vote, but not a veto.” i agree that if a custom or tradition conflicts with core human and/or Jewish values, it is upon us to make the case for reconstructing it, if possible. Judaism evolves and we should help it do so — thus the creation of brit ceremonies for daughters that need not be identical to be equally valuable,and for me, address the concern about “sexism”. now to it. I agree that the act of infant circumcision is one that deserves ethical scrutiny. I also think that the case against circumcision on ethical grounds is frequently exaggerated, and the blessings underestimated. “pain and suffering” — Sure there is some and the fact that it is elective and imposed raises legitimate concerns, but let’s keep some perspective. Clearly milah is a lot less painful than being squeezed through a narrow birth canal and having your entire skull squeezed into a cone shape? And few would argue that the price of vaginal birth (in pain and suffering) is not with the benefit (in independent human life and admission to the human race). So too, to many of us, the price of circumcision, seems a small one to pay for the benefits of admitting a child into the people of Israel. As a father of three, (two sons and one daughter) and an officiant at many a brit milah, my experience tells me that the “pain and suffering” is greater for the parent/s than it is for the child. And as for “the harms of circumcision last[ing] a lifetime” — even if circumcision does diminish sexual pleasure (which is debatable and subjective), we are talking about a few degrees at most here. As far as i know no one claims that the lack of a foreskin incapacitates male sexual pleasure or measurable contributes to ED for instance. As Morah Yehudis explains, Jewish sages are aware of the potential cost and gladly trade it for the moral and spiritual benefit it offers — such as shifting our attention to our partner’s sexual pleasure! I made the choice to circumcise my sons for two reasons: 1) it costs them (and me) less to do it at 8days than it would to do it at the age of majority (13 or older), and the two couples we know who waited and gave their sons to option at 13, saw both boys choose the elective surgery at 13. Ouch! 2) The power of the rite of passage — the ritual worked something wondrous that only a 3000 year tradition that involves real sacrifice (without demanding the sacrifice of human or animal life) in connecting me as a father to my son and the moral obligations tied to that relationship and rooted in and checked by communal life. In fostering, in lasting and powerful ways, the link between father and son, circumcision offers a foundation stone for the ethics that eliyahu so adamantly hopes to protect. Yes, there is paradox in it, like the ashes of the offerings that at once defile and purify — another reminder that ethics is always gray, matters of balancing poles not delineating black and white. Such is life. Everything of value costs us. Don’t circumcise your son just for “traditions sake” or because your dad did it to you. But before you toss it, let’s be sure we are using honest weights and measure in the scales.

  12. R. Jamie, thank you for articulating so much of what I too feel and believe. One further thought that I left the movie contemplating. A very knowledgeable psychologist spoke out in regards to the pain and it's lifetime of effects on a child. She noted facts and statistics and how it also impacts our trust issues…most of which I would not take issue with. All painful experiences leave lifetime scars and our memory is filled with thousands of them(physical and emotional). As I'd mentioned previously, a sterile hospital circumcision is not something I'd recommend for a gentile friend. Since we already do enter this world of pain, the brit milah, where a room of family and a community of love, support and blessings surrounds and holds the child so as to experience the pain, followed by comfort and healing all in the same moment…something very powerful, real, and Jewish comes to life! The idea of one of the child's first painful experiences being held with all that intention brings us full circle in and through that moment, to the reality we have difficulty in groking…that Hashem is in the pain, as well the simcha. May we all walk together and learn anew what Vayera holds for us this year. a simchadica Shabbos!

  13. Male circumcision is barbaric. It should be outlawed that people can make a decision about their infants genitals. If someone wants to saw of part of their penis so badly, let them make that choice once they turn 18 and are fully consenting.

  14. Post script to Reflections on Brit Milah
    As many of these readers know, I was quite shook up by the negativity expressed in the Brit Milah film and panel held this year on the last day of Sukot. Please see my post about it at http://boulderjewishnews.org/2012/post-script-to-