December 10, 2021 — Max Buckler, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Bruchim, and Charlene Thrope, a member of its extended team, join Judaism Unbound’s co-hosts, Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg, for an eye-opening conversation that explores tensions surrounding Jewish circumcision and emerging alternatives as the primary way to welcome amab (assigned-male-at-birth) babies into the Jewish community. Listen here!
Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound, Episode 304. Circumcision and its Jewish alternatives.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone, I’m Dan Libenson…
Lex Rofeberg: …and I’m Lex Rofeberg.
Dan Libenson: And today we continue our discussion about circumcision, which is a critically important topic in its own right, and also representative of a variety of conversations that ought to be happening within the Jewish world about whether and to what extent and to what ways Jewish practices that have been around a long time should continue to be around, should stay around in a modified way, should not be around at all, can be varied and enhanced and there’s room for diversity…all of those questions we have about a variety of Jewish practices. Just from our conversation last week we know that there are a lot of people who are excited to hear about the organization that we talked with, Bruchim, because this issue touches them, and their own family, and people have found and expressed relief in knowing that they’re not the only ones out there with these questions.
So, we’re continuing to look at this topic of circumcision, this week talking to a married couple who have come to this issue more recently, who have spoken about it with friends in their own lives, who have gotten involved with the organization that we talked to last week, Bruchim. They represent the kind of family that Bruchim is out there to reach and to help and they themselves are now involved with Bruchim.
Our guests today are Max Buckler, and Charlene Thrope.
Max Buckler is Bruchim’s director of strategic initiatives, which includes digital communications, research, and coalition building, and we should also note that he is a student in Lex’s class in our inaugural cohort of the UnYeshiva which we’re really excited about…so in that sense, he may also be bringing a bit of a Judaism Unbound lens to this conversation, as well as a Bruchim lens, and his own personal lens.
Our second guest is Charlene Thrope. She is part of the extended Bruchim team…although that’s not her day job! She is a graduate of the double degree program with Barnard college and the JTS, and she is completing her master’s degree in quantitative modeling this year. CT also trained as a mikveh guide with immerse NYC, and Charlene Thrope is an active member of the UJC of HK. Yes, you heard that right, Max and Charlene are in Hong Kong because of Charlene’s day job.
So, we’re really excited to get into this conversation, so, Max Buckler, Charlene Thrope, welcome to Judaism Unbound, it’s so great to have you.
Charlene Thrope: Thanks, Dan.
Max Buckler: Thank you so much for having us.
Dan Libenson: So, could we get started by your telling us about the story of how you became involved in these explorations of the future of circumcision?
Max Buckler: For us, there was no specific moment or story when it was like, oh, this is something we need to talk about. This came up as a broader exploration of all the types of Jewish conversation we had on the UWS in Manhattan about ritual and gender and the future of Judaism. I sort of have a little bit more of a skeptical perspective when I’m considering Jewish traditions, and just one way or another it started coming up at shabbat dinners. These conversations started coming up about, well what about brit milah? We were talking about all kind of controversial things about Judaism and it was just so rare to talk about circumcision. And what we found was that most of our friends and most people in our community really hadn’t ever discussed it before. And that was sort of the first clue that warranted, ok, this needs a little bit more exploration.
Charlene Thrope: I think a lot of people don’t really know how to talk about it because our only frame of reference a lot of times is jokes. Right? There are lots and lots of jokes about circumcision. From, like, “just a snip,” to, “the baby cried more when their diaper came off,” right? And that’s our frame of reference. And also, for a lot of people we’re talking to, it’s something that happened to them, or that they did to their children. So, because of that context, I think there’s a little bit of shock.
And then, I think for me, what first drew me to this topic was the gender lens. I grew up in a community where I identified as a Jewish feminist and that was a big part of my Jewish upbringing. And so, I look at all rituals with that lens. And I think that with brit milah, it’s one of the only rituals that we haven’t totally addressed from a gender lens. So, we’re either cutting a baby’s genitals or not based just on what the genitals look like. It enforces the gender binary, and it does so in a way that signals that AMAB are more valuable then AFAB. And though we’ve seen Simchat bat ceremonies or baby naming ceremonies for baby girls…sometimes they happen on the 8th day but a lot of times they just happen on shabbat or on a day that’s kind of more convenient for friends and family…maybe when the baby is a few weeks old. And so, I think that people are trying to figure out, how do we make a meaningful baby welcoming ceremony for all babies…but brit milah still has this higher level of importance and priority.
Lex Rofeberg: So, I want to break the fourth wall of our podcast a little bit. We’ve tried ever since our inception to go to the conversation topics in Jewish life that are hardest. And to take them on through lenses, through perspectives, that people haven’t necessarily thought about as much, and so you know we’ve talked about intermarriage, we’ve talked about Israel-Palestine, we’ve talked about atheism, and we’ve talked about a lot of things that in different ways push different buttons…we haven’t talked about circumcision until last week and this week in a deep way. I think it might have only come up in little passing conversations. And honestly, I’m not bringing that up to self-flagellate. But I think it’s interesting. It wasn’t a conscious choice by us, but I think there is a way in which I think that when we can…we avoid this conversation, right? When there’s not some like big reason—which is to say like when you’re having a child who is AMAB, or for some other reason there’s something facing you. I think for the most part, people just don’t go there because we inhabit a society where talking about genitals, talking about our bodies, talking about anything related to that genre is not what we do most of the time. And, I’m glad we’re now breaking that, but I’m curious if you can talk about—I’m interested in the groups of friends you have that this came up at shabbat dinners—but when you have these conversations with people what comes up? What are people nervousnesses, what are their anxieties, what are the communal taboos, what are some of the issues that you encounter? And by the way, that can be like your own question that you’ve been asking, or those that you’ve encountered when talking with friends.
Charlene Thrope: I think that for our friends who are rabbis, and have officiated at a bris, or multiple brises, there’s kind of this tension of, “there can’t be anything wrong with this thing that I’ve done or I can’t question this thing that I’ve done, because I’ve done it.” I think that’s one piece. Another, and maybe Max should say this more than me, but I think there’s an aspect of, “if there’s anything wrong with brit milah then there’s something wrong with my genitals.”
Lex, you had mentioned that this is something that we don’t talk about until people are about to be parents, and I would argue that even then, it’s not really a conversation or discussion. It’s just, “this is what we do.” So, there hasn’t been this kind of intentional asking of…why do we do this, how do we make an informed decision…it’s more just, well we’re Jews and this is what we do and this is what my parents did to me and what I will do to my children and we’ve been doing it for generations and generations and in a lot of ways it’s actually a non-choice.
Max Buckler: Char and I talk a lot about how this is something done on autopilot. So, when you get into these conversations that’s sort of the starting point. It’s like, well, “we’re not going to change it so where’s this conversation even going to go?” You know, you’re sort of a defender by default when you start getting into it, and that is the same way that I was when I first started talking about it! It’s not like I came out of the womb opposing circumcision. It wasn’t until I was twenty-six years old that I actually looked and identified that what’s on my genitals is a scar.
In the Jewish community there’s this tightly woven patchwork of connection to brit milah (circumcision). Where your best friend just performed it last year, and your cousin’s having one next week, and it feels like if we’re going to say anything critical about it, we’re criticizing virtually everyone. We’re criticizing our friends and family and we’re saying there’s something wrong with their behavior. There’s no time when we stop and take a breath from this patchwork and say, ok, we need to stop, sit down, and assess what we’re doing. I think if you did, that creates a different scenario. But since we just keep going, the train keeps moving, it makes it very difficult to actually step back and assess what’s happening. And that’s what at play when you have these conversations.
Charlene Thrope: There are some families that don’t know what the sex of their baby will be, and so this is literally a decision that they’re making right after giving birth or right after having a baby or right after adopting a child. Whatever that looks like, a baby enters your life and very quickly you need to make a decision. Sometimes there’s not time to have the conversations. Maybe those should be conversations that happen before hand…but sometimes they’re not.
Dan Libenson: I was thinking about time in another way. I think about my own experience as a parent, and I had just never known this was a real topic of conversation before I had a child. It just didn’t come up. Now, I think that might be because times have changed, that was nearly twenty years ago. One thing that occurred to me, when you think about—we’ve had ultra-orthodox guests on this show—and one of the conversations is how in the ultra-orthodox community the fact that people get married at a very young age is not an accident. It’s a way of getting people attached to the community because by the time they find out about various questions about things like, do they believe in god, they’re already so wired into the community that you know maybe because despite maybe intellectually they don’t believe in god, more realistically they’re not going to do anything differently.
This is a little different form that but it’s still kind of the same. It’s like you’re making this decision when you’re relatively young. Now, people are having kids a little bit older so it’s a little less so, but I was in my thirties, I wasn’t so young! But it just had never come up. It’s not even necessarily that you’re grappling with this issue and you don’t know what to do, and it’s only eight days to decide, so you do it. It’s like, you hadn’t even thought of it at all! So, the question starts to be for me, how do you break into that cycle? How do you get people to think about the question at all when they’re young enough that it matters? And the other piece that was in my mind as you were talking—and we can talk later about the arguments that circumcision is really a bad thing to do—but I would even start with the question of, is it even a good thing to do? Like, what’s good about it? Maybe we have the conversation there first, and then we can say, if we end up saying, “hey we really shouldn’t end up doing this because we can’t even figure out what’s good about it, we don’t even have to go to the place where it’s so bad.”
Charlene Thrope: Thinking about “good” things, I think that there’s this really powerful chain of tradition with circumcision and there are not so many rituals that we can trace back as long as we can trace back circumcision. And it’s something that comes up when you read about Abraham circumcising himself and circumcising Isaac. It’s a full body mitzvah and if you think about different commandments, different mitzvot, well, prayer is more about what you’re saying and what you’re thinking, but there are some mitzvot that involve our full bodies. There aren’t so many of them. We talk about dwelling in the sukkah for sukkot as one of those full body mitzvot, or ritually immersing in the mikveh is another. I would argue that brit milah is a full body mitzvah. So, I think there’s a lot of power in that.
Dan Libenson: I just want to clarify my question. I wasn’t really meaning to ask you to say what was good about it. I was kind of saying, the question that I have about it—before we talk about how it might be such a bad thing to cut (however you want to phrase it)—I don’t know. People talk about the brit, the circumcision, like, “it’s so beautiful,” and I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s so beautiful about it. If we had a practice that was like, you should take every baby’s appendix out when they’re born…from a medical perspective I know it’s not good to have abdominal surgery, that’s worse. But let’s say you could do the surgery really safely, I don’t think that we would say, “oh, it’s so beautiful to take out somebody’s appendix.” We would just be like, ya know, maybe we shouldn’t be messing around with the appendix. Not because it’s so horrible but it’s like, why muck around?
My question is before we even get into major critiques of circumcision, I feel like part of the cycle that you’re talking about is this story telling, this way that we have this network of ideas within the Jewish community like that the circumcision is beautiful, or that it’s a covenant with god. But most of the people saying that don’t believe in god! What do they think they’re doing? So, a lot of that is just unexamined because like you were saying, the conversation is never had.
Max Buckler: I’m reminded of an early conversation we had with one of our friends who is a Rabbi, and they said something that’s guided my exploration on this. And this is dealing with Judaism in progressive areas, Judaism that has a strong connection to traditional values and Torah study but is interpretative. And they said, “tradition should continue until there is a pressing moral reason to change.”
Towards your question, Dan, when it comes to brit milah, I can’t look at it and say, what reason is there not to change. We’re dealing with something that enforces the gender binary, which infringes on a person’s ability to make choices about their body, and generally doesn’t have intentionality which I trace as a very important Jewish value.
What are our reasons for doing it? Well, it’s a tradition. But when do we ram up against a time when tradition should be challenged? I think with this one, I can’t see a reason why it wouldn’t at least be challenged.
Lex Rofeberg: I really, really want to sit with what you’re saying Max, about that conversation with the Rabbi. They said to you, ya know, basically, “look, we’ll do all the historical, traditional, meaningful stuff, unless there’s a reason to discard it.”
I don’t agree with that framework.
I think what that is saying about how Judaism works is actually something I patently reject. I don’t believe in opt-out Judaism. I don’t believe what we should be doing is receiving everything that we’ve received form the Jewish past: all the holidays, all the text, all the whatever. And keeping everything until we find a reason not to? I find that to be, honestly, appalling. I think what that will always lead to is keeping rituals that we don’t actually stand behind because we don’t have the time to research everything and so we’re just going to keep everything. Whereas, when we start from an opt-in framework, of ah! I’m going to do the stuff that I actually think is great, I’m going to co-create with communities the set of things that I think are great…and by the way I have a long, long list of Jewish holidays, and texts, and rituals that I think are great and those are the ones that I do.
I’m curious, because Max, your response was still on the terms of that Rabbi’s assertion. Like, buying that we need a really good reason to discard something, and here’s that good reason, here’s why circumcision breaks a variety of values that I don’t want to break. I would pose the question, who out there, if they were looking at the schema of Jewishness, of Judaism, would look at this ritual and say, “that’s awesome!”? I don’t think very many people. And so, if it’s not doing that, then how can pose the question differently where we’d say, huh, there are covenantal rituals that I think would be really amazing and powerful that we could create that would actually soar to the heavens. Let’s do those instead. How can we flip that equation?
Charlene Thrope: One thing is that I think we’ve seen that kind of change with covenantal ceremonies for baby girls. People are creating amazing rituals that involve wrapping in the baby in a tallit, or washing their feet, or cutting a pomegranate. With baby girls we’ve had the opportunity to start from scratch, and it’s look really cool.
Lex Rofeberg: Yea! And the reason for that is that we don’t have a 2500-year-old ritual for AFAB children that we now have to upend. I thin it’s actually the result of being able to say, we’re gonna’ start our own stuff. But we’re not doing that with the other half of this equation.
Max Buckler: There’s a huge frontier for ritual creation for gender inclusive covenantal ceremonies. It’s all on the table right now, and I think it’s exciting.
On the point of me being informed about what that Rabbi said about keeping a tradition until there’s a moral reason to change, I just wanted to say that my Judaism is more in line with yours, Lex. My criticism is that if one is taking that position that tradition keeps until there’s a moral reason to change, then what is the moral justification for keeping brit milah now? If that’s your position, then there should be an official challenge right away. There should be a huge conversation about it right away.
Dan Libenson: I’m not really in on the terminology so I’m not sure I’m framing the question exactly right, but I feel like when we talk about circumcision, folks that call themselves “intactivists,” the people who give out literature in front of the hospital is very alarmist. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just they’re trying to alarm you with messages like this is harmful, it takes away sexual feeling, it causes potential problems. And all of that is very important to sort out and think about. But the other piece of it is, like you were saying, Charlene, even if the sexual feeling was the same, and there weren’t problems, I would still look at this and say, why are we doing a surgical procedure on an eight-day old baby? Even if there were no sequala I would say that just doesn’t seem like a good idea.
We used to give animal sacrifices at the temple. Now, why did we stop doing the animal sacrifices? Not because people were concerned about cruelty to animals. It’s because the Romans destroyed the temple, and we couldn’t do that anymore! But now if you were to ask somebody 2000 years later if they want to start doing animal sacrifices, most people would say absolutely not because that’s cruelty to animals. And maybe this goes to the opt-in point but if something had intervened in the past that had made circumcision impossible for at least a couple of hundred years, it seems unlikely that the Jews would have re-adopted it.
Max Buckler: Yes, you would have that break in the patchwork that would allow people to assess it without the bias.
Dan Libenson: I’m interested to going into some of those conversations you were talking about that people should be having before they’re having kids. It would be great to hear that information that we should be considering, including what I was talking about some of the more alarming “intactivist” medical considerations, as well as other perspectives where even if that’s true or not, maybe this isn’t the best thing to keep doing.
Max Buckler: Think about your body right now. Be in touch with it. Feel every part. And ask yourself, is there something here that I would like to remove right now? Maybe there is, and that would be your decision as a person who can think about it and make an informed decision.
Intactivists are coming from the point that as foreskin is a healthy body part, parents do not have the right to remove it from their child. To make a surgical alteration to their child. That’s what at the core of that argument. The reason I don’t identify as an “intactivist” isn’t because I don’t agree with that position. It’s because of the alarmist rhetoric, harmful rhetoric, and often we see some anti-semitic rhetoric. It’s not because I don’t agree with that central view that human beings have the right to bodily autonomy.
The amazing thing about intactivists is that what they’re up in arms about is something that everyone, I think, in the Jewish community would be up in arms about if it were any other body part. In the Jewish community we have sunken this body part so deep that we just think of it as an “extra module” of the penis. What do we always hear? That it’s a tiny piece of skin, that it’s just a little snip. That’s the common terminology we hear in the Jewish community which makes it impossible for us to compare it to any other body part. So aren’t assessing it from the sense that it’s even part of our bodies.
So, why would someone be alarmist about this? Can we say this is really the only part of the human body we can take this stance with? You can see why people would be alarmed about it. And unfortunately, when you have something that’s so foundational to our culture, it feels like any level of criticism is alarmist. And you have the fact that the intactivist movement does get into quite a bit of harmful rhetoric.
Charlene Thrope: One of the interesting things about the medical conversation about circumcision is that that’s not why Jews do it. If pressed to say why they do it, one of the reason people give is, “it’s healthier.” But I would argue that that’s not why they’re doing it, anyway. It’s just a rationalization.
Dan Libenson: How many Jews actually know how the circumcision is done? When they’ve attended them, they don’t really watch. There’s not a camera, thank god. There’s no jumbotron. They’re not really seeing what’s going on and I think when people say it’s a little piece of skin, I think that they would be pretty shocked to understand exactly what’s going on.
Max Buckler: I can explain it. And it’s true, and even just to speak personally since I’ve talked to my parents; my mother waited in another room when I was circumcised. My father had to look away because at an earlier cousin’s bris he accidentally stood up too close to see the blood and he took two steps away and passed out face down on the kitchen floor.
Lex Rofeberg: Quick content warning: we’re about to get pretty specific about how the circumcision procedure works.
Max Buckler: When you think it’s just a little piece of skin, what tool do you think is used? Probably just a scalpel or just a scissors. The reality is this procedure requires multiple tools.
The first thing you need is a probe. The foreskin in an infant is fused to the glans head. It doesn’t actually come down and start moving and sliding until the child is eight or nine years old. There’s a mucosal membrane inside, a double layer of skin. So, the first thing the mohel has to do is take a metal probe–basically a metal stick–and insert that into the opening to disrupt that fusion. This is the moment that if you were watching the circumcision, the infant would start to cry out, almost every time.
The next step is to use a hemostat to grab hold of the now loosened foreskin to pull it forward and stretch it out to prepare for the cut.
Then you will need a clamp. There are various types of clamp but many in the Jewish community use what’s called a mogen clamp. This clamps onto the now loosened foreskin, protecting the glans-head underneath and exposing the foreskin which is now stretched over.
And then a scalpel is used over the top of the clamp to remove what’s there and to complete the circumcision.
So, this is a multi-step process, it’s not something that’s hanging off. It’s invasive. Personally, I think people should have to witness one before the do it. I do think that would make a difference. It’s a serious procedure.
Charlene Thrope: One interesting thing that’s happened with covid is that there’s now a lot of brises happening on zoom. And we’ve been to zoom brises and we’ve witnessed that much of the time the camera just turns away and doesn’t even show what’s happening. That shows at least some level of discomfort. Some knowledge that maybe we don’t want an up-close-and-personal view of our son’s penis having surgery on it for all of our friends and family to see. Or at least understanding that not everyone wants to see this.
Lex Rofeberg: I want to come back to some of the questions of why this ritual has this powerful hold. And I want to not dismiss some of what’s happening because I think there are actually some deep things happening and I would argue that we could simply look at them a little bit differently. Like Charlene, you were saying that it is cool that we can actually look all the way back to Abrahm and although it’s not as simple as people think, there’s a huge amount of generational history behind this and there’s a literal story about it in the Torah.
I do think that there are ways in which we use something being historic as a rote justification when we’re not sure what else we can say. I don’t hear a lot of people saying that the reason why we do loud noise making at purim shpiels and booing haman is that “we do that because for generations people have done that.” We hear people saying that it’s because it’s friken fun! It’s fun to be in a big old space and yell and boo haman. I feel like the argument of, “ah we’ve been doing this for centuries, or for millennia,” is the argument we use when we don’t have a great argument.
I also think it’s true that part of why this ritual has so much power is precisely the fact that it doesn’t make sense to us. There’s a way in which it being this cultic thing that doesn’t feel of our time adds a kind of power. And we could unpack whether that’s good or bad. But I think that people do actually gravitate towards that.
What I do want to ask is, given there’s beautiful, powerful things that should mark a new baby arriving into the world…I think that generally and I think that Jewishly, I don’t have any problem with having a beautiful ritual eight days after birth where you enshrine a new human being in Jewish life. That such a cool thing. I think one danger in this conversation when we’re sort of criticizing the rituals that have existed is that it sounds like we’re just anti-anti.
Can you give us some more color to the meaningful things that you imagine people can do for a baby naming? Perhaps drawing from those rituals for AFAB? I actually have done a few baby namings myself, including one for a child AMAB. That child had a hospital circumcision, so I didn’t have to do anything with that. I was exceedingly grateful that I didn’t have to think about what I would do with a traditional ceremony. What might we learn from alternative ceremonies? What might we frame as great ways to welcome a child of any gender into the world, including those that in the past might’ve been circumcised?
Charlene Thrope: I think is an opportunity to start from scratch and think about what kind of values we want to welcome our child into the Jewish community with. You had mentioned the dynamic of welcoming a baby into the world vs welcoming a baby into the Jewish world, and I think in a lot of ways those are two different things. Doing something on the eighth day and officially welcoming the baby into the Jewish community and giving them a Hebrew name, bringing them in as part of this chain of tradition, I think that’s a special thing that might even be separate than just welcoming a baby into the world in general. There’s something special about bringing them into the Jewish community. And it starts this new chain of tradition. One of the things we say at a traditional bris is that this is the start of the baby’s Jewish journey.
I think it’s worth noting that there are some people who understand that a bris is not a positive, beautiful ceremony. And instead, they take the perspective that, “the baby is suffering but that’s part of being in the world. We’re introducing the child to a life of suffering and as a parent I’m using my child to make a sacrifice, and to recognize that I don’t have full control over myself and my child.” Basically, using the child as a sacrifice. There are actually people who own that and say this is why they do this tradition. I think there’s a lot of interesting places we go with that around inter-generational trauma…I think that it kind of functions as a hazing ritual…but I think that it’s important to note that if you think about it as compared to other Jewish tradition we do where people don’t have to have a beautiful meaning for them. Sometimes the meaning is suffering. I don’t know how I feel about all of that personally, but I just wanted to say that there are people who know that a bris is not a positive experience for the baby, and they are doing it intentionally because of that reason.
Max Buckler: One formative story for me occurred at an orthodox bris in Manhattan. One of the Chabad Rabbis from my university was there, and he came up to me to offer a l’chaim, and we were talking about how there’s a saying that Eliyahu hanavi is at every bris, and then he said, “it’s amazing that Jews continue to do this sacrifice.”
I don’t think in progressive spaces I hear the phrase, “sacrifice,” used quite often when it comes to doing a brit milah. In the progressive world we do hear other answers that are also troubling. One answer we got from a progressive Rabbi is that this teaches you we don’t have total control as a parent and that you need to give in to the wider community, and that that’s a healthy thing. And we’ve heard other answers such as that it does hurt the baby, but being a Jew in this world is difficult, so this teaches them that. That life is suffering.
Thing is though, these are answers that come from people who haven’t thought about this very deeply. You have to have empathy when you’re having these conversations because people are thinking, “well, we’ve done it for 3000 years, there has to be a good reason, somehow.” So then, you use your mind to try and come up with a reason on the spot. I don’t think of them as harsh or heinous reasons, more just as an attempt to rationalize.
I also wanted to add, going back to Lex’s question, we need to recognize that this ritual is highly effective and is ecstatic. This is similar to fraternity hazing. It creates a system of cultural cohesion that’s very difficult to break. But it’s ecstatic, it’s just ecstatic in a toxic way.
Charlene Thrope: Going back to the ritual conversation. A lot of my Jewish experience and Jewish thoughts about ritual stems from my connection to mikveh. And I think there are really amazing and powerful and cool rituals that have been created for different mikveh immersion ceremonies for any range of life events or spiritual events, and I think there is a huge opportunity to do something similar with covenantal ceremonies.
When we’re starting from this place of, we don’t really love where a ritual came from, we don’t love the original intent, there’s some level of discomfort with the tradition but we have the opportunity to say, there’s something about this is powerful. There’s something Jewish here that we want to keep. But it’s figuring out; how do we reimagine that and repackage, reinterpret it? How do we make it personally meaningful?
With covenantal ceremonies, there’s a really cool opportunity to bring a baby into the beautiful Jewish community but also for parents to have a really big role in what that looks like and to make it more personal. Right now, the personal aspect of a bris is the parents giving a name to the child. And we’ve seen that even with the amazing speeches parents give at brises explaining the name of their child. And there’s just a lot more opportunities around that with rituals we can do and create that parents can partner with their rabbi and community on, and be co-creators of rituals to welcome their child in a way that aligns with their values and their Jewish community.
Dan Libenson: Charlene, you mentioned that you have this perspective because of your positive experiences with mikveh. I know you’re originally from Boston and I’m wondering if those positive experiences come because of the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Boston. If so, I’m raising that because, first of all Aliza Kline was an early guest on Judaism Unbound, but also because Mayyim Hayyim is a very unique place. A very unique mikveh. In a way it proves the point we’re talking about here that most people in most cities would not say that great stuff about mikveh, like you, because the mikveh in other places is this meaningless, old, dry, hard to understand place.
And so, it’s fascinating to me, and it’s an example of the kind of Jewish change that we hope to see. The domino effect that somebody who happens to be from Boston and experiences a mikveh this way can now make an analogy to something else, and maybe that’s how change happens.
Charlene Thrope: My positive mikveh experiences didn’t start at Mayyim Hayyim, but that is actually where Max and I immersed before our wedding. My mikveh experience is with immerse NYC…which of course I’m realizing came from Mayyim Hayyim!
Lex Rofeberg: We’ll count it!
Dan Libenson: And Sarah Luria has been a guest here, so we’ll take it.
Lex Rofeberg: Mikveh is a great example of ritual reformation. It’s also a Jewish ritual with a very rich history. Putting on my nerdy hat here though, there’s not evidence for mikveh in the bible in the same way there’s evidence for circumcision. There’s evidence for it in the Talmud so like, we’ve got a little less history but still it’s pretty ancient. But what I’m hearing Dan get at is that the beautiful thing about mikveh in 2021 is not—and I apologize that I’m saying the same thing in different ways, but it’s just really important to me—it’s not that it’s been along for so much time is not what’s magical about it. What’s magical about it’s that our ancestors understood something about it, like that they understood we could immerse in water and something experiential happens. And what Mayyim Hayyim has done is taken pieces from the original ritual and then allow people to layer on their own meaning. And allow people who wouldn’t have gone to the mikveh before to go.
I went to Mayyim Hayyim myself. I don’t even remember why. I just wanted to go…it might’ve been after I moved apartments. Whatever it was, it was for something small. But I went and it was actually very powerful for me. And so, what would change, what could happen if we all took to hear the effort that I’m hearing from Charlene and Max that we should actually ask about our rituals, “what’s happening here?”
Why did we do a traditional ritual? We’re saying that’s x, y, or z things that we think are permanently toxic, but there’s other things like the giving of a name, the welcoming of the child…there’s some things that we actually do want. Do you have future looking thoughts about where this might go if we were to ask bigger questions about what we do with baby rituals?
Charlene Thrope: I see there being two kinds of possibilities about what this might look like. One is a widely practiced gender inclusive baby welcoming ceremony. I think that we have a lot of great models for what that might look like, although nothings quite stuck yet. We’ve seen this over time, that different rituals might take time to stick more than others. So, I think that that’s one possibility: seeing these models we have such as wrapping a baby in a tallit or washing the baby’s feet. A popular gender inclusive ritual that can gain popularity with a lot of Jewish parents. That’s one option.
Another possibility is that there’s not one widely practiced Jewish baby welcoming ceremony, and that instead, it’s something that the parents decide and create. Or it’s ritual co-creation with a Rabbi or spiritual leader, and that it’s more personalized.
I just want to say one other thing about mikveh that connects even more to circumcision. Another time we welcome children to the Jewish community is when a baby is converting, and they immerse in the mikveh. We talked about some wonderful leaders in the mikveh movements, and I’ve heard Haviva Ner-David explain that it’s very important for the baby immersing in the mikveh not to have a traumatic experience. She makes a judgement call that if the baby dunks twice but then on the third dunk the baby seems to be suffering, for her, that’s enough. It’s so important that the baby is welcomed into the Jewish community in a positive way. And so, I think that’s another interesting example of how we see brit milah vs how we see other baby welcoming ceremonies, and asking, how do we want to bring babies into the Jewish community? Do we want rituals filled with suffering or do we want rituals filled with meaning and joy?
Max Buckler: I have a different connection of these two rituals, which to Lex’s point, is not necessarily that our ancestors felt this “amazing” experience of immersing, but instead that they used it to cleanse what they considered “female impure blood,” whereas the male blood of a circumcision was viewed as salvic. But Charlene’s work with reclamation on the harmful origin of mikveh gives me inspiration for reclaiming brit milah.
And at Mayyim Hayyim, they gave me a sheet, and the mikveh guide said, “here’s a sheet with some types of words people have said in the past. You don’t need to say any of these, maybe you will come up with your own.” And immediately, I felt connected with the tradition because I had the words of those who came before but also felt I was no longer held hostage to only doing things one way. And I ended up using something that was on the sheet which I would not have used if it was the only thing there. I got to make a choice other than “get in there and dunk.”
We talked about intentionality with brit milah, and this is the lesson that we don’t have to do things one way. Change can come from the Jewish community and people can become educated, intentional participants in the tradition rather than practicing the call-and-response style.
Charlene Thrope: We’ve seen incredible baby welcoming ceremonies that could stand as a model. We just went to a brit bat where there were traditional verses recited that connected to the baby’s name. It was really beautiful. That’s something that’s customizable and unique and special.
Dan Libenson: Something we talk about on this show is: at the end of the day, are we talking about something that the major institutions of the Jewish community are going to get behind? Or are we talking about something that’s going to have to come into the conversation from somewhere else. It’s not like all the synagogues in America started reinventing mikveh. Mayyim Hayyim came along as an independent player and said, we’ve got an idea here. And it’s taking a long time! It hasn’t spread everywhere yet. But I think that’s where the big change will come from.
Now, I would love it if the synagogues and Rabbis out there would start to say, “circumcision is one way you could go, and you could go other ways.” But I have my doubts.
We started this conversation talking about you two talking about this issues with friends. One question is, how could we imagine getting the conversation going? How can we start these talks at the right time? And by the way, the right time doesn’t just mean for prospective parents. A lot of our listeners out there probably are people who have older kids who are not yet parents. Maybe the people to be having the conversations are just as much the older folks as the younger folks because a lot of times the younger folks are having circumcision because the feel some pressure from their parents…and their parents might not even care! They might not even have that pressure, but they don’t even know. Nobody’s really thought about it.
I wonder about how we could intervene here and make these conversations happen but I also just want to raise this issue that as long as, for example, Jews think, “I’m Jewish sort of but I was never b mitzvahed,” In their mind they think that to be b mitzvahed is somehow a finishing touch on being a jew, and if you didn’t have it then you’re not exactly Jewish. Now, someone in the know will say, that’s not true! You’re just as Jewish if you didn’t have a bar mitzvah! I think a lot of people think that way about circumcision, they say if one didn’t have a circumcision and has the wrong equipment than they aren’t really a Jew. And until that mindset is broken, it feels like there’s just going to be too much inertia to make change despite the serious concerns we’ve discussed. How do we kind of get that changed mindset to even place this on the table for people?
Max Buckler: I think it’s part of a broader conversation about Judaism. We are the living Torah. Everything is on the table. If you’re starting from a place of, this isn’t on the table because circumcision is what makes you Jewish, then we can’t address this issue in any meaningful way. Some question if you’re really Jewish if you’re not circumcised or if you oppose circumcision. Is that too far, they wonder? Is that actual the red line? Is that the actual time when you say, we’ve gone too far, we’re in a different religion?
In my understanding of Jewish tradition, which is that we have an interpretative tradition: we are the still living arbiters of this chain. That means we don’t do everything the same way we did in the last generation. What I would like to see is serious inquest within major movements. I think there’s enough ethical justification for a real discussion. What I think is more likely for now is a grassroots conversation going on in these rooms. During long walks and at shabbat dinners. But my message for anyone listening right now is not, “to bris or not to bris?” But it’s definitely that it’s on the table and we should be talking about it in Jewish contexts.
Lex Rofeberg: As a closing question, I’m just curious: what would you encourage our listeners out there to do with the two episodes they listened to? If folks were thinking, “I just heard two episodes where we talked about covenantal rituals, we talked about this issue of if circumcision is ethical or moral…” what would folks do with this? What steps can they take? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Charlene Thrope: I think a huge action item is to have conversations.
It’s also very important to recognize that the conversations Max and I have about circumcision are coming from a place of, we are two Jews who were born Jewish to two Jewish parents. We don’t know what our pathway to parenthood will look like but if I give birth to a child then nobody will question their Jewish identity, nobody has ever questioned our Jewish identities. I do think that’s important because today brit milah intersects with Jewish identity and the question of who is a Jew, and so that’s an aspect of a conversation that will look different for different families.
That aside, knowing that this is something that we should be talk about whether it’s from a lens of wanting to talk about Jewish parenting, or talking through a gender les, or from creating new rituals, whatever that looks like to you, whatever’s important to your values, bringing a conversation and intentionality—maybe talking to your parents about it. We talked about the generational differences, and maybe talking to your parents about is a good step. Maybe it’s something they did but don’t have strong feelings about now. But just being able to have those conversations so you can make an active decision.
Max Buckler: I want to read something. This traces back to what Dan said about people using different types of rhetoric such as alarmist rhetoric. This is a letter written by Rabbi Abraham Geiger, founder of reform Judaism, founder of what we would think of as progressive Judaism. He wrote this to Leopold Zunz, another member of that radical cadre, and I’m going to read it now:
“I am unable to support circumcision with any conviction, just because it has always been so highly regarded. It remains a barbaric, bloody act which fills the father with anxiety and subjects the mother to morbid stress. The idea of sacrifice which once consecrated the procedure has certainly vanished among us, as it should. It is a brutal practice that should not continue no matter how much religious sentiment may have clung to it in the past. Today, it is perpetuated only by custom and fear, to which we surely do not want to erect temples.”
So, that was in the 1840s, and keeping in mind that’s not an intactivist on reddit, that’s Rabbi Abraham Geiger.
Lex Rofeberg: Thank you both for joining us! This has been a fantastic conversation.
Max Buckler: Thank you so much for having it.
Charlene Thrope: Thank you!