Brit Milah Today: The Evolution of Tradition

    Heather Gordon

Brit Milah is an ancient Jewish tradition from the time of Abraham in the Bible practiced up through modern day.  This tradition has survived for thousands of years but it has not survived unchanged.  Tradition negotiates the boundaries between theology and reality so that commandments may be lived and not just studied.  Assimilation functions as a powerful source of change in Jewish society. Throughout many different time periods, the tradition of brit milah has been challenged and re-worked so that it may continue to be practiced until today.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, times of great assimilation, require many Jews to rethink and reevaluate their own identities as Jews and what traditions they want to discard or keep.  So far, brit milah has been a tradition that many have not been able to do without.  While some Jews will follow tradition just for the sake of tradition, others require a deeper understanding of the ritual so that it may continue.  The brit milah may be interpreted as a marker of identity or a communal welcoming.  However, for this tradition to survive to the next generation, it must negotiate peoples’ many identities as Jewish, secular, religious, and spiritual.  Tradition needs to function not as a stasis object but as an organic ritual that, while containing the seeds of the original, changes to fit the needs of the current generation.

            The tradition of brit milah is both ancient and significant to the Jewish people.  When separated, the phrase brit milah can be better understood: brit means covenant and milah means circumcision.  Therefore, the brit milah means the covenant between God and the Jewish people shown through the physical mark on their bodies, the circumcision.  Circumcision throughout antiquity until modern day functioned as the physical boundary between Jews and Gentiles and thus as a type of identity for Jews.  Briefly, two time periods used as key examples demonstrating the function of a brit milah or rather, really just the milah, as a sign of identity are the Greco-Roman time period and Germany during the time of Jewish emancipation until the First World War.  Physical male beauty, unchanged, was held as an ideal in the Greco-Roman time period.  In the gymnasiums, a center of culture, athletes would compete in the nude displaying the perfection of their physical bodies; this was the physical place where the lines between Jews and Gentiles could clearly be defined.  Circumcision, physically changing the male body, was thus viewed as a type of genital mutilation which served to form a boundary between the Jews and the society in which they lived.  In Germany before WWI, the time was a period, across the world but especially in Germany, of intense awareness of nationality and the need for national unity.  Many Jews, previously separated from Gentiles by living in their own autonomous villages, were now trying to assimilate into German society.  However, while Jews could adopt German ways of dress, eating, and education they could never hide their Jewish heritage due to the physical stamp of that heritage on their bodies, the milah.  In both of these time periods of great assimilation, Jews attempted to change the tradition of brit milah in order to fit into the society in which they lived: assimilating Jews attempted to negate the circumcisions itself (either have a surgery where you draw the foreskin down or not have the circumcision at all).  Rabbis from both periods changed the brit milah in reaction to these instances of assimilation by making the ritual stricter or more viable for the current time period.  Obviously, Jews would not have had to renegotiate this tradition if it hadn’t had so much distinction.  The two examples above serve to demonstrate power of milah as a physical marker of Jewish identity in the past. 

            Today is also a time of great assimilation of the Jewish people, especially in America.  As with all times of great assimilation, tradition needs to change with the times or else it may be lost forever.  The tradition of brit milah especially is one such tradition.  As stated in the previous paragraph, the brit milah used to function as a physical sign of identity for the Jewish people as it marked the physical boundary between Jew and Gentile.  However, there are many inherent problems with this statement today.  Circumcision no longer functions as a physical sign of identity for Jews, as many Gentiles are also circumcised in hospitals at birth (although I do not have an exact number, it is high enough that most of my sources seem to take this as a fact of general knowledge[1]).  Jews no longer live in small autonomous villages where all traditions must be observed; assimilation and a modern emphasis on individualism allow many Jews to pick and choose which traditions they want to follow.  Parents can choose whether to observe the tradition with all of the religious power of the ritual behind it or have a simple, sterile, operation of circumcision in the hospital.  Also, the statement above regarding milah as an inherent sign of identity for the Jewish people excludes a significant portion of that population: women.  Women are not circumcised and traditionally, women don’t even participate in the ritual itself.[2]  For these reasons, the function of brit milah as a physical sign of identity no longer works as it did in the past.

            To continue the tradition of brit milah today, it must be, and has been, renegotiated in the sense of the brit, or covenant.  Brit milah can be viewed from two different perspectives, insider or outsider.  An outside perspective on brit milah may only see the milah and not the brit.  This would be like defining the tradition in terms of physical separation, as viewed by outsiders, as opposed to the emotional or meaningful context behind the tradition, from the insider perspective.  Circumcision is the physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (and all of Abraham’s descendents) first mentioned in Genesis 17:9: “And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you”.[3]  As part of the covenant Abraham promises that he will worship only God and obey God’s commandments.  In return, God promises Abraham many descendents and the land of Canaan.  To many Jews, the brit is the important part of this tradition.  This covenant demonstrates that the Jewish people are the “chosen people”, having a special relationship with God.  The tradition of a brit milah welcomes a child into the fold of the Jewish people; it provides a (previously) rootless/nameless child with the history of the Jewish people and welcomes him into the religion.  The brit, although not necessarily the milah, is one of the major aspects of identity for the Jewish people.

Explained in this context however, the covenant that is “at the heart of Jewish identity” excludes women.  The covenant can only be marked upon a man; the entire concept is centered on the male genitalia and thus brit milah only functions as a ritual of identity for men.  Women are clearly excluded and would only enter into this covenant upon their marriage (to a male) and with the birth of a (male) child.[4]  With the rise of feminism and liberalizing of different Jewish movements came dissatisfaction with the tradition of brit milah as it stood.  Where are the women within the ritual?  Can women even be part of the covenant between the Jewish people and God or is the covenant really only between male Jews and God? The idea of the covenant is extremely important to the Jewish people, as Rabbi Debra Orenstein says, “connection with the covenant is vital because the connection to God through the covenant is one of the cornerstones of Jewish religion and self-definition”.[5]

Traditionally, women do not participate in the brit milah ritual at all.[6]  As for a separate ritual marking the birth of a female child, a father would make an aliyah to the Torah a month after his daughter’s birth.  The mother and child would not necessarily even have to be in the synagogue.[7]  There used to be no parallel ritual for female infants, welcoming them into the fold of the Jewish people and the Jewish covenant.  This ritual had to be, and still is, renegotiated to deal with the society in which it exists.  To fill this gap, many men and women created their own rituals to celebrate the covenant of a baby girl and welcome her into her heritage.  Two great sources with different rituals to mark this first lifecycle event are the Jewish Catalog second edition, from 1975, which provides American Jews with a basic how-to guide to being Jewish, and Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s anthology Lifecycles, 1994, which discusses the importance of lifecycle events in a woman’s life and rituals that many women created to mark these occasions.  Both texts have several examples of brit banot type rituals; rituals that welcome a daughter into the covenant.  Those from 1975 tend to parallel the brit milah closely; they are performed on the eight days after the birth and include the naming, prayers, and readings welcoming the child into the community.  The authors, Sharon and Michael Strassfeld, note that when performing these types of rituals, parents should feel free to add whatever they feel is necessary to make the ritual more meaningful to them.[8]  A similar feeling, of making the ritual conform to an individual’s needs and desires, pervades the chapter in Orenstein’s book called “Welcoming Children into Name and Covenant”.  Rabbi Laura Geller writes an article in this chapter detailing some of the rituals that different women have created to fill this void in traditional Judaism.  She feels that as it is physically impossible to parallel the extreme physicality, centered on male genitalia, of the traditional brit milah; women shouldn’t even try—rather, women should create new rituals that speak to their identity and spirituality.[9]  Many of the bases of these created rituals come from biblical texts and female spirituality.  Water, as symbolized in a mikvah, and the lunar calendar cycle, Rosh Chodesh (celebration of new month), are two symbols inherently associated with women in traditional Judaism.  A medieval commentator, Me’iri, said that when Abraham was circumcised to mark his covenant with God, Sarah immersed herself in water as a sign of her covenant.[10] Therefore, Michael and Sharon Stressfeld created a brit banot where the baby daughter is dipped in the mikvah like Sarah was.[11]  However, this ritual is slightly problematic as it closely resembles a baptism.  Another ritual involving water is the brit rehitzah created by Rabbi Ruth Sohn; the parents wash the feet of the baby girl.  By washing the feet of their daughter, parents are welcoming her into the covenant. This ritual mimics the Biblical story of Abraham washing the feet of the angels that visited him.[12] The third ritual detailed in this chapter deals with the symbol of Rosh Chodesh; the ceremony created from this basis is called Kiddush levanah.  It is performed at night on the first Rosh Chodesh following the birth of a baby girl.  The ceremony includes readings and songs redolent with imagery associating the baby girl with the wind from the Garden of Eden, famous Jewish women from the Bible, and a history of the name of the child.  All of these aspects combine to give the girl child an association to the history of her ancestors and to welcome her into the Jewish people.[13] Both texts, the Jewish Catalog and Lifecycles, detail different brit banot so that parents can use or adapt these new rituals for their own uses. 

Not only have women begun to create new rituals just for baby girls, they have also begun to change the brit milah ritual itself.  Shulamit Magnus created a ritual celebrating the birth of her son when he was one month old.[14]  She felt that parents are often not able to celebrate the birth of their child on the proscribed eighth day.  When she had to have an emergency c-section performed, Shulamit was too exhausted to celebrate the ritual in the way it is intended to be celebrated.  Therefore, she chose to celebrate her child’s covenant with God in a ceremony that she created herself, centering on Torah readings since Torah is the heart of the Jewish people.  Another tradition that has been created, or in this case reinstated, is that of the planting of trees in celebration of the birth of a child.  This tradition has rabbinical basis in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57A), where parents are encouraged to plant a cedar at the birth of a boy and a cypress at the birth of a girl.  The branches were to be used in their marriage chuppah.  Treasure Cohen brought up this example as a way to celebrate the birth of both genders with a celebration of the covenant to take care of the earth that God created.  Nurit Zaidman also uses this ancient tradition of the planting of trees as an example of how feminists reclaim Judaism for themselves.[15]  All of the women mentioned above created meaningful rituals for themselves that expressed their identity as Jewish women while welcoming their children into the covenant with God.  They have redefined the brit milah so that one does not necessarily need a milah, especially in the case of women, to be part of the brit with God.

Above are many claims and examples that the tradition and ritual of brit milah, or just the brit, is inherently tied to the identity of the Jewish people.  In the past, the brit milah and circumcision defined the identity of Jewish men because it physically set the boundary between Jew and Gentile.  Today this line has become blurred, and circumcision is no longer the identifying mark that it once was.  Where milah was once the sign of identity, today the brit is the expression of that identity; which extends to include all Jews, male and female.  Few children, if any at all, will remember their brit milah or brit banot.  If the brit milah or brit banot welcomes a Jewish child into the covenant with God and gives them a name and identity as a Jew, this is only the first step.   Personal identity is not based on a ceremony that can’t be recalled; it is based on the education and examples set forth by one’s parents.  Therefore, these rituals are opportunities for parents to express their identity and reaffirm their covenant with God.  The brit milah or brit banot is only the stepping stone in the establishing of a child’s identity.  After these rituals, parents must continue that transmission of Jewish identity throughout the rest of their child’s life.  This change does not make the ritual any less meaningful than it was in the past; however the emphasis of the ritual as a function of identity has been switched more from the child onto the parent. 

             Brit Milah and Brit Banot are community rituals that mark the continuation of the community with the birth and promise of the next generation.  Family and friends are invited to the brit to witness a new beginning of a new life that will follow the path of Jewish tradition.  Here the parents implicitly commit themselves to the raising of the next Jewish generation.  This is only one answer to the question that many modern Jews may be asking themselves: Why do we still continue this ritual today?  Another answer, an easy answer, would be that Jews still practice brit milah because it is tradition, a tradition that the Jewish people have practiced (supposedly) since the time of Abraham (if he existed).  Whether or not the reason for a tradition is known, some may still follow it simply because “it’s tradition, what I and my ancestors have always done!” 

Obviously, this answer is not enough to satisfy many Jews, as evinced by the changes made to the tradition.  Tradition here had to be re-worked to so that it could be negotiated into people’s lives.  In the past people had to follow traditions or else they would be kicked out of their small Jewish community.  However, today is the day of a liberalized, largely assimilated Jewish society.  As Dana E. Kaplan notes, the “liberalizing of a theology leads to greater emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, which is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of God”.[16]  Jews today have the choice to follow religion as closely or liberally as they want.  Many Jews pick and choose which traditions to continue in their own lives.  If they don’t have an understanding for the underlying reasons for the brit milah or brit banot, or they don’t have a strong belief in God, then many Jews may choose not to continue this kind of ancient tradition.  In reaction to this change in society brought about by assimilation and liberalization of Judaism, many Jews, like feminist examples above, changed the tradition so that it became more meaningful to them.  Ritual is not meant to be learned about, it is meant to be lived and experienced.  And that ritual is only as meaningful as the people living the ritual make it.  Whether brit milah is celebrated as a communal ritual welcoming a child into the Jewish community (either from a sociological or religious view), or is an expression of the participants identity as a Jew, it is a tradition that is still continued today.  Tradition lives on through today, from parent to child, throughout the generations and will hopefully continue long into the future. 



[1] Weiss, Charles.  “Worldwide Survey of the Current Practice of Milah.” Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 24.1 (Jan., 1962). pp.34

[2] Sharon and Michael Strassfeld The Second Jewish Catalog. Philadelphia: the Jewish Publication Society, 1975: 24

[3] JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH. Second Edition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000.  Genesis 17:9

[4]  Goldberg, Harvey E. “Coming of Age in Jewish studies, or Anthropology is Counted in the Minyan.” Jewish Social Studies. vol.4.3 (spring –summer, 1998) Indiana University Press: 36

[5]  Orenstein, Rabbi Debra. Lifecycles: Jewish women on life passages and personal milestones. Vol.1. Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994. pp.54

[6] 24 Jewish Catalog

[7] 30 Jewish Catalog

[8] 26 Jewish Catalog

[9] Geller, Rabbi Laura. “Brit Milah and Brit Banot” Lifecycles: Jewish women on life passages and personal milestones. Vol.1. Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994. pp.63

[10] Geller 63

[11] Jewish Catalog 37

[12] Geller 63

[13] Geller 64

[14]  Magnus, Shulamit. “Simhat Lev: Celebrating a Birth”.  Lifecycles: Jewish women on life passages and personal milestones. Vol.1. Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.  pp.69

[15] Zaidman, Nurit. “Variations of Jewish Feminism: the Traditional, Modern, and Postemodern Approaches.” Modern Judaism, vol.16.1 (Feb., 1996) Oxford University Press. pp. 57

[16] Kaplan, Dana E. “Reform Jewish Theology and the Sociology of Liberal Religion in America: The Platforms as Response to the Perception o Socioreligous Crisis.”  Modern Judaism vol.20.1 (2000) Oxford University Press.  pp. 62