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Maverick Mohel

Sharon Lerner
Village Voice, February 1, 1998

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When a man in his therapy group reflected on the trauma of being circumcised, Moshe Rothenberg could relate. "It just hit home," Rothenberg remembers. "It was a visceral reaction."

Perhaps feeling a similar twinge, some members went on to join NOCIRC a group that sees circumcision of baby boys as the counterpart of the ritual female genital mutilation practiced in Africa. Others became involved in the National Organization of Restoring Men, which explores ways to create new foreskins using weights, gadgets, and even surgery.

But Rothenberg, who shared their outrage at the unnecessary pain inflicted on infants, became interested in the significance of circumcision in Jewish fife. He'd studied at yeshivas in Israel and New York with an eye to becoming a rabbi, but instead evolved into a self-styled Jewish educator. These days, after his day job as a school social worker, he helps Jewish parents grapple with religious issues, including the sometimes painful question: to cut or not to cut. Presiding over his own pain-free ceremonies, he has become one of the few "alternative mohels" operating - or rather, not - in the U. S.

Regardless of whether he is circumcised, a child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew under Jewish law. But circumcision is one of "the central commandments," according to Cantor Philip Sherman, who as a traditional mohel circumcises eight-day-old
boys himself. Rothenberg's alternative ceremony cannot be considered an official bris from a religious standpoint.

Maverick Mohel.gif (56 KB)
The uncuttest kind of all:   Moshe Rothenberg, left, officiates.                       Photo: Michael Sofronski
But he hasn't let that stop him. The first ceremony he ever performed was for his own son, Samuel, now 10. "We washed his feet with water, the way Abraham did when he welcomed visitors into his tent," he recalls, paying tribute to Abraham - the first Jew and the man at the center of the traditional Jewish bris - while sparing his child surgery he sees as unnecessary abuse. Abraham is said to have been commanded by God to circumcise himself as well as his sons to symbolize the Jewish people's covenant with God (bris translates as "covenant").

"Abraham was a wonderful man," says Rothenberg. "A lot of what he figured out was brilliant and long-lasting. But some was hurtful."

So he explored ways of honoring Abraham while doing away with the parts that offended his tender sensibilities. The resulting baby celebration, which he tailors to the requests of parents, can involve dancing, singing, baby naming, even tree planting. It also often earns him a talking-to from a relative rubbed the wrong way by his revisionism. But Rothenberg is unflappable, if a bit self-righteous, in the face of such attacks. "I just say that I'm sure they love their children despite the acts, they have committed," he says. And while he wouldn't cut anyone himself, he insists his main goal is to help couples make their own decisions. Whatever they do "should be an act of faith, instead of conformity."

Traditions, of course, rarely work that way. Not only do the overwhelming majority of Jews remain unquestioningly faithful to the ritual of circumcision - whether performed by a doctor, as most now are, or by a mohel - but more than 64 per cent of all infant boys are now circumcised. Most gentiles routinely opt for the surgery out of sheer convention.

Physicians in the U.S. began removing infants' foreskins in the late 1800s to treat infections. [NOHARMM Note: This is not correct. Circumcision in the U.S. began as a method of preventing masturbation and controlling children's sexuality. See The Ritual of Circumcision.] But the medical benefits of the operation are now widely disputed. Some studies point to a slightly higher risk of STDs in uncircumcised men and their partners, but critics argue that circumcision causes infants pain and leaves men with reduced sexual sensitivity.

For Jews, the most compelling reasons for the operation remain cultural. Not surprisingly, most of Rothenberg's clients have already strayed from the traditional laws of Judaism; of the roughly 30 ceremonies Rothenberg has performed, none has been for Orthodox Jews. Some are for children of mixed marriages.

And many of the couples he sees are also divided as to how to handle their boys. Often the opposition to cutting comes from women.

Rothenberg hypothesizes that they recognize circumcision as a symbol of the patriarchal aspects of Judaism, which traditionally affords no ceremony to recognize God's covenant with girls. Regardless, he encourages couples to make the decision on their own.

But even as he scoffs at proselytizing, his son Samuel can't help but be swayed by his father's speech. Sitting in his dad's lap, Samuel announces that if he has a son down the road, he won't circumcise him. It soon becomes clear, though, that Samuel doesn't know what circumcision is. When his father explains, Samuel grimaces. "Ouch!" he says. "It's like cutting down a tree."

"Yes, it is," says Rothenberg, beaming.

Support and information for Jewish parents on
alternative (non-cutting) bris ceremonies:

Norm Cohen
P.O. Box 333
Birmingham, MI 48012
Tel 248-642-5703
Moshe Rothenberg, C.S.W.
Alternative Bris Support
   and Ceremonies
Brooklyn, NY
Ron Goldman, Ph.D.
Jewish Associates of CRC
P.O. Box 232
Boston, MA 02133
Tel 617-523-0088
Jewish Associates of CRC makes known to the Jewish community that a growing number of Jews either have not circumcised their son or would choose not to circumcise a future son. It is an opportunity for Jews who take this position to declare themselves and to be counted. A confidential list of Jews who contact the Circumcision Resource Center for this purpose is maintained. Learn how you can join Blue_ArrowD096.gif (140 bytes)Jewish Associates of CRC.

Israeli Association Against Genital Mutilation
P.O. Box 56178, Tel Aviv 61561,  Israel    Tel 972-9-8949236    E-mail:

Af-Milah - Second Thoughts on Brit Milah The Israeli Newsletter Against Circumcision  (in Hebrew)
P.O. Box 207,  Rosh-Pinah 12000,  Israel   Tel 972-51-979568    E-mail:

Brit Shalom Providers Brit Shalom is a non-cutting naming ceremony for newborn Jewish boys.

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