Oakland author pushes ceremonies minus circumcision

When Lisa Braver Moss’ two sons were born more than 20 years ago, she and her husband held a traditional brit milah for each of them. But she was so upset by the circumcision procedure that she didn’t experience anything spiritual about the ritual.

“I couldn’t feel God’s presence,” Moss recalled. “It left me feeling very confused about where my spiritual voice was in all of this.”

Moss, a writer, went on to investigate the topic of circumcision; in stories for magazines and journals, she questioned its role in Jewish tradition. In 2010, she published “The Measure of His Grief,” a novel about a Berkeley doctor who experiences a flashback of his own circumcision and lobbies against the procedure.

Now, with co-author Rebecca Wald, she’s written a nonfiction book that was published this week. “Celebrating Brit Shalom” is a guide for parents who want to hold an alternative bris without circumcising their sons.

The purpose of the book, said Moss, an active member of Temple Sinai in Oakland, is to let families know that they can still maintain Jewish traditions even if they choose not to circumcise.

Lisa Braver Moss

“We felt these families who make this nontraditional decision should have a lovely bound volume with good information and an inviting tone and transliterations,” said Moss, contrasting the book with the photocopied programs often pieced together for such ceremonies.

Alternative bris ceremonies have occurred for years, going by names such as brit b’li milah, brit chayim, brit ben and brit shalom, which means “covenant of peace,” Moss and Wald write in the book. The purpose of holding a brit shalom is to honor the covenant between Jews and God while respecting the parents’ personal decision not to circumcise. 

Wald, who lives in South Florida, runs BeyondTheBris.com, an opinionated website that argues that circumcision is harmful. But Moss and Wald’s book isn’t about convincing people not to circumcise, Moss said. Her aim is to encourage inclusion of different practices. Still, the book’s premise is contentious.

Moss argues that a boy will be Jewish whether or not he is circumcised, and that most synagogue communities will ultimately accept non-circumcising families. But Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland said he doesn’t believe alternative bris ceremonies are permissible under Jewish law. His Conserv­ative congregation does not allow boys who are uncircumcised to have bar mitzvahs. Though he’s sympathetic to families who have concerns about circumcision, and he’s glad that they can find accepting Jewish communities, his synagogue has chosen to take a strong stance on the issue in recognition of the importance of the commandment.

Rabbi Simcha Green, an independent Modern Orthodox rabbi who lives in Berkeley, does not advocate that Jewish families skip circumcision. Yet he wrote a blurb calling Moss and Wald’s book “a positive attempt to keeping [the] doors open.”

Green told J.: “If I had a synagogue, if a member of my [Orthodox] congregation were to say to me ‘I’m not going to have a bris,’ I would say, ‘I’m disappointed, but see you at Shabbos.’ It’s not the only mitzvah; there are many mitzvahs in the Torah.”

“Celebrating Brit Shalom” includes three customizable ceremonies parents can choose from: the “Peace and Wholeness Ceremony,” the “Faith and Trust Ceremony” and the “Celebrating Equality Ceremony,” which uses gender-neutral language. The book also includes sheet music for original songs (composed by Moss’ adult son, a musician) to be sung during the bris.

Though the book draws on existing liturgy and tradition, Moss and Wald created a new ritual specifically for the book: cutting a pomegranate to replace the cut of circumcision.

“Because of the pomegranate’s meanings in Judaism, we thought it was a fitting symbol,” Moss said. “I think some families will respond to it, and others will say ‘no cutting.’ ”

“Celebrating Brit Shalom” by Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald (Notim Press, 98 pages)

Moss will give a book talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 21 at “A Great Good Place for Books,” 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland. www.celebratingbritshalom.com

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.