On Covenant and Circumcision

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
May 12, 2013
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I think a lot about the idea (and reality!) of covenant in my work as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. Our program educates Jewish physicians and nurse midwives already proficient in performing infant circumcision about the specifically Jewish ritual of brit milah. Many of these medical practitioners become mohalim in their communities after studying Jewish texts, history, and ritual, preparing them to not merely use their medical knowledge to perform a procedure, but to help baby boys to join the covenant of the Jewish people.

I encounter a lot of misconceptions about the ritual of milah, the concept of covenant, and the significance of keeping the covenant. One of the most troubling misconceptions is the belief that circumcision and bris are synonymous. In fact, having a circumcision done in the hospital before the 8th day of the infant’s life is not brit mila. It may, in fact, be a “kosher” circumcision, but without the requisite timing (8th day), blessings (acknowledging the commandment and the intention to fulfill the sacred obligation of milah) and a trained mohel (or, in exigent circumstances, a knowledgable Jewish physician who has not been trained as a mohel), the circumcision is simply a medical procedure removing the foreskin, not a milestone in the Jewish lifecycle.

Misconceptions about circumcision itself abound as well. The “anti-circ” movement today is strong and vocal. Anti-circumcision advocates flood the media with mistruths and omissions, using words like “mutilation” to appeal to our collective consciences when, in fact, circumcision has potential health benefits. And yet, despite the medical benefits of infant circumcision, it’s important for us to distinguish between being advocates for circumcision and advocates for brit milah. As I mentioned earlier, circumcision and bris are not synonymous. As Jews, we should advocate for a brit milah not because of these medical benefits, but because we believe that entering baby boys into a covenant with God is an important and meaningful statement to and about our commitment to our everlasting relationship with the divine.
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God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. 10 Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, 13they must be circumcised, homeborn, and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. 14 And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:9-12).

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.


  1. Thank you for distinguishing circumcision from the covenant. The list of contact details for celebrants of Brit Shalom (non-surgical baby-naming ceremonies) just passed a milestone with the addition of celebrant #100. There are now 53 Rabbis (one a professor of religious studies), 7 Cantors and 41 lay celebrants. There are celebrants in 34 states, two Canadian provinces and several other countries including Israel. http://tinyurl.com/britshalom

    “…circumcision has potential health benefits…”
    38 top paediatricions, heads and spokespeople for 22 paediatric associations in 17 countries, have just written to the AAP to show, using the AAP’s own figures, that the “benefits” do not outweigh the risks, or the ethical issues involved in surgically reducing a non-consenting person’s body.

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  2. Don’t forget the human rights issue that has been overlooked for too long, whose sex organ is it? doesn’t belong to any parent or any religion, belongs to the child who will become an adult someday. Can’t wait till this is made illegal which it already is for girls in many western countries. I want to see this made illegal for boys too. I don’t know who they thought they were doing a favor by having me circumcised but it wasn’t me. The favor no boy and few men would ask for, to be partially emascuated through circumcision. Don’t forget, to be jewish you don’t have to be circumcised!

    Posted by
    joe russo
  3. “circumcision and bris are not synonymous”

    A clarification: circumcision is an essential element of the brit. Or to put it another way, “brit milah” is a subset of “circumcision.”

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  4. Europe, Asia and South America must have an epidemic of foreskin-related health issues that we’re not hearing about. Show me some “potential health benefits” of circumcision that can’t be achieved through improved hygiene and safer sex practices.

    Posted by
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