But this thinking contradicts one of the most significant of all Jewish principles--the commandment to love the stranger. Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, professor of homiletics at Yeshiva University, writes that the early rabbis interpreted this commandment as an admonition "first of all not to pain or annoy him at all."
Facing the DilemmaSince local anesthesia for circumcision is halakically permissible, its use for brit milah should be given serious consideration. The most effective form of anesthesia currently available, the dorsal penile nerve block, has been shown to reduce crying and distress during circumcision and afterward, and appears to be extremely safe. However, it consists of two injections of lidocaine at the base of the penis, and therefore in itself involves some pain. The medical establishment should be pressured to develop even better forms of local anesthesia for traditional brit milah. For example, electrical anesthesia, a nonintrusive technique being researched by the dental profession, should be explored.
There are powerful Jewish reasons to fulfill the brit milah commandment. Jewish law requires it, and the thousands of years of tradition reinforce its significance as a primary emblem of Jewish identity. But there are also compelling Jewish reasons to question brit milah.
Current research confirms that infants are as sensitive to pain as adults. To exempt this evidence from our consciousness is to deem Judaism incapable of functioning in light of new information. The beauty of halakah is precisely its "capacity to recognize and to reckon with advances in empirical knowledge," in the words of Rabbi Robert Kirschner. As we have learned from the case of the cheresh (the deaf-mute, classified in Talmudic times with the mentally incompetent but treated by modern rabbis as an equal Jew in every respect), Judaism incorporates new insights into practice. We must confront the fact that brit milah is now known to cause our infants pain. And we must have faith that Judaism will withstand a reappraisal of the rite.
Additionally, anecdotal evidence should no longer be tolerated as adequate proof of the ritual's safety. Brit milah certification boards should meticulously follow up on every ceremony and document all perfect circumcisions, as well as all complications. With this policy, we will set an example for the medical profession while fulfilling a Jewish responsibility.
We must also address the reality that Jewish parents are questioning circumcision more than ever before. Some find the pain and risks problematic, some question the point and the ethics of forcing an infant into a covenantal agreement, and some take issue with brit milah in light of their own lack of spiritual conviction about it. This reality is far from bleak; each of these concerns reflects a deep regard for Jewish values. Jews are questioning circumcision for Jewish reasons. Traditionalists argue that brit milah should not be questioned because, in the face of intermarriage and assimilation, we simply cannot afford to "water down" Judaism any further. My own experience does not bear this out. Through my inquiry, I have made more meaning out of my own Jewishness, and learned more of Judaism, than through any other means. If we present brit milah as a closed subject, it seems to me we miss a key opportunity to get Jews involved in Judaism. We force many parents either to do their questioning outside the realm of Judaism, or--worse yet--to worship ritual instead of God. Denying that conflicts exist does not strengthen Judaism. It makes Judaism brittle.
Some Jews have resolved their conflicts about circumcision by adopting a symbolic interpretation of brit--that is, by hold brit (covenant) ceremonies without the circumcision. Many would argue that this solution unfairly denies the infant his birthright. But beyond basic protection and love, it seems to me that the most important Jewish birthright is the parents' commitment to bring Judaism to life for themselves and their child. A symbolic interpretation of brit does not automatically deprive an infant of this birthright any more than a literal interpretation guarantees it. Indeed, I believe a heartfelt, carefully reasoned decision to observe brit symbolically may do more for the family--and for Judaism--than unthinking adherence to the ritual for its own sake.
If it is our goal for Judaism to flourish, a fresh and honest reappraisal of brit milah will be a significant contribution. Let us approach this task with an open mind and a Jewish heart.