PhD Oral Exam - Lindsey Jackson, Religions and Cultures
Brit Without Milah: Jewish Responses to Ritual Circumcision in Canada and the United States
This event is free
School of Graduate Studies
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
This dissertation is an ethnographic study that examines contemporary Jewish engagement with ritual circumcision (brit milah), with a particular focus on Jewish parents who are choosing not to circumcise their sons. Centered on a handful of key cities in Canada and the United States, this example of circumcision shows the complex interplay of factors that determine the negotiation of religious practice. Family dynamics, community response and acceptance, ethics, bodily integrity, consent, and medical discourse are layered into this decision. Gendered constructions of parenting and perceptions of the ideal male body are also infused in this ritual moment. This study also showcases the delicate interplay between religious traditions and wider societal values, and how shifts at the societal level impact religious praxis. Circumcision encompasses a complex ritual choice and there are multiple layers that are factored into the decision to opt in or to opt out.
I argue that non-circumcision families are not opting out of Judaism; their rejection of circumcision does not represent a rejection of Judaism. Choosing an alternative ritual represents a means of engaging with tradition and affirming one’s Jewish identity. The non-circumcision Jews featured in this study have strong Jewish identities, observe Jewish rituals and traditions, and care about raising a Jewish family. They are not ambivalent Jews. They want to welcome their son into the Jewish community via a Jewish welcoming ceremony, and they want this ceremony to be officiated by a rabbi. Families who opt out often agonize over their decision and grapple with the consequences of choosing not to circumcise.
Opting out of circumcision, or put another way, opting for an alternative ritual, highlights how contemporary Jews understand Judaism and Jewish practice. Religion is something that can be adapted to conform with one’s personal beliefs and values, and this is precisely how non-circumcision Jews are engaging with religion. Rituals deemed problematic are not discarded; instead, they are modified, and this modification allows for Jews to continue engaging with their religion. Non-circumcision Jews are using alternative rituals as a means of engaging with tradition and affirming their Jewish identity.