Magazine article Tikkun

Mourning a Foreskin

Magazine article Tikkun

Mourning a Foreskin

Article excerpt


Review by Patricia Karlin-Neumann

"Just as he has entered into the covenant of Abraham, so may he be entered into the life ofTorah, the blessing of family life, and the practice of goodness."

I DON'T BELIEVE THAT THESE words, spoken at a brit milah (the covenant of circumcision), are found in Lisa Braver Moss's provocative novel, The Measure of His Grief, but they nonetheless provide a paradoxical frame through which to view the search for wholeness of its protagonist, Dr. Sandy Waldman.

Sandy experiences an inexplicable pain in his penis during the shiva period of mourning for his father Abraham; for him, the brit (covenant) is lost in the milah (circumcision). Brit celebrates a relationship with the Divine and with community. Sandy's physical pain leads him to attempt to undo his own milah. Mourning his circumcision, he strains the covenants he has made in his life; cuts himself off from his medical colleagues, his wife, and his friends; disputes medical and religious justifications for circumcision; and becomes an obsessed and slightly unhinged crusader.

Moss, long an activist herself in the controversy over circumcision for Jewish ritual purposes, gives Sandy many opportunities to articulate the anti-circumcision position. The novel's protagonist argues with rabbis and mohelim (those who perform the ritual circumcision), with feminists and physicians. To Moss's credit, her novel evokes thoughtful and even civil discussion with a range of perspectives, creating aliving-room conversation with an Orthodox mohel, a feminist female rabbi with a hyphenated name who nonetheless upholds the tradition of ritual circumcision, a liberal cantor, a "conscientious objector" (a Jewish woman seeking a brit without the milah: a covenant ceremony for boys like those newly created for girls), and a Jewish man who is an "intactivist" (a proponent of leaving baby boys intact) who leads a foreskin restoration group. By making space for all of these characters to explain their understanding ofthe issues and the stakes, Moss makes both doubt and affirmation of circumcision comprehensible positions in a Jewish context.

The civility of this discussion is not often replicated in a real Jewish living room, in synagogue, or in a rabbi's study. Like many of my colleagues, I have seen marriages between two Jews irrevocably ripped asunder by differing perspectives on brit milah. I have tried to mediate while a Jew and a non- Jew argued passionately about circumcision, even when they had made a decision to raise their son as a Jew. …

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