I’m anti-circumcision and am invited to a bris — how can I make it through without being rude?

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By: David SifryCC BY 2.0
I have a friend who is pregnant, and as it is wont to do, the topic of circumcision recently came up. My friend’s husband is Jewish, and a bris is expected.

I am very anti-circumcision, but I don’t make a habit of preaching about it and my friend has no idea. I know my partner and I will be invited, and I’m not sure how to do deal with being there. I don’t want to be present for the occasion, but I want to support my friend and meet her baby.

Does anyone have any tips for keeping my opinions to myself and focusing on supporting my friend and her family? — LG

We asked Offbeat Families contributor Sarah Tuttle-Singer (you may have also read her on Kveller and The Times of Israel to weigh in on the topic:

Sarah says…

Let me start by staying — straight up — that the Circumcision Decision is a tough one. I grappled with it, and I’m grappling with it now while I try to formulate how to best answer the question “What is a bris, and why is it performed?”

There’s a quick answer: A bris (brit milah in Hebrew, “covenant of circumcision” in English) is a rite of passage central to Jewish identity where the foreskin of an infant (typically on the 8th day of life) is removed during a special ceremony.

Simple enough, but here’s the tricky part. “Why is it performed?”

“Uh, because the Torah says so” is a crappy answer, but there ya have it. It IS tradition that has been handed down since biblical times — and probably before, as well. However… the Torah does NOT specify WHY.

There are theories. Many believe that back in the day, it was healthier and cleaner to remove an infant’s foreskin. That argument still holds merit amongst many in the medical field, while others correctly note that proper hygiene and safe sex practices make it less relevant. Circumcision also marks Jewish men as different — yeah, this is less
the case now that so many non-Jews are circumcised in the US — but during the nascent days of the Jewish people, it was a big deal, and a big part of the tradition. It’s also a huge test of faith and determination for a man who wants to convert — after all, if you’re willing to have part of your foreskin removed in order to be a Member of the Tribe, then you must really want to join.

But regardless of the reason why your friend has chosen to circumcise her son, the fact is that’s what’s happening. And I applaud you for wanting to support her.

Still, I understand that you want to be authentic and true to your own feelings about this issue — so here are three things you can do:

  1. You can simply opt out of the ceremony, and come after for a nosh and a shmooze.
  2. Or, many times the mother does not want to watch the actual brit — I cowered in another room and buried my head in a pillow. (Incidentally, my son slept through the whole thing.) If she is planning on NOT being in the room, another option is to sit with her and hold her hand.
  3. If you really cannot be there, don’t go. Call her before, explain you can’t make it (any excuse will do — but I would strongly suggest NOT to tell her it’s because you don’t approve of her decision) and make time to see her the following week.

I hope this helps.

REMINDER: We are not here to debate circumcision. We’re here to discuss how LG can best support her friend, while also honoring her own values.

Comments on I’m anti-circumcision and am invited to a bris — how can I make it through without being rude?

  1. I would just treat it as anything else you’ve been invited to but don’t want to go to – politely decline. The upside is that you’re only given 8 days notice, so there’s a million reasons why you can’t make it. Honestly, 8 days after giving birth, I felt the fewer people the better.

    I would not opt out of the ceremony and just go after, at least partially because the ceremony is so short you won’t be sure of when to go to miss it.

    Finally, don’t feel bad. I had a bris for my son and have been to many of them and still feel like it’s a weird ceremony. I totally understand why people wouldn’t want to be there. I bet she won’t be the least bit offended.

  2. If you want to support your friend and her baby, then support your friend and her baby. Would you attend a wedding if it was a different religion than you have? It’s their belief. Be respectful of it and support your friend. At best tell her the ceremony part makes you uneasy but you’d come after the bris. They should understand that, I mean who really wants to see that happen?? Do they have dinners after those? You could attend and offer to help out with that or prep so you’re somewhere prepping the food and helping behind the scenes while the ceremony happens.

  3. Hey, if you don’t think marriage is a good idea, but you love a friend who is getting married, do you go & yammer on all night about how marriage is an out-dated custom with no place in our world? Only if you’re very rude. So why would this custom be any different?

    Either you are there to support your friend in this (which is clearly at least somewhat important to her), or you’re not. Her idea to have this ceremony may not (and should not) have anything to do with the decisions that you have made about how to deal with circumcision in your family. You’re entitled to your opinion, and she to hers.

    A personal example, I can’t stand bridal or baby showers. But when someone I love is having one, I smile and deal with it. Know why? Because I appreciate that my idea of what is important (or in the bris case, perhaps even sacred?) may not always gel 100% with my friends’ ideas.

    If you really feel like there is no way that you can keep yourself from voicing your opinion, tell her you can’t make it- it would be bad for everyone if you turned it into a debate about circumcision. But if you decide to go, you don’t have to watch, or be next to it. They will let people know when it is going to happen. Use that time to head to the bathroom or refill your glass. No one will ever know 🙂

    Good Luck!!

    • I understand where Kelly’s coming from : support one’s friends as best one can.
      However, isn’t there a difference between two consenting adults deciding to get married in a religious ceremony of their choice and a lasting body modification (or genital mutilation, depending on your point of view) on a new born baby who can’t express his opinion ?

      In this case, I gather the baby isn’t born yet, and no invitations have been sent.
      Personally, I feel it would be appropriate to talk to the expectant mother (for instance while you help paint the baby’s room or something) : express the reasons why you favour non-circumcision, re-affirm your friendship, avoid preaching (like you already do, according to your letter).

      A discrete, constructive discussion could be an opportunity for your friend to figure out her true priorities (which might still be to have the ceremony as part of their religious identity).
      It could also be an opportunity for you, to explore how strongly you really feel about this ?

      edited to add : haven’t had breakfast yet – I now see you’re looking how to avoid a discussion & still support your friend. I figure other posts cover that avenue pretty well, so I’ll just apologize for misunderstanding your original question.

  4. If you want to attend the ceremony to support your friend and her baby (or don’t feel like you’ll be able to get out of it without straining your friendship), understand that your opinion this time is just not going to be welcome. You will have to attend knowing that yes, while what they are doing is against your personal beliefs, that they have made the decision for what they think is best for their child and it’s non-negotiable.

    If you don’t feel like you can attend without expressing your opinion, you’re unfortunately going to just have to sit this one out. There are a plethora of excuses (even down to just being “sick” the day of and not wanting to spread germs to a newborn) that will get you out of the occasion.

  5. I think that this is a bit different from a wedding, in that the ceremony does actually involve the witnesses seeing a piece of a person being cut off. It’s legit to be squicked by that, for non-political reasons. I think there is a way to say, “I love you, and of course I want to support you! How about I set up the bagels and smear during the actual ceremony so any squeamishness I might have doesn’t come off as disrespectful of your husband’s faith?” As long as it’s clear that you are not trying to start a conversation about whether she is making the right decision, or whether you’ll be a friend to her, but simply trying to be comfortable yourself, I think you’ll be in good shape.

    • In truth, going to a Bris does not mean you’re on the front row of a cutting floor. It’s about a 5 minute ceremony in a language you don’t understand (I’m assuming you don’t speak Hebrew) and you’re probably not going to be standing anywhere near the baby, the parents, or the Rabbi- places closest to the baby are reserved for the immediate family as part of the ceremony. There are a lot of people there who aren’t interested in watching the proceedings, but you might find that the atmosphere is different than you expect. I can understand your concerns about circumcision (my husband and I disagree with each other) but don’t assume that your friend will be offended if you tell her you are only interested in the lunch/brunch/dinner afterwards. Bowing to tradition doesn’t mean you don’t have reservations about it so your friend may not be a cheerleader of circumcision (although I don’t think that soon after the birth is really anytime to open up about what you believe about child rearing). You don’t have to explain your disagreement in a harsh way, just ask if you can not be there for the ceremony but still participate. It’s totally acceptable! If you feel you should go, just stand in the back and it will be over before you know it. And you might actually feel differently, not necessarily about circumcision, but about the tradition that is being honored, after attending.

  6. One of the things I love about Miss Manners is her emphasis that politely declining is perfectly good manners. All you need to do to have good manners is give an RSVP in time for the hosts to know how much food to make. That’s it and you are covered.

    I see this question all the time and it always surprises me. It is an invitation, not a subpoena. Say “no thank you” in a timely way and enjoy that afternoon another way. You have the whole rest of their lives to support the mother and meet the baby.

    (I suppose the flip side to this is graciously accepting other people’s ‘no’. Not all people make it to all occasions. That is fine.)

    • This is such a good answer, about invitations in general!

      I have always wondered this myself, because I am 1)Completely OK with not going to any function that is uncomfortable for me, difficult to make it to, etc. and 2)Completely OK with anyone else not coming to my events. For example, I do have some good friends, but their presence or absence at my wedding didn’t add or subtract from it. Granted, if the groom doesn’t show up at the wedding … or the rabbi at the bris, I imagine, that might be a problem! But otherwise — it isn’t crucial to attend these events.

      I have wondered if this is one of my Asperger characteristics … but it just doesn’t make logical sense to me that anyone would be obligated to attend an event. You can support your friend and baby with a visit before or after that date, a card, a gift, etc, in so many other ways and times.

      As for explaining your feelings — I personally wouldn’t, unless asked. First, your friend may or may not be comfortable with it herself. For us, my husband felt strongly about having our son circumcised, and I was uncomfortable with it. It was a touchy, difficult issue between the two of us, and I would *not* have appreciated having other people’s opinions. Even if your friend is comfortable with it, late pregnancy/right after giving birth is a hugely difficult time, and not a time for most people to have fruitful intellectual discussions about these kinds of issues! I don’t think it is lying to say “Sorry, we can’t make it” instead of “Sorry, we can’t make, we don’t believe in circumcising infants” … its truthful as far as it goes, unless you are pressed for why.

  7. The bris is always a week post-birth, no matter what day of the week, and it’s often done during the day. This often makes it inconvenient to attend. It’s pretty likely that you won’t be able to go even if you wanted to because you’ll have something else going on. If you don’t, you can find something. But if you want to be there, because while you have your own strong beliefs, you respect your friend, her intelligence, and her decisions for her own family, then be there. Trust that while it’s not right for you or your family, that it may be right for her and hers, and that she has the right to decide that. When my son had his bris eleven months ago, several of my guests were vehemently anti-circumcision. (I know this from debates we’d had long before I was pregnant.) Most stayed back and did not look when the procedure was performed. None of them said a thing to me about it before or after bris. (Except one friend who said that while she was still sure that she’d made the right decision for her family in not circumcising her son, she was pleasantly surprised to see how quick, clean, and seemingly painless the procedure was.)

  8. Absolutely don’t go, unless you feel you CAN sit through the ceremony feeling love and support for your friends and their child, rather than disgust, anger, sadness, etc. Forcing yourself to sit through a bris you are 100% against I think will just poison your relationship with your friends–it’s not always an easy ceremony to watch even when you do support circumcision. I completely agree with Sarah’s suggestion, tell your friend you’re honored to be invited but you can’t make it that day, and offer to bring her some food next week and meet the baby.

    • Exactly what I was going to say. Why would you say anything at all? I’m against circumcision too, but it’s their decision, you don’t get to lecture them about it. I’m sure they wouldn’t lecture you on why you wouldn’t circumcise your child.

      • Just wanted to point out that she didn’t say she wanted to *say* anything to the parents (in fact, she specifically said she doesn’t like “preaching” to her friends about it)… just that she doesn’t want to be present for the ceremony and wants to know how to deal with it without having to bring up her issues with the ceremony.

        • I understand what you’re saying. But in my opinion sometimes out of respect and/or love for someone you can suck it up and just be there since it’s such a special event for them.

      • And another thing I forgot. You are an adult. Surely you can put your cultural differences aside and just be there for your friend, without having to say anything negative at all.

  9. That’s a really tough spot, having been in a similar situation once myself, I had to opt-out. I wasn’t even sure I could sit through something like that without bursting into tears, and while I wanted to support my friends, I didn’t want to ruin their special day either.

    Personally, I’d never recommend lying to or deceiving a friend; you don’t need to fabricate an excuse not to go, you can be honest while still being inoffensive and tactful.
    Perhaps just go with “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the ceremony and I don’t want to make anyone else feel awkward, but if you need any help setting up/bringing food etc. I’m your go-to!”

  10. I just couldnt go. Im not an advocate of lying. But unless you want to alienate them out of your life, make something up. You got the flu, you gotta help a cousin move, whatever.

  11. It’s probably pretty uncomfortable for your friend, too. We’re having a boy, which for us means a bris. We’ve opted to only invite family to the occasion because we don’t want to have this conversation with our friends.

    In light of that, I am all for the “short notice, sorry I couldn’t rearrange schedule” excuse. There’s no shame in that.

  12. Just don’t go.

    I only express my feelings about this subject when asked, or when someone starts a conversation about it. If it’s a friend, I warn them that I have a very strong opinion about it in case they’d like to back away from the conversation. While I have a hard time respecting those who choose to cut and I grieve for (my perception of) their child’s loss, I don’t follow them around calling them human rights violators.

    I’d just say “Sorry, I can’t make it!” just like I choose not to receive communion in church weddings. If someone presses you on it, it’s their rudeness that opens the door for your opinion, if you choose to give it. Or, you could pile on the graciousness and lie.

  13. I think it depends on how you feel. If you mostly just don’t want to watch, go. It’s very fast, and the one bris I’ve been to (I wasn’t raised in a religious community, and our friends aren’t having kids for the most part quite yet. We’re in the everyone is marrying stage right now.), you literally couldn’t see anything other than the mohel’s back if you tried (unless you were the grandparents or parents standing up front. Everyone else was sitting down and too far away.)

    If you feel very strongly that circumcision is always wrong, and attending will make you upset (the concern here really is about whether you will be able to attend the occasion as a baby welcoming, which is what it is, with food and celebration to welcome a new boy to the community, or whether you will be too upset about the circumcision to enthusiastically participate in welcoming the boy), then just say, “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it.”

    Then see your friend the next week (or whenever) with a gift for the baby, a meal for the parent(s), and to see mom and baby, and welcome him then.

    A brit is a welcoming for the baby. (It’s a weird way of doing it, I know, but it is how our community welcomes baby boys.) So if you can’t be there for the brit, make sure to welcome your friend’s son another time.

  14. I can’t help but notice that you specifically said that you don’t want to be present. So don’t be. I doubt it’s going to be much of an issue if you can’t attend, and you shouldn’t go if you’re going to spend the whole time silently fuming and wishing you were somewhere else.

    Just a simple, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it. But I’d love to drop by the following Saturday to bring you guys dinner and meet the baby. Does that work for you?” should suffice.

  15. The issue of the bris is where it gets very touchy, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. My husband is Jewish, but he and his brothers are uncircumcised. (Yes, it can totally happen!) However, his older brother converted to hardcore Orthodox Judaism (he is a Hasidic Jew), complete with arranged marriage. All of his children are girls, but there may come a time where a boy will be born, and this will of course come up. So, I think about it often.

    It’s not the same thing as going to a wedding of a different faith. (Incidentally, my brother-in-law will NOT go to weddings of different faiths, which is why we had to keep our ceremony as secular as possible, despite my pagan leanings.) This is why I would say that the best thing is to not go. You are well aware that anything you attempt to say to the contrary will likely be rejected – this isn’t an issue of “oh, but it looks so much better circumcised!” or reasons like that that can often irritate people who believe in an intact penis. This is a religious reason for circumcising that will not be debated. Your opinion will not be welcomed.

    So, in the end, are you comfortable with being there? If you are, go. If not, it’s best left alone with a gift. Acknowledging that it’s a special ceremony by sending a card and a gift will absolutely be enough without having to go, many people will do it, and you won’t seem rude at all.

  16. You can be honest without being rude “I am against routine infant circumcision, and I am sorry, but I can not set aside my beliefs for the ceremony. We can do dinner another night though.” You never know, she may not actually want it done, you may give her an opening. If she asks you to explain, or expresses concern over it, you could even present he with information about Jewish families refusing the brit milah for a Brit Shalom http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org

    • Please don’t do this. A brit milah is a sacred celebration and the anti-circumcision debate is big enough right now that there is a wealth of information for the parents to do their own research.

      If there is a date set and you’re being invited that means they have made their decision. I would strongly recommend not mentioning the Jews against circumcision bit, especially, especially if you yourself are not Jewish.

      I understand this is a really charged issue for a lot of people, and in part because of that I generally prefer not to talk about it, I’d rather respect our differences than have a debate. But because I am Jewish, involved in the birth community, and somewhat religious I can’t tell you how often I have (non-Jewish) people ask me how I feel about circumcision and then try to tell me how my culture views this ritual, or how there are lots of Jews against circumcision, etc.

      I don’t know what your friend is like, but for me those conversations are really upsetting. People often come off as incredibly condescending (i.e. I know more about your religion than you do) or accidentally say things I find incredibly offensive. I seriously can’t tell you how much I hate it. I would really love for there to be able to be a more respectful conversation about circumcision (although this comment thread isn’t the place to figure out how to do that). What matters in this conversation is that this should be a moment of celebration for this family, I think you should really respect that.

      I also just want to give a shout out to all the responses here giving really solid advice to not attend if you can’t feel celebratory for this family. I really appreciate that the people commenting are coming from a lot of different positions on this issue and are giving suggestions that are incredibly respectful of both the original poster’s feelings around circumcision and of the family in question. Thanks offbeat community for being so awesome!

      • I think it may be actually possible to mention that you are against circumcision so casually that it doesn’t sound like a criticism. Something like:

        “Circumcision isn’t really my thing, but man do I have a really great present for your little boy. Do you think I could drop by soon and give it to him?”

        Why would a passing mention that you are against circumcision even be a good thing? Because often people who are immersed in a circumcision culture don’t even know that there are people *out there* who don’t agree with it. It doesn’t hurt for them to know, I think.

        If you can manage to make it sounds really casual, perhaps it wouldn’t be terrible to just mention you’re not super into watching a circumcision, but you sure are wowed by this super cute baby.

        • I think this is potentially fine advice if this was a situation where the circumcision wasn’t for religious reasons. Also, I think it’s unlikely that the couple is unaware that some people don’t circumcise. Every single Jew I know is painfully aware of current anti-circumcision sentiments. There’s a long painful history around antisemitism and anti-circumcision. Which doesn’t mean being anti-circumcision is anti-Semitic but it does mean that Jews pay attention when people start getting vocal about circumcision being a bad thing.

    • No. Don’t do this. This is not at all thoughtful and making the invitation entirely about you.

      “Sorry, I can’t make it.” is honest without being a jerk. With the exception of medical issues, the bris happens 8 days after birth. This means the invites are going out pretty soon after birth when both parents have a lot going on.

  17. Would it help to think about the reason(s) why you’re against circumcision, and whether or not they apply in your friend’s circumstance? We decided not to have our son circumcised because all of the people who were trying to talk us into it basically gave variations on “your son should be circumcised because everyone else is.” I don’t believe in permanently altering your body in order to fit in. However, I can see how there are different reasons for circumcision in a Jewish family, where it is an important part of the religion and culture and it’s a way of connecting boys with thousands of years of their heritage. If you can ask your friend why they’ve made this decision without sounding like you’re asking her to justify it, maybe it can help you see from their perspective.

  18. This is an easy one – either you go there (maybe only for the celebration afterwards) to honor the trust your friend shows you by inviting you, or you make up an excuse and stay at home.

    I feel strongly about baptisms and would never force any belief upon my children, but when a friend invites me to their child’s baptism, I attend it out of respect for this friend and because I believe that none of them would harm their child on purpose. They are all trying to do what they think is best. (And who knows, they might be right?)

  19. The way I see it, you’ve got two criteria: show support (despite the decision with which you disagree) and meet the new baby. You’ve got a ton of options, I think. You could use the “Sit Down and Shuddup” method: go, watch the ceremony, be quiet about your beliefs, and meet the new baby after. Your being there shows your support, and you get to meet the baby. Criteria met.
    You could use the “Good Fairy” method: like others have suggested, you could set up the food or, if there will be any, decorations for afterward. You could see if any of the other guests are parents of young children and offer to watch them for a little bit while the actual ceremony is happening. There are tons of little things you could do — which would, at least to me, show that you support your friend — and then, afterward, you can meet your friend’s new baby. Criteria also met.
    Alternatively, you could use the “I Understand You’re the Parents of a Newborn” method: either go or don’t, and bring dinner over one night soon. You could offer to watch the new baby while they nap or clean up the house a bit. That also shows that you’re there to support them, and it gets you to meet the baby as well. (Parents of newborns need help, yo.) This also meets your criteria.
    There are lots of different ways to show support for someone, even within your own beliefs. These people are your friends. You care about them. You want to be supportive. You can show that you love somebody and not even get into your approval or disapproval of their decisions, which is, I think, what you’re trying to do. Whatever you decide, just make sure it’s a decision you really feel. If you feel you can’t sit through the bris, then fine — I’m sure you’re not the only one — but come up with an alternative that you can live with *and* shows your friend that you’re there for her and her family, including the little, red, screaming, pooping extension. 😉

  20. Personally, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be there. I would not go, and I, personally, would explain politely why. I would say something like “I’m honored to have been invited to an important life event for your family, but I’m opposed to circumcision and don’t think I can go for that reason. I would love to meet your baby at another time.” Of course, you could use an excuse if you wanted too.
    To me, it’s no different than declining an invite to a baptism or confirmation because you’re an atheist and would rather not sit through a church service, which has happened to me with both my kids. I had family members and friends decline those invitations, and that’s cool.

  21. Just FYI – for those people who are comparing it to going to a marriage of a different faith, I think you might be missing the point.* Some people who are against it are VEHEMENTLY against it because they see it as genital mutilation.** Like, call child protective services level. I don’t know if that’s the case with the original poster, but, you know, if that’s the way she interprets it, sitting down and shutting up might not really be effective advice?

    *or maybe I am missing the point. I do that pretty often. 😀
    **I don’t swing one way or the other on this point.
    *** yes, my online comments have footnotes. Shush.

    • I get what you’re saying here. However, my opinion is that if the original poster feels strongly about this on the genital-mutilation-call-CPS level AND if the original poster would feel silenced to continue being close to this family without speaking up…then perhaps a cooling of this friendship is in order since they have a major values-based disconnect.

      Maybe a better analogy would be an evangelical christian invited to the wedding of a gay couple. Does telling them you aren’t going to the wedding because you think their relationship is sinful really help anything? Others may disagree, but I think it just leads to increased drama and bad feelings all around what should be a happy celebration.

    • Agreed. Can we stop comparing this to interfaith ceremonies and gay marriage? Neither of those things involve amputation or infants, so it’s really not a good analogy.

      Many people oppose circumcision because of serious, legitimate concerns about infant safety, bodily integrity, and human rights. This is NOT, for them, like the pain of having to sit through a Hindu ceremony when you’re Catholic, or something.

  22. I get invited to a lot of religious and spiritual events spanning many traditions. In general, if anything makes me uncomfortable, I do not go. I don’t share my discomfort, I just opt out. I’ll send a card, gift, or offer to do something else (particularly for events surrounding newborns). I don’t like to lie to people, so when invited, I just say, “I am sorry I cannot come.”

    I totally get where you are coming from, but I find that it is never a good idea to address political/social/religious issues with personal relationships. I am a social justice activist by trade, so this is not always easy, but it saves a whole lot of issues in the end.

    Even if a conversation comes up later on, it may be best to avoid it. Issues around reproduction, childbirth and childrearing often feel like personal attacks, even if you are just trying to have a conversation. I have found it perfectly fine to say, “I have strong opinions on this issue and get worried this conversation could feel personal for both of us. Maybe we could discuss something else.”

    • When it is your baby boy you may choose your path. This is your Jewish friend’s baby and it is a religious ceremony her and her husband are honoring. If you choose all your functions and friends based on only those which agree with what you would do, that would be a lonely existence, because it is very rare to have 100% agreement on all beliefs. Have love in your heart and support your friend who cared about you enough to want to share this very key event for a Jew. Afterall it is not like they invite hundreds, it is closest family and friends. If you cannot keep your beliefs to yourself then make some excuse not about the bris and do not attend. It would be a friendship ending insult to attend and make your beliefs known. Don’t take that into their family’s home.

  23. Keep your opinion to yourself and politely decline. Any criticism will feel to the new parents as an attack on their beliefs. If they are really your friends then you should be able to respect them enough to keep your opinion to yourself.

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