For most Jewish couples expecting a son, the decision to have a bris isn’t really a decision at all. It is a time honored tradition, a mitzvah, a tenant of the Jewish religion.
I, however, wasn’t so sure. Our daughter was our first, so when I got pregnant with my son, it was the first time I really gave a bris any thought. To be honest, I just wasn’t sure I wanted the circumcision to take place outside of a clean hospital without a physician. After much thought, and knowing how much this meant to my husband and family, I agreed to the bris. And since I am the consummate planner and organizer, I planned the details down to where we’d get the bagels and lox.
As I entered my third trimester I had a typical plan in my head for my baby boy’s first week. I knew I was having a C-section so after four days in the hospital we would go home and on his eighth day, our family and friends would celebrate my son’s bris. There is a Yiddish phrase that translates to “When you make a plan, God laughs.” When I had a placental abruption at 33 weeks and my son was whisked off to the NICU for what would turn out to be a month-long stay, my plans went out the window.
On day eight, my son was intubated, unable to breathe on his own, and with a feeding tube to give him nourishment. A bris was medically out of the question. Now what? Under Jewish law, if a child is not healthy enough for a bris at eight days, it can be postponed until the child is physically able. As the days progressed, my son’s health improved but his immature lungs still needed medication and constant supervision.
After almost a month our baby improved to the point where we were able to talk about taking him home and we had a decision to make–circumcise him in the hospital, wait until he arrived home and have a traditional bris, or even have a bris in the family room in the NICU. We spoke with the nurses and doctors, and ultimately decided that while circumcision is an important tradition, it is also a medical procedure, and anything performed on our very fragile son should be done by a physician in as sterile an environment as possible while he could still be monitored closely.
We were content in our decision when I emailed the rabbi to tell him our plan. To my shock and dismay, the rabbi emailed me back that a hospital circumcision was not a valid, kosher bris and told me to call him if I ever wanted to “rectify” the situation.
I have no idea what constitutes a valid, kosher bris, but with a month-long hospital stay under our belts, the last thing I needed as a mom was to be shamed by a rabbi who had never met us or our son, and who knew nothing about his medical needs or condition.
We still intend to have a beautiful Jewish ceremony for our baby and believe in our hearts that this will welcome our baby into the community. There is a lot of discussion these days in the Jewish community and elsewhere about circumcision and it’s pros and cons and how this affects the bris. Whether or not these decisions are made in the NICU or elsewhere, I believe there should be room and respect for everyone’s decisions about brit milah. I wish all preemie babies and their parents a speedy recovery and to follow their own beliefs and hearts when it comes to bris and the NICU.
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