The Covenant of CircumcisionAnd G-d said unto Avroham: And as for you, you shall keep Mycovenant, you, and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you andyour seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. Andyou shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be atoken of a covenant between Me and you.
And he that is eight days oldshall be circumcised among you, every male throughout yourgenerations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of anyforeigner, that is not of your seed. . . and My covenant shall be in yourflesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who isnot circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut offfrom his people; he has broken My covenant.Order now
–Genesis 17:9-14Within the Jewish community, the topic of bris milah, ritualcircumcision, has never been more controversial. Many liberal Jews are nowrethinking its function in Jewish life, some even choosing not to perform it ontheir sons. They argue that circumcision is no longer of value now that thespread of infection can be halted by good hygiene and modern medicine. Some fear that the removal of the healthy part of an organ is a purelyarbitrary act which may cause permanent psychological and physicaldamage.
It is true that circumcision alone is neither medically necessary noremotionally beneficial. Still, the bris milah is an essential ceremonyintended to formally usher the Jewish male into a covenant with G-d. Although the removal of the foreskin has been practiced by Jews sinceAvroham, the actual ceremony as it is today developed some time around themiddle-ages. Thus, communities in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle-Eastall evolved unique customs for welcoming new baby boys. There are stillcertain elements that are typical of all ceremonies.
The following descriptionof a German bris is typical of the milah ritual and lacks many of the detailsthat would distinguish it from ceremonies originating in other regions. The mohel, ritual circumcisor, calls in the kvater (from German “forfather”, or G-dfather), the man who “delivers” the baby into the sanctuary. The mother, who will not witness the ceremony, hands her eight-day-old soninto the care of his grandmothers who pass him over to the kvater. Thekvater carries the baby into the next room and lays him into a beautiful chairwhich the mohel will declare as the Throne of Elijah before reciting a fewbiblical verses.
The kvterin, G-dmother, lifts the baby from the Throne ofElijah and places him into the lap of the Sandak, the man (usually the father,grandfather, close friend, or well respected Torah scholar) in whose lap theceremony will take place. The mohel asks the fathers permission to act asproxy for the mitzvah, commandment, of circumcision. The fatherrelinquishes his right to perform the circumcision and appoints the mohel,who is more familiar with the religious law as well as the medical andhygienic requirements of circumcision, to do the mitzvah instead. The mohelrecites the benediction, “Blessed are You haShem our G-d, Master of theuniverse who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and commands us to performcircumcision,” before removing the babys foreskin. When the actual cuttinghas been complete, the father also makes a benediction: “Blessed are YouhaShem our G-d, Master of the universe who has sanctified us with Hiscommandments and has commanded us to bring him the baby into thecovenant of Avroham, our Father. ” Everyone in the audience then declares,”Just as he has been brought into the covenant, so too he should enter Torahstudy, the wedding canopy, and the doing of good deeds (Klein 426).
It isduring this ceremony that the boys name is publicly announced for the firsttime (Robinson132). Bris Milah literally means “covenant circumcision. ” Ashkenazic,Northern- and Eastern-European Jewish, communities refer to the entireceremony as a “Bris” which means simply “the covenant”. Rabbi MosheSchapiro emphasizes that “the circumcision must be coupled with theintention to forge a blood pact between G-d and the Jewish people. ” Thatbris milah is frequently translated only as “circumcision” is unfortunatebecause it leads people to believe that the removal of the foreskin is themost important element of the mitzvah.
This is in conflict with Jewishthinking. Indeed, someone who is circumcised without the intent of fulfillingthis specific commandment must undergo a subsequent, relatively painless,procedure in which a drop of blood is drawn from the reproductive organ inthe name of the bris. This procedure is most commonly performed on maleconverts to Judaism who underwent medical circumcisions as children. The commandment is often seen as barbaric in the modern day.
AsRabbi Shraga Simmons points out, “there is no logical argument for cuttinga piece of flesh off a helpless baby. ” Three years ago Israeli courts heldhearings to discuss the famous case number 5780/98 which would outlawcircumcision as a form of genital mutilation. Indeed, to remove a healthypart of an organ is ridiculous in a secular context, and yet it has beenpracticed on Jewish males for nearly 4,000 years. The great question is why. One must first realize that Judaism is not a “practical” guide to livingbut a theological guide to spirituality. Many people have claimed over theyears that circumcision was practiced by the Jews for hygienic reasonshowever, this explanation is foreign to Jewish thinking and is absent from theearliest commentaries and oral laws of torah.
The Jews were never regardedas healthier than their non-Jewish, uncircumcised neighbors. They did notperform milah on their sons because they hoped to prevent infection, butbecause they felt that it was a religious obligation. The Jews do not conformto religious obligations because they believe it is physically healthy to do so(if there are any medical benefits, these are considered secondary) butbecause they believe it is spiritually healthy to do so. To disobey the Laws ofhaShem, G-d, is looked upon as spiritual mutilation. According to Jewish mysticism, or kabbalah, “the foreskin symbolizes abarrier which prevents growth” (Simmons).
Deuteronomy 10:16 calls uponus to “remove the foreskin of our hearts. ” Orlah, the Hebrew termtranslated as “foreskin” literally means “barrier”. The foreskin is seen as abarrier to the spiritual growth of the uncircumcised individual. In anotherkabbalistic example, we are taught that when Avram circumcised himself, atage 99, G-d changed his name to Avroham. He added only one letter to hisname: heh. The letter heh is found twice in one of the most holy ofhaShems names signifying that through the bris milah a dimension ofspirituality is brought to the physical body.
So, why on the eighth day?The answer is twofold. Schapiro believes that the number eight has aspecial metaphysical significance. He notes that the number six alludes tothe physical world: there are six directions (north, south, east, west, up anddown); there are six days to the work week, and according to the Chumashthere were six “days” of creation. The number seven, he adds brings a senseof spirituality to this physical world: the seventh day of the week, Shabbos, isa Jewish holy day, and many Jewish festivals, including Sukkos last for sevendays.
The number eight however, “transcends the physical altogether”. Forexample, the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates a great miraclelasts eight days. The second reason is one that might be considered a “practical benefit”which is supported by medical data. According to Simmons, prothrombin andvitamin K, two blood clotting agents, are at peak levels on the eighth day oflife. Prothrombin levels are normal at birth but drop dramatically during thenext few days. However, at the end of the first week, levels of prothrombinreturn to normal and are often at 110 percent of normal before stabilizing bythe ninth or tenth day.
Still, the most “logical” reason to perform a ritualcircumcision is, in the religious context, simply to act as the sign of thecovenant G-d made with Avroham because this is the reason that we aretaught through Torah. Aside from the de-emphasis of physical matters involved in theprocedure, traditional Jews avoid reference to health benefits because, forthe most part, “medicine doesnt appear to be on our side” (Fink). WriterMordechai Housman insists that there has never been a reported case ofhealth danger to a child circumcised by an Orthodox mohel, but mother, LisaBraver Moss claims that there are two known bris milah related deaths inmodern times: one in 1957 and another in 1978. Moss admits that “nosystematic data on deaths or serious complications from bris milah have everbeen compiled” but believes this may be due to the fact that “circumcisiondeath can occur from secondary causes such as liver failure, pneumonia, andblood poisoning” which “health professionals may fail to link .
. . to theiroriginal cause. ” Nonfatal complications are equally unlikely to be associatedwith circumcision. Although the majority of modern Jews argue that the rite is harmless,historically Jews were not so certain of the safety of the procedure. Talmudiclaw exempts a Jewish male from infant circumcision if two of his olderbrothers lost their lives to the ritual.
Though, as the Orthodox will argue, thiscase was hypothetical and not based on an actual incident, there are still twoBiblical examples of a parents failure to perform milah on his son due toconcerns over his health. Exodus 4: 24-26 relates the story of thecircumcision of Eliezar son of Moses. The Bibles rendering of the story isshort, cryptic and confusing: It was on the way, in the lodging, that haShem encountered him andsought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut off theforeskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, “Youcaused my bridegrooms bloodshed!” So He released him; then shesaid, “A bridegrooms bloodshed was because of circumcision. “The great Torah commentator Rabbi Schlomo Yitzach (Rashi), saysthat Mosess great sin was in delaying the milah of his son. Moses felt thatthe trip he was about to embark upon would be dangerous for the newbornwho, he felt, should be allowed three days to recuperate after circumcisionbefore he embarked upon his journey (Shmos 24).
In an earlier example,Midrash tells us that Yitzach did not circumcise his son Esav because hefeared for his health. Esav, unlike his twin Yaakov, was born with bright redskin. Yitzach worried that this was due to illness and that to perform milahon him would be dangerous. Esav was given a second opportunity for brismilah when he became bar mitzvah (the age of majority) but he refused it(Beraishis 140). These biblical examples provide us with some vital information aboutthe importance of bris milah.
On the surface we can see quiet clearly thatthe “conservatives” are wrong: circumcision is potentially dangerous, andTorah recognizes this. More importantly though, we learn how vitallynecessary bris milah is to the Jews. Moses almost lost his life because hedelayed his sons circumcision too long. And Esav lost his status as a Jewishpatriarch because he refused to let anyone perform milah on him even afterit was clearly a safe endeavor. The ramifications of spiritual disobedience aresignificant.
And just as the punishment for neglecting the mitzvah is severe,so the merit for properly attending to it is tremendous. The devotion of the Jewish people to the rite of milah even duringtimes of difficulty is a testimony to its importance in Jewish life. When milahwas outlawed by the Greeks during the era of the Maccabean leadership,many Jewish mothers risked their lives to circumcise their sons. Even in themodern era Jews have undergone heroic acts for the preservation of themitzvah.
Holocaust survivor Aviel Binyomin Colquette remembers thefollowing story:They were rounding up the young children and mothers and they putus onto a train car. There was one woman–she did not cover herhair–who looked particularly distressed. She asked all of thepassengers in our car for a knife. But we were all women and children. No knives. She then started to look around for any sharp object.
Shewanted a shard of glass, or a sharp rock–anything you might cut with. The other passengers tried to dissuade her. They scolded her for herweakness and begged her not to kill herself. Finally a soldier camethrough and she saw the outline of a knife in his pocket. Shedemanded he hand it over to her.
In shock he complied. Then, to ourastonishment, she pulled from her bag a small infant boy. She saidthe blessings and performed the milah on him. She handed her childover to the officer and spoke to G-d, “You gave me a healthy boy andnow I return him to You in purity and obedience to Torah.
“Similarly, many Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) were notcircumcised due to secular laws and a general lack of interest in religiouspractice. However, the desire for bris milah was never completely eradicatedand when Western Jews were finally allowed to enter the FSU they weregreeted by large numbers of adult males who wished to undergo bris milah. Mohel Alexander Fink recalled his surprise at the large number of Jews whocame to see him at his arrival in the Ukraine:I was sure theyd all come to see the rabbi. Theyd heard his tapesbefore we came and had seemed really impressed. There were somany of them.
From age eleven to eighty. At least a hundred men. And they were there to see me! I couldnt believe theyd be so excitedabout milah. More interested in receiving milah than in seeing therabbi. They wanted to be circumcised more than they wanted to belearned.
The idea of a covenant is a rather difficult concept for the outsider tocomprehend. The relationship between the Jews and haShem, their G-d, isunderstood as a straightforward contract, “I will be your G-d, and you will beMy people. ” The Jews will obey haShem and He will see that their needs aremet. The milah is the most visible sign of the covenant as it is inscribed on apersons body and serves as a daily reminder to the Jewish male of his statusas a servant of haShem and mankind.
Until very recently, even the most liberal Jews felt that circumcision–though not necessarily the bris–was essential to Jewish practice. The status of an uncircumcised male in Jewish culture wasundefined. He was in a strange state of being both Jewish and non-Jewish. A Jew trapped in a non-Jewish body. A bizarre spiritual circumstance thatcould not be redeemed until the man took matters into his own hands andunderwent a circumcision.
Indeed, Yeshiva student Joshua Konig, suggeststhat the gates of heaven will not open up for an uncircumcised Jewish male. “A Jews obligation is to serve HaShem and observe the Torah his entire life,even under the most desperate circumstances (Scheinbaum 204). Works CitedColquette, Aviel Binyomin. Personal interview. 18 Nov.
2001. Fink, Alexander. Personal Interview. 10 Oct. 2001. Housman, Mordechai.
Circumcision and Your Childs Health. 5 Nov. 2001. . Klein, Isaac.
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: The Jewish TheologicalSemianry of America, 1979. Konig, Joshua. Personal interview. 28 Nov. 2001.
Moss, Lisa Braver. Circumcision: A Jewish Inquiry. Midstream magazine. 5 Nov.
2001. . Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to the Beliefes, Customs, andRituals.
Ch. 3. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. Schapiro, Rabbi Moshe. What is Circumcision? Aish HaTorah.
15 Oct. 2001. . Scheinbaum, Rabbi A. Leib.
Peninim On The Torah. Cleveland, Ohio: KisveiPublications, 2000. Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Bris Milah: Beautiful or Barbaric? Aish HaTorah. 15 Oct.
2001. . Weissman, Rabbi Moshe. The Little Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis.
Brooklyn, New York: Bnay Yaakov Publications, 1986. Weissman, Rabbi Moshe. The Little Midrash Says: The Book of Shmos. Brooklyn, New York: Bnay Yaakov Publications, 1987.Words/ Pages : 2,623 / 24