Over the last seven months, circumcision has appeared as a regular conversation topic in media outlets. Between metzitzah discussions, European nations becoming enlightened about circumcision and banning it (historians note that all that has changed in Europe, is that European anti-Semitism now comes in the guise of liberalism – to save the babies!), and the pro vs anti circumcision debate which continues to rage on in the blogosphere, there is no shortage of topics to be covered.
Reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the parsha in which the Covenant of Circumcision is first presented in the Torah, it is a good time to reflect on what Bris Milah is and why we are so attached to it.
Dr. Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University, noted a (not) surprising phenomenon in his article, “The New Enemies of Circumcision,” in Commentary Magazine, March 2000.
“…circumcision, itself a divine commandment (mitzvah), is emblematic of the Jews’ fidelity to the G-d who formed them as a people and gave them the Torah.
“It is hardly surprising, therefore, that even in modern times, Jews across the denominational spectrum have continued to have the procedure performed on their sons on the eighth day of life, just as the Torah prescribes. What may be more surprising is the durability of circumcision among those Jews for whom traditional theology is unacceptable. All sorts of other practices bearing the warrant of tradition--Sabbath, dietary laws, daily prayer--have fallen by the wayside, but circumcision, ( britmilah), endures.”
Levinson went on to discuss different opinions as to the prophylactic effects of circumcision, noting that they are irrelevant to the Jew who will be circumcising regardless of medical opinion. This notion was adequately noted by Herman Wouk in his “This is My G-d” where he wrote, “[F]or Jews circumcision … is not a detail of hygiene, [but] the seal of the pledge between Abraham and his Creator… The Jews have followed the Mosaic law with a confidence which modern medicine progressively ratifies. The medical endorsement is not, however, the glory of Judaism. It is a footnote.”
In many Jewish circles, the question of circumcision is not a Hamletian question of “to circ or not to circ,” but is merely a question of when and where. This is something the non-Jewish or the non-circumcising world, who view circumcision as barbaric, will never understand. Circumcision is a practice that has defined our people for thousands of years. We have done it openly, in secret, enjoying the support of local government or in defiance of laws against it. The practice has survived hatred, bigotry, persecution, and genocide for many reasons including those discussed in Talmud Nedarim 32a-b. It is the fulfillment of our side of the agreement of Bereshit 17, in hopes of the continued fulfillment of the promises G-d made to Avraham.
Many people who are anti-circumcision like to quote a passage of Maimonides from “The Guide to the Perplexed” [3.49 (118a), 609] in which Maimonides expressed how circumcision decreases physical sensitivity. But their quotation of Maimonides is always incomplete, and therefore intellectually dishonest.
In the part they don’t quote, Maimonides outlines why we circumcise. Avraham was the first to recognize the power of the male “drive” and the need to have other pursuits in life [see Hilchot De’ot 3:2]. More importantly, in his day (certainly before any notion of routine circumcision that exists in the United States today), circumcision gave our people a common physical sign of our peoplehood, along with the faith that this is what G-d has asked of us. (Levenson addresses the fact that women do not bear a sign of the covenant.)
The covenant forged with Avraham, in which G-d agreed “to be a G-d for you and for your children after you” [as described in Bereshit 17] is the source for declaring G-d’s oneness.
Maimonides states unequivocally that the Torah cannot be properly fulfilled without circumcision. He shares three points of wisdom in the process of circumcising at this age: 1. Were we to leave it for the child to do when he grows older, there’s a great chance that he wouldn’t do it. 2. The long-term pain experienced by an older person, who will add emotional stress to the ordeal, does not compare to the when-it’s-over-it’s-done experience of a newborn. 3. Submitting a newborn to circumcision is much easier than an older child, for whom our love only grows over time, who experiences pain differently and who might remember it.
These days, even many Muslims have switched from the older practice of circumcising at 13 or a younger age of childhood, opting for the newborn period, which is far less traumatic and entirely forgettable.
Small groups of Jews claim, “choosing not to circ is the more Jewish thing to do.” Discounting the Torah is hardly “more Jewish,” but those who don’t “get it” will try to use any argument they can to pursue their agenda.
For us, our covenant with G-d is what will keep this mitzvah alive. May we merit to bring many more babies into the Covenant (though only boys bear the physical mark) as the Jewish people continue to grow in anticipation of the final Redemption.