God then said to Abraham, ". . . This is My covenant that you and your descendants after you are to observe: let every male among you be circumcised. . . . It shall become a sign of the covenant between us. And in all your generations, let every eight-day-old boy among you be circumcised. . . ." (Genesis 17:9-12)
Centuries ago, God commanded that Abraham mark his flesh and that of all his male descendants with a sign of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people, and the typical Jewish male has never been the same since.
Indeed, there is hardly a religious practice anywhere that has created such intense debate and controversy as circumcision. If you doubt it, just search the Internet, and there you will find information on organizations such as the National Organization for Restoring Men (NORM), Brothers United for Future Foreskin (BUFF), Musicians United to Stop Infant Circumcision (MUSIC), and many more.
Many of the reasons for this raging controversy are obvious. In this modern era of enlightenment and compassion, the ritual removal of a baby's foreskin―a procedure often performed without the use of anesthetic―can seem nothing short of barbaric.
And even those of us who support b'rit milah are often a bit uneasy about it. Though a long-cherished Jewish value, b'rit milah tends not to sit well with our Western or American selves. The practice simply flies in the face of many of our most deeply cherished modern values. Let's look at a few of them.
Nature Is Ideal
One of the criticisms of b'rit milah is that it's unnatural. Foreskins are perfectly natural parts of baby boys, the argument goes, so why mess with them?
Indeed, these days, we tend to think that something that is "natural" is better than its "artificial" alternative. We buy food that is "naturally flavored," we wear clothes made of "natural fibers," and as an old ad told us, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."
Judaism, on the other hand, is in many ways a rebellion against nature. Yes, we are told to care for the natural world, but we are also told to work hard to make it better―to repair it. And, frankly, the natural world could use a lot of repair. For although nature gives us some good food and clothing, it also makes disasters, diseases, and some very mean people. When I see a luscious chocolate cake in the bakery window and don't have the money to buy it, my natural inclination is to smash the window, grab the cake, and run. Judaism tells me not to. Nature wires us to be lustful; Judaism calls upon us to keep that lust in check. In nature, when a beautiful, prancing gazelle comes within nose-shot of a hungry lion, that lion will tear the gazelle to shreds and eat it. Judaism forbids us from making animals suffer unnecessarily.
Yes, it's a jungle out there! And that's why religion tries to control nature. Judaism teaches that the world as God gave it to us isn't good enough―we need to perfect it. Nature makes illness; we must find cures. Nature wired us with all kinds of base desires; we must control them. In nature, most of God's creatures behave like animals; we must be better.
And, similarly, the most precious gifts of all, our children, arrive not fully made, so it's up to us to finish the work. We begin by removing our sons' foreskins, but that's only the beginning.
Religion Must Be Voluntary
Other criticisms of circumcision point to the fact that our children don't have a say in the matter, and that if they did, they might very well opt out.
The critics are absolutely right. In Judaism, the circumcision of infants is completely involuntary. In fact, there is a lot in Judaism that is involuntary―most of it is. This is because we Jews put mitzvot, "commandments," rather than personal choice, at the center of Jewish life. God never said, "If you don't mind, and if it's convenient, maybe you'd want to celebrate Shabbat?" No, God commanded that we celebrate Shabbat. Similarly, God never declared the prohibition of murder to be optional, nor did God say, "Consider the possibility of choosing life."
Judaism calls upon us to strive to live as God wants us to live, whether we want to or not, and with boys, the process begins on the eighth day of their lives.
Just So You're Happy
In the Torah, God never said, "You shall be happy." God did, however, say, "You shall be holy." And although Judaism does value joy and happiness, being happy is not the ultimate goal of life in our religion. Instead, we are to strive for something far more difficult and far more important―holiness.
If happiness were the ultimate goal, I imagine that God would have chosen some ritual other than circumcision for us to welcome our baby boys into Jewish life. Circumcision hurts. And at least for a few minutes, it makes the baby very, very unhappy.
But, for whatever reason, it is what the Torah says that God wants of us. And as a result, Jews have done it for centuries. Even though it hurts.
B'rit milah , then, expresses core Jewish values that put us at odds with modern Western values. It teaches that nature isn't ideal and that we need to improve it. It says that there are some things in life, even in religion, that are not and should not be matters of our own individual choice. It doesn't always make us happy, but it has made us become holy instead.
Maybe God made b'rit milah unsettling on purpose. We are, after all, part of a people called to be holy, and holiness doesn't come easily.
By the Way
R. Judan said: In the case of a fig, its only defect is its stalk. Remove it and the blemish ceases. Thus, the Holy One of Blessing said to Abraham, "Your only defect is your foreskin. Remove it and the blemish is canceled. 'Walk before me and be perfect' [Genesis 17:1]." (B'reishit Rabbah 46:1)
R. Simon ben Lakish said, "I'm going to bring cinnamon into this world. Just as the cinnamon tree―as long as you fertilize it and hoe around it―produces fruit, so when [Abraham's] blood ran cold, after his sexual desire ceased, after his lust ceased. (B'reishit Rabbah 46:2)
Israelite writers equated the lack of circumcision with the improper functioning of a human organ. Uncircumcised hearts, ears, and lips are organs that cannot do what God intended them to do. By extension, the removal of a man's foreskin symbolically enables the man's penis to more effectively discharge its divinely allocated task . . . to impregnate women and produce offspring. (Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism[Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990], p. 149)
What does R. Judan's statement about the fig tree reveal about his view of human nature? Other than b'rit milah, how might this view affect our perception of ourselves and of our role in the world?
Rabbi Simon ben Lakish and Howard Eilberg-Schwartz both associate b'rit milah with fertility. Should this association influence the way we view the practice today? If so, how?
When opponents of b'rit milah argue that it is a barbaric practice, how should Jews respond?
At the time of this writing in 2005, Mark S. Glickman was serving as rabbi of Congregation Kol Shalom, Bainbridge Island, Washington.