A cutting debate has been raging both within the Jewish world and outside it concerning the issue of b'rit milah, ritual circumcision, which is presented in the opening verses of Parashat Tazria. The question most often posed about this subject is: Who ever heard of making the central symbol of the covenant between Abraham and God and between Abraham's male descendants and God an issue? B'rit milah is a mitzvah, an absolute and sacred obligation practiced by our people from time immemorial.
So goes the argument of the practice's proponents, while its opponents charge that the pain and trauma inflicted upon an unwilling infant is pure torture. Furthermore, they ask, "Why should this particular act become the sine qua non of Jewish covenental identity when other biblical expressions of the covenant, such as the rigid observance of the Shabbat, have been disregarded, if not altogether discarded, by many?" In this context the curious and energetic student might well explore other biblical references to the b'rit, covenant, that are unrelated to b'rit milah.
For most Jews, however, the ritual circumcision of an eight-day-old boy is a moment of the highest religious meaning, linking him with generations of people who date back to the first spark of Jewish covenental monotheism. We celebrate it as the mitzvah par excellence and view it as almost a mystical event in our lives, sometimes difficult to explain but emotionally compelling and even overwhelming.
In Hellenistic thought, however, circumcision was regarded as an anathema—a rite that mutilated and distorted the natural perfection of the human body, a diminution of unimprovable wholeness, and a reduction of beauty. During the Maccabean period, Greek influences became so attractive to Jews that many Jewish young men, who were often ridiculed by the cultivated Hellenists, attempted to disguise their circumcision by means of excruciatingly painful and potentially life-threatening surgery. The Tannaim (mishnaic rabbis) condemned such repudiation of Jewish tradition as worthy of excommunication. ( Mishnah, Keritot 1:1)
According to the midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 5), Tarnus Rufus, the Wicked, once asked Rabbi Akiba: "Whose works are better, those of God or those of creatures of flesh and blood?" Akiba answered: "The works of flesh and blood are better." To which Tarnus Rufus retorted: "Is that why you Jews circumcise, to prove that you're better than God?" To which Akiba replied: "I anticipated your second question in your first. God has given us commandments for the sole purpose of enabling us to perfect [tikkun] the divine works of creation, as God's partners."
And so it is with b'rit milah. The natural order does not expect or even encourage circumcision. If it did, a baby boy would enter the world circumcised, as Akiba reasoned. Hence b'rit milah is our distinct mitzvah, an act we perform to elevate and even perfect the divine works of creation, and in so doing, we elevate and perfect our distinctive corner of God's world.
Thus, by performing the act of circumcision, we complete God's plan. We become God's partners not only in this expression of our ancient covenant but also in the ongoing creation of the world.
Rabbi David Goldstein is the rabbi of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, LA.