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.
The old joke goes: When does life begin? For the Catholic, at conception. For the Protestant, at birth. For the Jew, when the kids leave for college.
This week's portion, Parashat Tazria, suggests that life begins at another, somewhat earlier point. We are told that when a male child is born, the mother shall be unclean seven days, and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.- (Leviticus 12:2-3)
The Jewish understanding of circumcision was expounded on in more detail in Genesis 17:9-14, when God commanded Abraham to circumcise all males on the eighth day of life as a -sign of the covenant between Me and you. Although no explanation about why the eighth day was chosen is offered, it is generally agreed that an eight-day-old Jewish boy had matched the time that was needed for the creation of the world, including at least one Sabbath, and, therefore, was ready to enter into the covenant. Thus life, or at least full entry into the Jewish community, begins for baby boys with their b'rit milah.
This eight-day counting period to welcome our newborn sons into Judaism can sometimes be extraordinarily inconvenient. Weekdays are not usually the ideal time for many families to celebrate such a simchah. However, most rabbis and moheleem will rearrange their schedules and will work hard to encourage the keeping of this tradition.
Now if only we treated our daughters in the same way! This week's portion says that the mothers of newborn baby boys should remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days.- (Leviticus 12:4) For mothers of newborn girls, the number doubles to sixty-six days. (Leviticus 12:5) While this difference is hotly debated in traditional and modern commentary, we are also often guilty of allowing the time to name girls and mark their entry into the Jewish covenant to last much longer than the period for boys. Why do we not insist on a covenantal ceremony for girls on the eighth day? Are boys worth the -inconvenience- of having a ceremony on the eighth day, while the welcoming of girls can be relegated to a thirty-day wait or an available Shabbat? Are we symbolically saying, as Rabbi Debra Orenstein has noted in Lifecycles, vol. 1, "that boys enter into the covenant of Abraham and girls and women do not"?
The time has come for our baby daughters to achieve full equality with our baby sons. Not only should we continue to develop a creative and powerful liturgy for girls, we must also state unequivocally that such b'ritceremonies are just as worthy of our time and our schedule as those for boys are. If the celebration of new Jewish life is prescribed at eight days, it should be so for all Jews—male and female alike.
For Further Reading
Berit Mila in the Reform Context , edited by Lewis Barth (Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism, 1990).
Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones , vol. 1, edited by Debra Orenstein (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994).
Rabbi Mark Kaiserman is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.
Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656