This article provides a very brief orientation to the origins and significance of brit milah, introducing topics that are explored in more detail in this section: biblical roots and rabbinic interpretations, history and anthropology of circumcision and brit milah, and reasons for and the meaning of the practice. The author’s reference in the second paragraph to “all the religious ceremonies after birth” likely includes other elements of a brit milah ceremony (for example, the naming of the child), the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben (the redemption of the first born), and many other optional customs of welcome and celebration. (Elsewhere in her book, Klein also covers the newer but important welcoming and covenant ceremonies for Jewish girls.) The distinction she draws between Jews who live according to Jewish law and “secular Jews” may be a bit exaggerated. For many nontraditional Jews, brit milah is with few reservations a very powerful and meaningful experience. Conversely, traditional Jews may have complex emotions in connection with this ancient practice.
Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).
Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep. Every male among you shall be circumcised … and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days…. And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant (Genesis 17:10-14).
The circumcision is the most important of all the religious ceremonies after birth. Jews circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day after delivery if the infant is in good health. Jews have imbued the rite of circumcision with great spiritual significance because it maintains the covenant between God and Abraham, between God and the Jewish people. The Bible warns that one who does not fulfill this duty is “cut off” by God from the community; he receives the ultimate divine punishment, because God cuts off his soul from its spiritual source. Throughout the ages, rabbis have offered at least twenty different reasons for the importance of circumcision, revealing contemporary beliefs and tensions surrounding the ritual.
Ritual circumcision involves the excision of the prepuce, the tearing of the mucous membrane to expose the glans of the penis, and suction of the wound, followed by its dressing. Father and circumciser recite blessings. The foreskin thus removed and the flow of the infant’s blood are the Jew’s offerings to God. In this way, a boy is given full membership in the Jewish community.
All Jewish parents who live according to halakhah (Jewish law) circumcise their newborn son joyfully because this is a mitzvah, a divine commandment. This operation may stimulate complex emotions in a secular Jew, however. These emotions may include spiritual feelings and pride in Jewish continuity, but they may also include fear over a primitive sacrifice, confusion, distress, and even crisis over Jewish identity. Performance of this rite can make parents aware of the importance of continuing Jewish tradition, or it can become the focus of a conscious rejection of Jewish life. In addition, circumcision can be an occasion that cements family ties or an issue for family crisis. Thus, today, more than ever before, circumcision can have spiritual, religious, social, educational, and psychological significance.