For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.
Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.
Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.
Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.
In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”
Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.
In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”
Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.
This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”
Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.
Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com
Technology is a marvelous thing. And the many creative ways Jewish professionals have incorporated it into Jewish communal life is amazing.
Over the past few months, I have had two online experiences that I had occasionally criticized in the past. But for reasons of necessity, found myself doing: watching a worship service and watching a life-cycle ceremony.
Last Yom Kippur, having had left the morning service with my five-year-old son in tow, I broke my own rule of unplugging on Shabbat and the holidays and sought out an online service. Just because my little guy was done for the day didn’t mean that I was. It took me a few tries as the first few attempts landed me in services that I’d never attend in person. It seemed to me that if I wouldn’t attend a place IRL that I’m certainly not going to like the virtual experience. But then I found the live-stream from Central Synagogue (NYC). Enabling me to hear familiar melodies, liturgy read with passion and conviction, and words of challenge and inspiration.
At the end of November, my sister-in-law went into labour ten days ahead of her scheduled C-section. Due to my own complicated family situation (with a child on the autism spectrum), I was unable to fly to Dallas for my nephew’s bris. Thanks to the rabbinic team at my brother and sister-in-law’s shul, a live-stream of the ceremony was provided for those of us who were unable to make the trip.
Sitting alone with my computer isn’t the way I want Yom Kippur. It isn’t the way I need Yom Kippur. And watching my nephew be entered into the Covenant of Abraham on a screen isn’t the same as being there.
But in both cases, second best was, indeed, better than nothing. Without synagogues that make worship services available online, my Yom Kippur would have been utterly devoid of the sanctity and liturgy my soul needed. Without those same synagogues that are open to the request of a far-flung relative, I would not have been able to witness this first lifecycle event in my nephew’s life.
I once feared that such innovation would encourage people to choose virtual attendance over physical attendance. That concern, I now recognize, was grounded in ignorance. A true lack of understanding based on the unknown.
In the end, it was one word that convinced me. Amein. It was being able to say “amein” in response to the mohel at my nephew’s bris that showed me the weakness of my long-held bias. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the very same room. But my “amein” was said. And God heard it, even if they couldn’t.