Circumcision is a Difficult Rite

Circumcision, with all its pain, reminds us of our partnership with God and the pain of fixing a broken world.

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This article, originally published on Beliefnet.com as a commentary on the Torah portion Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59), is reprinted with permission.

[The Torah portion Tazria] is seemingly obsessed with various bodily afflictions and their potential remedies. Swellings, rashes, discolorations, "scaly affections," inflammations, burns, and more--each condition is analyzed and accompanied by detailed instructions on how to proceed. But if the bulk of the portion is concerned with changes that take place in the body (or on its surface), the beginning touches on another, very different bodily transformation--this one enacted by human hands: the covenantal rite of male circumcision.

As modern readers, circumcision often strikes us as strange at best and barbaric at worst. A flood of questions emerges: Why would a loving parent do such a thing to an innocent and defenseless child? Why would a loving God command it? Does it make sense that so many Jews, seemingly so far removed from tradition, still feel a deep visceral need to affirm their Judaism and Jewishness in precisely this of all ways? What does this ancient and ostensibly bizarre practice tell us about how Jews understand themselves and their role in the world?

At the heart of Jewish theology is the idea that God and Israel have entered into an eternal covenant of redemption. The Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, which on the surface would appear to be a relatively obscure event in the history of a small Near Eastern tribe, is understood by the Jewish people to represent a promise and a paradigm: Despite the fact that human history has been mired in oppression and degradation, there will come a time when all human beings will live in full dignity and freedom, when tzelem elohim, the notion that human beings are created in the image of God, will seem less a Pollyanna-ish fantasy than a tangible reality. God wants such a world, and the Jewish people agree to try and help build it. The covenant between God and Israel is most fundamentally about redemption--about believing that human reality can be other than it is, and about struggling to make that dream a reality, bit by bit, day by day.

It would be difficult to overemphasize the centrality of the covenant idea in Jewish theology and self-perception. Our ultimate dream is our ultimate task--to redeem the world (or, at the very least, to participate in its redemption). The covenant is that bond through which God and the Jewish people dream together and work together toward an alternate reality, a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.

The Jewish covenant is a covenant for the ages. Each generation contributes to redemption as much as it can, and it raises children who share the redemptive dream and the covenantal commitment. Without the insights and accomplishments of our ancestors, we would have no basis on which to stand; without the hope for our children and our children's children, the task would seem too much to bear, and we would succumb to cynicism and despair. Countless generations of Jews have suffered for want of the Messiah. But these same generations have rejoiced in the conviction that though he may tarry, their children might well meet him in person. "Jewish continuity" is, at its deepest level, covenantal continuity. It is about keeping the Exodus and its promises alive.

The Jewish tradition has, not surprisingly, always placed a great deal of emphasis on procreation and family. The covenant is, in a very real sense, biologically transmitted. Each generation quite literally inherits both the promises and the responsibilities of the covenant with God. As I hope I have begun to demonstrate, there is much that is beautiful in this idea. But there is also much that is disturbing.

baby crying

Is not a biological covenant dangerous; does it not contain within it the very real possibilities of triumphalism and even outright racism? It is for this reason that the possibility of adoption is so crucial theologically. The covenant is biological, and yet anyone can become a full biological member (Maimonides famously insisted that a convert may pray without reservation or hesitation to "the God of our fathers," even though he is not their direct biological descendant). If the Jewish story compels you, and the Jewish dream grips you, you can join the covenant without having been born into it. It is not easy--one has to understand and take on the costs and burdens--but it is possible. And that possibility is critical.

Circumcision, I think, plays a similar role. It is not enough to have children and assume they are automatically covenanted. We must actively initiate and declare our children to be b'nei brit, sons (and daughters) of the covenant. Biology must be supported--and, on some level, mitigated--by will. In insisting that our children undergo a rite of initiation--and a painful one at that--we understand that the responsibilities and rights of the covenant are not automatic and are not rooted in some racial or racist understanding of redemption.

There is much more. In altering the very biology of a newborn child, we state powerfully that we are incomplete at birth. As Jews, we strive to become worthy covenantal  partners of God; we must never grow complacent about who and what we are. Life begins with the circumcision of our bodies; it culminates, ideally, in the circumcision of our hearts. The former happens once, during the first days of our lives; the latter is the religious, covenantal task of a lifetime.

It is no coincidence that the physical mark we make on a young boy is on his penis. It is no secret that much of human creativity and drive is rooted in sexual energy and impulse. And the human potential for creativity is rooted in the penis and vagina/womb--the possibility of creating a human life and thus a continuer of the covenant. Human creativity can be used for overwhelming good or for enormous evil--this is the inescapable meaning of human freedom and covenantal responsibility. In circumcising our sons, we dedicate the physical and symbolic core of male creativity--which can so often go awry--to the service of God and the hope for redemption. The genital organ, like the whole of human life, can be a source of corruption and abuse, of denial and degradation. But it can also be a holy vessel of love and affirmation, of creativity and commitment.

All this having been said, circumcisions are still painful to watch. But perhaps that is as it should be. If we succeed in raising our children to love what is good and just, and to pursue what is holy and of ultimate value, then we will undoubtedly see them hurt and disappointed time and again. Much of Jewish history is about precisely this--immense physical and emotional suffering is inflicted on those who dare to dream with God. Blood has been drawn for and from our dreams far too often; the rite or circumcision reminds us of that with painful poignancy.

As we watch a Jewish boy undergo the rite of circumcision, we are reminded of the enormous burdens and costs of the covenant. But, we are also reminded of the unspeakable joys of hoping God's hopes and dreaming God's dreams, of being God's partner in a world so desperately in need of healing and redemption. And we give to our son the wonderful gift of the covenant--the right to carry on where we will leave off, and to raise children, in turn, who will do the same.

At brit milah ceremonies, we give God the gift of our sons, and we give our sons the promise and hope of God. By cutting the foreskin of a boy's penis, we teach him and remind ourselves that every part of our being can be infused with decency and holiness, and that every aspect of our creativity can be harnessed for the work of God and redemption. It is not always so easy--as a child's blood no doubt reminds us--to be a human being and a covenantal partner. This is the trauma of the covenant, but it may also be its greatest joy.

As we struggle for and with the equality and dignity of girls and women as full covenantal partners, difficult questions emerge yet again. How, precisely, ought we to initiate girls into the covenant? This is no simple matter, and it will require both liturgical creativity and theological sophistication. But for boys, the rite of circumcision remains what it has long been--a poignant and powerful way to enter into the most precious gift a Jew has, the covenant between God and Israel.

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Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held, a noted lecturer and adult educator, is former Director of Education and Conservative Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and a graduate of the Wexner Fellowship program.