Some Meanings of Brit Milah

The message to the one who is circumcised: The covenant involves pain and sacrifice as well as honor and sanctity. And it is part of who you are, branded into your flesh at birth.

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The complete name of the ritual is bris (or brit) milah, with the second word meaning "circumcision" and the first word meaning "covenant." The circumci­sion ceremony identifies the Jewish child as a member of the covenant with God by virtue of his birth as a Jew into a Jewish family.

Obviously the week-old infant is in no position to understand what is happening to him. But as he grows older and learns about it, and as he one day arranges for a similar ceremony for his own son, he comes to comprehend the twofold meaning of the bris: A Jew is born into the covenant with God whether he wants to be or not, and this covenant involves pain and sacrifice as well as honor and sanctity. He may grow up to be a good Jew or a bad Jew (however that is defined). But he cannot ignore his Jewish identity. Like his parents, like his physical traits and the century and country of his birth, it is one of the facts of his life. As in the Book of Jonah, as in the Book of Ezekiel, God pursues us even when we would rather not deal with Him. The covenant can be violated; it cannot be escaped. It is part of who you are, branded into your flesh at birth.

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Rabbi Harold Kushner

Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. He is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.