Better Than God?

The ritual of circumcision allows us to partner with God in the covenant and also in perfecting creation.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

A cutting debate has been raging both within the Jewish world and outside it concerning the issue of brit milah, ritual circumcision, which is presented in the opening verses of Parshat 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? Brit 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 covenantal 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 brit, covenant, that are unrelated to brit 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 covenantal 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.

Circumcision as Mutation

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 Akiva: “Whose works are better, those of God or those of creatures of flesh and blood?” Akiva 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 Akiva 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 brit milah. The natural order does not expect or even encourage circumcision. If it did, a baby boy would enter the world circumcised, as Akiva reasoned. Hence brit 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.

Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

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