8 Cheshvan 5772
November 4-5, 2011
“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, 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 8 days.” – Genesis 17:11-12
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to the concept of
circumcision. According to the Torah, as shared in the verse above, the purpose of circumcision is to serve as a sign of the covenant between the descendants of Abraham and God. This custom has survived for thousands of years, and is so significant that circumcisions are permitted to be performed on Shabbat and even on Yom Kippur.
For many, circumcision is no laughing matter. There are groups of Jews and non-Jews alike who are opposed to this ancient right of passage for Jewish (and Muslim) males. See, for example, http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/.
Recently, a ballot measure was proposed in San Francisco that would have banned circumcision within the city’s limits, with punishments of up to 1 year in jail for parents who disobeyed the ordinance. Eventually, after legal action, the measure was removed from the ballot.
For background, see: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2077240,00.html#ixzz1caPapJbb
There have been varying scientific reports as to the positive potential health impacts circumcision might provide over one’s lifetime. Opponents of circumcision liken the procedure to female genital mutilation. A more appropriate analogy might be to piercing a young child’s ears, given the bodily change taking place and the lack of desire to reduce/eliminate sexual pleasure.
The traditional Jewish legal view is that circumcision is key to being a full member of the Jewish community. Circumcision is part of the traditional conversion rite, and the Torah prohibits those who are uncircumcised from partaking of the Passover sacrifice. And yet, the ancient rabbis make it clear that if circumcision might jeopardize the life of a child, it should not be done. For example, haemophiliacs and others suffering from similar blood clotting disorders are not only not required to be circumcised, but they are not permitted!
Circumcision is without question one of the more difficult commandments for us to understand and harmonize with our Western liberal philosophies. There is no reason provided in the Torah for circumcision other than “because God said so.” This is the same reason that the Torah gives for keeping kosher. And yet, many more male Jews are circumcised than keep kosher. You’d think that parents would be more likely/willing to manage their son’s diet than have surgery performed on him! Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) the famous Rabbi and philosopher (and doctor), went so far as to say that the only reason circumcision should be performed is faith (Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 49).
In a time when many of us are lacking faith similar to Maimonides’s, how do we deal with a ritual that doesn’t speak directly to us, that comes across as archaic, and that we can’t justify with more than a “we do it because it’s tradition” response?
Without question there is a “who are we to break the chain” argument that we must take into account. The Jewish people have survived for thousands of years and circumcision has been a part of our collective history.
Even if that argument is not convincing, to throw away our ancient rituals just because they are no longer convenient for us or seem irrelevant / outdated shows a lack of imagination on our part and an unwillingness to make the old new again. There is inherent beauty in the circumcision ritual. Often, the baby boy is passed from mother to father, and father passes to grandfather, with the baby ending up in the grandfather’s lap where he is held. This real-life generation-to-generation moment of bonding is incredibly powerful, and the impact it has on the parents is likely as significant, if not greater, than the impact on the child.
The particular framework for viewing the ritual I just provided, which I personally find meaningful and helps me be comfortable with circumcising any future sons I might have, may not be meaningful for you – and that’s okay. I encourage you to think about the ritual, to question its place and value in today’s world, and to determine how to make it meaningful for you and your future family. Many of our ancient traditions are waiting to be reinvented and reimagined. To do so not only provides greater meaning to our lives, but is our duty as Jews.