“Understanding the Rite of Circumcision”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Toward the end of this coming week’s parasha, parashat Lech L’Cha, we read of the covenant of circumcision, Brit Mila. At the ripe old age of 99, when Sarah was 89 and Ishmael 13, Abram is commanded to perform the mitzvah of circumcision on himself, on his son, and on all the males in his household. This commandment is considered one of the ten trials that Abraham endures.

Circumcision is an unusual mitzvah, one that is not only a private and personal mitzvah, but also one that is shrouded in uncertainty as to its meanings and symbolism. A host of explanations are offered by different commentators, but somehow the essential meaning of this quite radical mitzvah is elusive, never really fully comprehended.

As the secular millennium comes to a close and an increasing number of causes come under attack as non “politically correct,” the ritual of circumcision finds itself on the defensive. Traditional Jews who circumcise their sons are sometimes accused of child molesting. More and more so-called “humanist” advocates argue that there is little difference between female circumcision and male circumcision, and both should be forbidden. How predictive it is then that the Michtav M’Eliyahu explains that Abram suffered great public disgrace because of his circumcision and was shunned by his former friends and acquaintances! Since Abram’s entire life had been dedicated to bringing people closer to G-d, the test of circumcision — not only the dangerous surgical procedure, but the alienation of friends and associates, was an ultimate test for the Father of our religion.

In Chapter 17, verse 1, of Genesis, we read that G-d appears to Abram and says to him: “Hit’ha’lech, l’fa’nai v’hayai tamin.” Walk before me and be perfect. The rabbis say that if any other part of the Abram’s body had been severed, he would not have been perfect, or whole. Since the foreskin is the only part of the male that can be removed without mutilating the body, Abram would still be whole even after it is removed. Another reason proffered by the commentaries for the removal of the foreskin is that some authorities believe that circumcision diminishes the sexual drive, allowing the male to focus his thoughts on Torah study and loftier matters.

The covenant with Abram consisted not only of circumcision, but also mandated the changing of the names. Abram’s name was changed to “Abraham,” which means father of a great nation, and Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, signifying that she would be a princess to all the nations of the world. In effect, what was happening now was that a new destiny was being forged for them. By the covenant of circumcision and the change of names, this elderly couple was going to become a more universal model, a model for all peoples, and for all times. The Jewish people henceforth would be a breed apart, whole, and sanctified, making them even more effective models to the world.

There are those who say that the ritual of circumcision is really a reflection of the nature of Jewish history. A young child is welcomed into the Jewish nation in this manner to underscore the trials of Jewish life he will face. At the circumcision ceremony the verse from Ezekiel 16:6 is read (also mentioned in the Passover Hagadah), “B’da’mayich Cha’yi,”–the Jewish people shall live in their blood. Surely, Jewish survival is always in the hands of G-d. Nevertheless, at the child’s bris we express the hope that the blood that is shed at this ritual circumcision will be the last blood ever shed on behalf of a person’s commitment to Judaism. Unfortunately, Jewish history has not always worked out that way, but it is critical that it be understood from the very beginning of the child’s life how vital blood is to Jewish survival.

I have always been troubled by the fact that the covenant of G-d with the Jewish people was made through an operation on the male sexual organ. Why was there no parallel covenant with Jewish women? Are they not part of the Jewish people? As a child of the 20th century, a meaning has emerged for me which I believe resonates with the times.

Most students of Jewish history will confirm the tragic but incontrovertible fact that we Jews have lost more people to the blandishments of assimilation than to the swords of our enemies. As we see the continuing demographic diminution of the American Jewish community and the world Jewish community (with the exception of Israel), we realize tragically, that what our enemies could not do with gas chambers and inquisitions, we Jews are doing to ourselves through intermarriage and assimilation. Perhaps what the covenant of circumcision is telling us is that all of Jewish destiny depends upon the Jewish male’s sexual organ. If Jewish men use their sexual organ in a sanctified manner, by marrying Jewish women and building strong Jewish families, then the covenant of G-d and Jewish people will be affirmed. However, if Jewish males do not control their passions, allow themselves to be seduced and explore in foreign fields, then the covenant with G-d and the Jewish people is threatened, perhaps even broken forever.

The covenant of circumcision is the source of Jewish sanctity. The covenant of circumcision is the source of Jewish continuity. The choice lies before us. We Jews, (especially Jewish men), can choose to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People,” or we can walk away from our extraordinary covenant. This ancient ritual, which has been part of our heritage for more than 3000 years, is as relevant today as it was over three millennia ago. How absolutely stunning it is that the Torah clearly predicts what the future of the Jewish people will be, by underscoring how critical the act of sanctification and the ritual of circumcision is, and will be.

May you be blessed.