“Understanding the Ritual of Circumcision”
(updated and revised from Lech Lecha 5760-1999)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


Toward the end of this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we read of the covenant of circumcision, Brit Milah. At the ripe old age of 99, when Sarah was 89 and Ishmael was 13, Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) is commanded to perform the mitzvah of circumcision on himself, on his son, and on all the males of his household. This commandment is considered one of the ten trials Ethics of Our Fathers 5:4 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 various commentators, but, somehow, the essential meaning of this quite radical mitzvah is elusive, never really fully comprehended.

In recent time, an increasing number of causes came under attack as “politically incorrect,” and the ritual of circumcision found itself on the defensive. Traditional Jews who circumcise their sons are at times accused of being primitive. More and more so-called “humanists,” argue that there is little difference between female clitoral circumcision and male circumcision, and both should be forbidden as acts of child molestation. How predictive it is then that the Michtav M’Eliyahu explains that Abram suffered great public calumny and shame because of his own 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 as well, was an ultimate test for the Father of our religion.

In Genesis 17:1, we read that G-d appears to Abram, and says to him: הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים . 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 the foreskin was 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 better focus his thoughts on Torah study and loftier matters.

The covenant with Abram consisted not only of circumcision, but was also accompanied with the changing of the names. Abram’s name was changed to “Abraham,” which means father of many nations, and Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, signifying that she too 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 now to become a prominent universal model, a model for all peoples, and for all times. The Jewish people would henceforth be a breed apart, whole, and sanctified, making them even more effective exemplars to the world.

There are those who say that the ritual of circumcision is more 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 that the child will face. At the circumcision ceremony the verse from Ezekiel 16:6 is read (also mentioned in the Passover Hagadah), בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי ,–the Jewish people shall live in their blood. Surely, Jewish survival is always in the hands of G-d. Nevertheless, at the child’s brit we express the hope that the blood that is shed at that moment, at this ritual circumcision will be the last drop 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 a medical procedure performed on the male sexual organ. Why was there no parallel covenant with Jewish women? Are they not part of the Jewish people? Ironically, the current Jewish reality reflects a new meaning which, I believe, resonates with contemporary times.

Most students of Jewish history will confirm the tragic, but incontrovertible, fact that we Jews have lost far 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 pogroms, gas chambers and inquisitions, we Jews are doing to ourselves through intermarriage and assimilation. Perhaps, what the covenant of circumcision is meant to communicate is that all of Jewish destiny depends upon the proper use of 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 the Jewish people will be affirmed. However, if Jewish males cannot control their passions, and, instead, allow themselves to be seduced to 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 not only the source of Jewish sanctity, it 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 has been over the past three millennia.

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.