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Parshas Lech Lecha (5770)

Circumcision and the Jews: Together Forever

Each time I attend a Bris Milah (ritual circumcision) I am always amazed at how this ritual continues to be performed by most Jews, no matter how secular or unaffiliated. We’re talking about Jews who might not practice any other ritual mentioned in the Bible – not Shabbos, not Kosher, not Tefillin (phylacteries) – yet circumcision they do?! It boggles the mind!

Of course, it is true that most secular Jews today still attend High Holiday services and Passover Seders as well – but those are much easier to explain. Most Jews would feel quite guilty (and a bit scared) if they’d stay home watching TV while everyone else is in the synagogue praying on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And the Passover Seder, with the entire family getting together and lots of tradition (not to mention great food), is actually meaningful and exciting for even the most distant Jew.

But circumcision?? A friend of mine once joked that only Jews can turn a relatively minor surgical procedure on a baby boy’s private parts into a huge public ritual with a festive meal celebrated by family and friends. Think about it … a bunch of Jews are standing in the synagogue watching as a guy with a long beard pulls off the baby’s diaper, snips off a little piece of skin, everyone shouts “Mazel Tov”, and then we sit down for a meal of bagels and lox and orange juice!! Does this make any sense? That thing’s gotta hurt the little kid a little bit … but so long as Uncle Harry gets his herring and crackers with danish and coffee for dessert – he’s happy! (I don’t know about you, folks, but when my parents gave me a Bris, I was so upset with them that I didn’t talk to them for two years!!)

I mean it’s one thing if you believe, as many Jews in fact believe, that G-d commanded the first Jew Abraham to circumcise himself and his children and that all his descendants (that’s us) must do so as well – as we are told in this week’s Torah portion (see Genesis 17:9-14) – then you perform the ritual whether you like it or not, whether it makes rational sense to you or not. But how can we explain the phenomenon of so many Jews today who choose not to perform other so-called “irrational” commandments of the Bible yet still insist on having a Mohel perform this strange and difficult ritual on their eight-day-old baby?!

As Philip Roth writes in a letter: “It's hard to understand how serious this circumcision business is to Jews. I asked several of my equally secular Jewish male friends if they could have an uncircumcised son, and they all said no, sometimes without having to think about it and sometimes after the nice long pause that any rationalist takes before opting for the irrational."

Now don’t get me wrong … I am not advocating that we abandon this time-honored ritual, G-d forbid. There are many beautiful and important ideas behind the mitzvah of circumcision, not to mention the possible health advantages as well. [See, for example, Rabbi Shraga Simmons’ well-written article on Aish.com at http://www.aish.com/literacy/lifecycle/bris_milah_beautiful_or_barbaric$.asp ]

I am just mystified at the incredible popularity that ritual circumcision continues to enjoy among all types of Jews in spite of its seemingly irrational (and possibly painful) nature.

The Talmud provides a fascinating answer to this enigma. In Tractate Shabbos 130a, it states: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, “Every commandment for which the Jews were willing to give their lives when the government forced them to transgress, such as idolatry and circumcision, is still strictly adhered to [by their descendants]. By contrast, every mitzvah for which the Jews were not willing to offer their lives when the government forced them to transgress, such as the mitzvah of tefillin, is no longer strictly adhered to.”

What the Talmud seems to be teaching us is that there is an almost “supra-rational” reason for the ongoing popularity of the circumcision ritual, in spite of the many issues that have been brought against it, in contrast with mitzvahs like tefillin, which are painless to wear, involve no surgical instruments, and yet today only a small minority of Jews don them each day. The key is this: Since our ancestors understood the deep, mystical roots and importance of Bris Milah and were thus willing to sacrifice themselves and their lives to keep this ritual at all costs, it caused a spiritual ripple effect on all their future generations, ensuring that the mitzvah would be preserved until the end of time. But other Jewish rituals which our ancestors, for whatever reason, chose not to sacrifice in order to perform them, are now only weakly observed by their descendants.

However we are to understand this idea, it is an extremely powerful lesson about the power and long-term impact of the choices we make, especially when it comes to the level of Jewish observance and rituals that we decide to incorporate into our lives and homes. If, for example, we make Shabbos an important part of our Jewish lives, even giving up a little of the other things we want to do in order to keep it at all costs, this will virtually guarantee its continued observance by our children and grandchildren for eternity. But if we are lax in our observance of Shabbos (or any other ritual that we choose to take on), it is highly likely that after a few generations this ritual will be but a memory for our descendants.

We need to seriously contemplate now the choices we make in our Judaism. For the very continuity of that Judaism is at stake – and is in our hands.

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