Life Cycles-Brit Milah
Dear Ruth and Sam,
It was good to meet with both of you yesterday, and our visit left me with new insights and thoughts. Ruth, I respect your passionate conviction about how the baby will be welcomed into the Jewish community; a rabbi’s nightmare is that no one questions, no one speaks, no one cares enough to disagree.
As I understand it, you want very much for the child to be named in the synagogue, as we always do with all newborns in the first month. That’s the brit, the promise between God and us, and here we are in complete agreement. It is over milah, the cutting, that we see things differently.
Stark and simple, the brit milah is a defining, identity-creating ceremony. Without the removal of foreskin accompanied by a blessing, we are not Jews. We know of rabbis that have chosen to eliminate circumcision as part of the covenantal ceremony, but I, despite my own occasional doubt and question, will not turn away from a ritual practiced for 4,000 years that I will later show you has profound transformational possibility.
Everything has its drawbacks, including choice. Until the 1970’s, Jewish parents didn’t have to make the decision whether to circumcise their sons, because 95 percent of all newborn boys born in the United States were circumcised in the hospital in response to the medical community believing that the procedure was healthy. Yet you bring solid and persuasive contemporary evidence that circumcision is, for the most part, unnecessary medically or hygienically. Furthermore, you have shared with me the story of Bob’s rare but unfortunate disfiguring infection that resulted from his circumcision. You are also obviously not alone in your objection to the ritual. Any new book on the subject immediately points to the almost universal ambivalence we all share in considering this ancient ritual which is dramatic, intense, and irrational to the twentieth century mind.
Long before circumcision was a common medical procedure, however, Jews mandated it for other purposes. Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher and physician wrote, “No one should circumcise himself or his sons for any other reasons but for pure faith.” What is that faith about? It is a physical sign for that which cannot be seen, for that which can barely be expressed–it is a promise of unconditional belonging to a people and to the world’s creator. The organ of procreation bears the message because it is the part of us that connects us to the future, consoles us that we will not be forgotten, and guarantees through memory, continuity and immortality.
All the laws concerning brit milah are precise and laden with clues to the reason for the ritual. We circumcise on the eighth day, as early as possible to show our eagerness to bring the baby into our community, because we want the newborn to have experienced the whole world, including the delight of the Sabbath, by living an entire week. When the baby enters the room everyone stands and says, “Welcome!” They are standing because every newborn could be the one who will lead the world to peace, the messiah, and so we show honor to the one in diapers. I have no idea how much babies sense, but I always think how wonderful it must be to be introduced so elegantly at eight days.
Maybe you’re thinking, fine, do all that, but keep the knife sheathed. Why blood and tears for this peaceful, sleeping boy? Even the rabbis were a little ambivalent about the pain. 2000 years ago a rabbi exclaimed, “Behold, a man loves no one better than his son, and yet he circumcises him!” In fact, we are born bloody, childbirth is no picnic, and this ceremony reminds us that flesh and blood are part of the miracle of our lives.
I’ve confessed my occasional wavering on the subject and I’ve told you that sometimes the best I can do is to say that I won’t be the one to change a 4000 year-old ritual that has sustained Jewish continuity. Let me also say that the reason we have ceremony is to express what cannot be said and to reveal the mystery we all long to glimpse. I could write ten more pages in persuasive prose about brit milah, yet the strongest words I have come from having witnessed so many and each time having my doubts answered. Each time my relationship to the baby changed after the ceremony, and my own sense of belonging to something greater than myself tightened.
Here is a ceremony that will speak the joy of seeing your son’s son, the miracle of creating a life, and the miracle of entering the world. The ceremony in which you all participate will be part of your web, a thread of your interconnected being. I invite you to reconsider your position on the subject and would be glad to talk about it again with you.
You know that I believe not so much in the law but in the interpretation of the law, and only what I can make an argument for will I do. While I appreciate the ambivalence we all share in the contemplation of the ceremony, I believe in brit milah as a powerful statement about our relationship to a shared history, as a loving communal response to the miracle represented by birth, and as a celebration of hope for future generations. Beyond all that, I accept it as a matter of faith. I, like you, want very much to call the baby up to the Torah and I ask you to commit to your own act of faith by allowing him to be entered into our eternal community by this ancient ceremony, it’s the only way the tradition understands that he is a Jew.
I look forward to hearing from you.