Circumcision is a Difficult Rite

Circumcision, with all its pain, reminds us of our partnership with God and the pain of fixing a broken world.

Print this page Print this page

The Jewish tradition has, not surprisingly, always placed a great deal of emphasis on procreation and family. The covenant is, in a very real sense, biologically transmitted. Each generation quite literally inherits both the promises and the responsibilities of the covenant with God. As I hope I have begun to demonstrate, there is much that is beautiful in this idea. But there is also much that is disturbing.

baby crying

Is not a biological covenant dangerous; does it not contain within it the very real possibilities of triumphalism and even outright racism? It is for this reason that the possibility of adoption is so crucial theologically. The covenant is biological, and yet anyone can become a full biological member (Maimonides famously insisted that a convert may pray without reservation or hesitation to "the God of our fathers," even though he is not their direct biological descendant). If the Jewish story compels you, and the Jewish dream grips you, you can join the covenant without having been born into it. It is not easy--one has to understand and take on the costs and burdens--but it is possible. And that possibility is critical.

Circumcision, I think, plays a similar role. It is not enough to have children and assume they are automatically covenanted. We must actively initiate and declare our children to be b'nei brit, sons (and daughters) of the covenant. Biology must be supported--and, on some level, mitigated--by will. In insisting that our children undergo a rite of initiation--and a painful one at that--we understand that the responsibilities and rights of the covenant are not automatic and are not rooted in some racial or racist understanding of redemption.

There is much more. In altering the very biology of a newborn child, we state powerfully that we are incomplete at birth. As Jews, we strive to become worthy covenantal  partners of God; we must never grow complacent about who and what we are. Life begins with the circumcision of our bodies; it culminates, ideally, in the circumcision of our hearts. The former happens once, during the first days of our lives; the latter is the religious, covenantal task of a lifetime.

It is no coincidence that the physical mark we make on a young boy is on his penis. It is no secret that much of human creativity and drive is rooted in sexual energy and impulse. And the human potential for creativity is rooted in the penis and vagina/womb--the possibility of creating a human life and thus a continuer of the covenant. Human creativity can be used for overwhelming good or for enormous evil--this is the inescapable meaning of human freedom and covenantal responsibility. In circumcising our sons, we dedicate the physical and symbolic core of male creativity--which can so often go awry--to the service of God and the hope for redemption. The genital organ, like the whole of human life, can be a source of corruption and abuse, of denial and degradation. But it can also be a holy vessel of love and affirmation, of creativity and commitment.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held, a noted lecturer and adult educator, is former Director of Education and Conservative Rabbinic Advisor at Harvard Hillel, and a graduate of the Wexner Fellowship program.

Print this page Print this page