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.

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All this having been said, circumcisions are still painful to watch. But perhaps that is as it should be. If we succeed in raising our children to love what is good and just, and to pursue what is holy and of ultimate value, then we will undoubtedly see them hurt and disappointed time and again. Much of Jewish history is about precisely this--immense physical and emotional suffering is inflicted on those who dare to dream with God. Blood has been drawn for and from our dreams far too often; the rite or circumcision reminds us of that with painful poignancy.

As we watch a Jewish boy undergo the rite of circumcision, we are reminded of the enormous burdens and costs of the covenant. But, we are also reminded of the unspeakable joys of hoping God's hopes and dreaming God's dreams, of being God's partner in a world so desperately in need of healing and redemption. And we give to our son the wonderful gift of the covenant--the right to carry on where we will leave off, and to raise children, in turn, who will do the same.

At brit milah ceremonies, we give God the gift of our sons, and we give our sons the promise and hope of God. By cutting the foreskin of a boy's penis, we teach him and remind ourselves that every part of our being can be infused with decency and holiness, and that every aspect of our creativity can be harnessed for the work of God and redemption. It is not always so easy--as a child's blood no doubt reminds us--to be a human being and a covenantal partner. This is the trauma of the covenant, but it may also be its greatest joy.

As we struggle for and with the equality and dignity of girls and women as full covenantal partners, difficult questions emerge yet again. How, precisely, ought we to initiate girls into the covenant? This is no simple matter, and it will require both liturgical creativity and theological sophistication. But for boys, the rite of circumcision remains what it has long been--a poignant and powerful way to enter into the most precious gift a Jew has, the covenant between God and Israel.

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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.