A History of Brit Milah
A comprehensive look at the history of the Jewish practice of circumcising baby boys on the eighth day of life--and of various attempts to end this rite.
One example is Isaac Cardoso, who noted that circumcision differentiated God's people from others. He repeated that circumcision enabled perfection of the body and the spirit, and the absence of a foreskin lessened a man's sexual impulses; however, in contrast to the rabbinic view, he wrote that Abraham's circumcision and sacrifice of Isaac took the place of crucifixion in compensating for Adam's original sin and that, without circumcision, a Jew could not be redeemed. He also gave a kabbalistic interpretation of the Hebrew word for circumcision, milah, which in gematria [a system of equating letters with numeric value] is equivalent to a Hebrew appellation of God, Elohim. He also took a phrase in Deuteronomy 30:12 ("who among us can go up to the heavens ... ?") and pointed out that the first letter of each Hebrew word in this phrase spells milah, whereas the last letter of each word spells the tetragrammaton [the biblical four-letter name for God, whose original pronunciation is lost to us].
The Early Modern Period
In the early modern period, rabbis continued to answer practical questions that arose in the fulfillment of the duty and to document local customs. Differences evolved in details of the ritual according to the locality and ethnic origins of the community. For example, small differences were noted in the blessings, in the choice of readings, and in the songs sung in a Yemenite community, in a Sephardic community, and in an Ashkenazi community. For this reason, each community had its own preferred publication of the Order of Circumcision.
Also in the early modern period, emancipation began to affect attitudes to circumcision within the Jewish community. Emancipation led directly to a movement of Reform Judaism away from ceremony and ritual, although reformists maintained Jewish ethics and morals. In 1843, leaders of Reform Jewry in Frankfurt proposed abandoning circumcision, on the grounds that Mosaic law mentions only once the command to circumcise one's sons, and this command is not repeated in Deuteronomy. This proposal sparked an emotional controversy between reformists and traditionalists. The chief rabbis of Frankfurt and Hamburg each kept a notebook for a few years in which they blacklisted wayward parents who had not circumcised their newborn sons. The dispute raged for many years, but it had no lasting effect on the continuing practice of circumcision among Jews.
In recent years, Reform Jews have returned to celebrating this and other religious rituals, maintaining certain major differences from the Orthodox. (One is the inclusion of women in the performance of the ritual and another is the recognition of patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. Thus, Reform rabbis accept that the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother can be considered Jewish if both parents are committed to raising him as a Jew, just like the son of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father.) The Reform movement now recognizes the importance of circumcision to Jewish identity in a mixed society.
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