Brit milah, the circumcision covenant, has meanings that are not much discussed and that I find very compelling. This article will serve to highlight those meanings. I’ll mention some of the other, more widely mentioned meanings as well. I won’t discuss here the important topics of medical pros and cons, the ethics of making the decision to circumcise without the baby’s consent, celebrating birth and covenant with a ceremony that distinguishes between children with and without a penis, or, mostly, the particular contents of the ceremony. Others have written on those issues. I will only say that so far, I find the meanings I’m going to discuss here sufficiently compelling that were I to have a child with a penis, I would circumcise him/them, in spite of the important arguments on the other side.
A Powerful Sign of Identity
A well-known meaning of milah (covenant) is simply that it is a powerful sign of identity. In particular, although other people circumcise, Jews have taken it as an important physical marker of Jewish identity, based on God’s reported instruction to Abraham in Genesis 17:10:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you; Every male child among you shall be circumcised.
The Torah further reinforces the defining importance of this marker, and specifically connects it to the Jewish sense of being the people of the Exodus and Passover (Exodus 12:48):
And when a stranger shall sojourn with you, and would keep the Passover to the Eternal, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one who is born in the land; for no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.
In this sense, circumcision marks the passing of Jewish identity from one generation to the next by marking the site of potential generation. It might be tempting to say that it particularly connects fathers and sons, and so is a marker of male-Jewish identity, not Jewish identity. But it seems to me that such an interpretation ignores the interconnections of individuals and particularly of families. A woman who circumcises her child is viscerally part of the circumcision group.
Another of the more obvious and well-known symbolic meanings of circumcision is related to a promise of fruitfulness. Exploring the biblical attitude towards fruitfulness will lead us to the meanings I would like to emphasize here.
In the same cornerstone passage from Genesis 17, God says (17: 6-7):
And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you.
So let’s see what the Torah has to say about fruitfulness. Here are core Torah passages about fruitfulness, from the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus, Chapter 19:
- And when you harvest your land’s harvest, do not harvest completely to the corner of your field, nor shall you glean the gleanings after your harvest.
- And do not over-gather from your vineyard, nor glean every individual item from your vineyard; You are to leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am THE CREATING, your God.
- And when you enter the land and plant any trees for food, you shall regard its foreskin — it’s fruit — as uncircumcised; It shall be uncircumcised for three years for you; It is not to be eaten.
- And in the fourth year, all its fruit will be consecrated for praise to THE ETERNAL.
- And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, in order that it increase its produce for you. I am THE CREATING, your God.
- Do not round off the corner of your head and do not ruin the corner of your beard.
These verses make it clear that Leviticus considered circumcision to be a matter of fruitfulness. In the case of trees, giving up the “foreskin” of three years of fruit was believed to increase fruitfulness. But these verses also connect circumcision to another issue: Like corners of the field, not everything is ours. In a sense, nothing is. Our fields and our bodies ultimately belong to God and must be used for holy purpose. Thus, the first years of fruit, the corners of our fields and faces, and the foreskin of our penises are removed from our ownership and control.
Circumcision marks the passing of Jewish identity from one generation to the next by marking the site of potential generation.
The Limits of Our Individual Ownership of the World
In addition to physical corners of fields and bodies, our tradition also puts one seventh of our time into the realm of the sacred in the form of Shabbat. (In the case of Shabbat, it’s not that we can’t enjoy it ourselves. In fact, we’re to delight in it.) So I view brit milah — the covenant of circumcision — as part of a core Jewish teaching about the limits of our individual ownership of the world. Our bodies, our land — indeed everything — is a gift or a loan from the ONE CREATING. We are welcome to enjoy them, but only in ways that acknowledge our interconnection with others; in particular, with the poor, with future generations and with the Creating Process itself. I view this as a teaching of immense importance for the health of society and the health of the planet. Giving over a part of the penis is a visceral ritual affirmation of that teaching.
So we’re supposed to delight in Shabbat, eat the fruit of our trees and land, enjoy sex and make babies (we liberal moderns would add “if we wish”), but with a consciousness that time, land and (re)productivity aren’t fully ours. They’re subject to the moral claims of others. We plainly experience that society and Earth are endangered when people act as full owners who can do whatever they want with their property. What’s the remedy? I think it starts with acknowledging the limits of our ownership. Give away the corners. Add to that a life of mitzvah, understood and responsive and responsible action. Then, we might partake of the Earth’s pleasures with sanctifying intention.
So I view brit milah — the covenant of circumcision — as part of a core Jewish teaching about the limits of our individual ownership of the world.
Perfecting the Imperfect
There’s a midrash that many find shocking — that teaches that circumcision is an act of perfecting the imperfect, not harming one who is already perfect. (See, for example, Tankhuma Lekh Lekha 16 or the end of Mishnah Nedarim 3:11.) Those midrashim are specifically talking about Abraham, but are making a general point about circumcision. “What?!” you say, “Aren’t babies perfect?!” No. They’re miraculous, glorious, innocent, cute and much else, but they have achieved very little of what’s best about humans.
I suspect that the notion that babies are perfect derives from specifically Christian notions of human perfection and imperfection. For Christianity, perfection is about absence of sin. Babies come the closest to that standard. They’ve achieved little of what’s worst about human beings. (Although, to be honest, they’re very self-centered and have close to no ability to be intentional about their actions.) Judaism, by contrast, considers marks of perfection to include knowledge of God, living a life of holiness and doing the Godly work of tikkun olam. Humanism, similarly, views human perfection in terms of fulfillment of our potential for wisdom, knowledge, goodness and creativity. By those Jewish and humanistic measures, babies have a long way to go. Fulfilling our human potential depends on Torah (learning) and mitzvah (responsive/responsible action). Brit milah starts the baby down that path. It’s a permanent reminder that there’s work to be done in the world. The world needs us to be wise and intentional in our actions.
Nature is wondrous; bodies are a blessing; babies are little miracles. But human beings are strange and particular creatures. We can no more eliminate our difference from other creatures than can snakes or eagles eliminate their distinctive characteristics. For human beings, being a positive, rather than destructive, part of creation requires a mitzvah-relationship to the physical world and to our own physicality. It requires consciousness that we are not the owners of this beautiful universe or of one another. It requires intentionality – intentional creativity and intentional leaving-alone. The mitzvah-relationship enables us to increase holiness in the world. For people with penises, that relationship is usefully and beautifully encoded in brit milah — the covenant of circumcision.
Editor’s Note: Additional discussions of brit milah can be found here.