It is time for us to discuss whether we want to replace the practice of circumcising our baby boys on the eighth day as a sign of the covenant.
Origin of the Practice
Circumcision is widely identified as a Jewish custom. In fact, Jews constitute a minute percentage of the number of circumcised males in the world. Approximately 500 million male Muslims, 100 million non-Jewish American men and boys, and millions of Filipinos, South Koreans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aboriginal peoples are circumcised, but only about 7 million Jewish men.
No one knows for sure where the practice originated. While many believe it was practiced by the Egyptians, there is no evidence of circumcision among any of the Egyptian sarcophagi that have been discovered. The origin of the Muslim practice of circumcision is said to be because Mohammed was born without a foreskin, but there is no mention of circumcision in the Koran or in any other sacred Islamic text.
While the book of Genesis tells us (Genesis 17:9-27) that Abraham circumcised himself and his tribe as a covenantal act, we know that in biblical times, circumcision was also an act of warfare. Jacob’s sons circumcised the Hivites after the rape of Dinah in order to weaken them before they attacked (Genesis 34), and David circumcised 200 Philistines in battle — 100 more than Saul had asked for (I Samuel 18:25-27).
According to the Gospel of Luke (2:21), Jesus was circumcised on Jan. 1. Because of this, in approximately 550 C.E., the Church began celebrating January first as the Feast of the Circumcision.
Reasons for the Practice
Sign of the Covenant
The ritual can be powerful emotionally and spiritually. Its raw, primitive texture connects the parents and family all the way back to Abraham and his covenant with God.
Many people assume that a circumcised penis is cleaner and less prone to infection.
In the Guide of the Perplexed (late 12th century), however, Maimonides wrote that there is no medical benefit to circumcision, so that no one should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason than pure faith (3:49).
In our time, there is no medical justification for routine circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated in 1999: “While there have been limited studies in Africa indicating that it may reduce the incidence of HIV AIDS transmission in heterosexual relationships, there is no evidence that it has any effect on homosexual transmission.”
Limiting the Sex Drive
Maimonides adds that one of the secondary benefits of circumcision is to limit excessive lust, which he regarded as laudable consequence. Today, there are differences of opinion as to whether or not circumcision adversely affects sexual relations.
Reasons to Consider Changing the Practice
Brit milah does not seem to have any rationale, other than tradition. As Maimonides said, it has no meaning other than as a pure act of faith. For those of us who do not have “faith” in a God with whom Abraham made a covenant, there are many reasons to question the ritual.
The procedure itself bears the medical risk of infection, hemorrhage and even death.
The newborn male child feels intense pain. Many infants stop crying because they are in a state of traumatic shock. The child is the only one experiencing pain. The parents, who are committed to protecting their child, are willfully causing pain and suffering.
An Ineffective Marker of Jewish Identity
With so many circumcised men in the world, circumcision no longer works as a distinctive sign of membership in the Jewish people. In addition, increasing numbers of Jewish parents are deciding not to circumcise their sons, and that does not negate the child’s Jewish identity. The son of a Jewish mother (or father, for those who accept patrilineal descent) is Jewish, whether or he is not circumcised.
Discourages Conversion to Judaism
The only situation in which circumcision is required for Jewish identity is the conversion of a non-Jewish male. Who knows how many men have been discouraged from choosing Judaism by the requirement of circumcision? While both men and women are required to go to mikveh (ritual-bath immersion) as part of conversion, only men have the requirement of circumcision — or drawing a drop of blood from the penis if the man has already been circumcised.
Do we have the right to circumcise our non-consenting sons?
Our Approach to Other Jewish Rituals
While contemporary Jews regard as optional many, if not most, traditional ritual practices that no longer have meaning for us, many of us consider brit milah untouchable. Shouldn’t we consider the impact on families of subjecting their sons to an unpleasant, frightening ceremony that has no meaning for them?
It is difficult. As a case in point: In 1885, the Reform movement adopted a platform that said, in part, “We maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” While they explicitly rejected kashrut, ritual dress and the priestly class, they were silent with regard to brit milah.
The birth of a baby girl is not “celebrated,” according to tradition, with a covenantal ceremony equivalent to brit milah. Over the last five decades, liberal Jews have developed many ceremonies welcoming baby girls into the covenant. It is time to end the sexist priority given the boys, perhaps by celebrating the birth of boys with one or more of these new ceremonies, which often are more moving and uplifting than brit milah.
Reconstructing the Ritual
The Reconstructionist movement believes that we should understand why customs are part of the Jewish tradition and attempt to find meaning for them in our world today. If we cannot find meaning, we should not follow them. What is the reconstructed meaning of brit milah for an eight-day-old male infant? Given that we no longer believe in a personal, supernatural God with whom we can enter into a covenant, with whom might we enter meaningfully into a sacred covenant?
Might the parents enter into a brit with their child, regardless of gender, promising to protect, love and care for the infant? Such a brit, without a ritual cutting and known as a Brit Shalom, is practiced in many liberal Jewish communities today. It is equally applicable to girl babies as well as boys.
The concept of the brit, or covenant, has universal appeal. Entering into a covenantal relationship, however, usually requires both parties to be capable of participating in its fulfillment. Clearly, an infant does not have such capacity. That is why the brit was never a commandment that applied to the infant. It is the father who is commanded to circumcise his son in order to enter the covenant with God. It was Abraham’s covenant with God that was “sealed” with the circumcision.
Thus, perhaps the time for a child to enter into a covenant is at b’mitzvah, when they symbolically become adults in the eyes of Jewish tradition. What might a covenant ceremony for 13-year-olds look like? The Bible talks about three types of circumcision: of the penis, the heart and the lips.
Circumcision of the heart means removing the hard-exterior blockage that prevents us from loving honestly and openly. It means accepting the Holy that transcends each individual, and acknowledging the Holiness of each and every person and aspect of life.
What is circumcision of the lips? Early Rabbinic commentators said that Moses stuttered and wasn’t a skilled orator, so that his lips required circumcision. However, the Zohar provides another meaning. Moses’ inability to communicate with meaning was due his exile and the exile of the Jewish people (in Egypt). When Moses was united with the people of Israel, he regained his voice. Circumcision of the lips thus means speaking within community and on behalf of community. If one is not a member of the community, one’s voice cannot be heard, and one’s influence is therefore circumscribed.
B’mitzvah candidates might study these and other interpretations of entering into the covenant and speak about their commitments at the service itself.
For some, immersing in the mikveh, which is often an intensely powerful experience, might signify their transition to new covenantal responsibilities as they enter into another stage of life.
The creative possibilities of new covenantal rituals are rich. We may be surprised at the ways that Jewish life is invigorated as we leave the circumcision ceremony behind.