By an interesting stroke of fate – whose Jewish translation is Hashgacha – a boy I taught in the first grade around 30 years ago, popped into Boulder to show his controversial film, ‘Cut,’ about his perspective on circumcision. By another act of Hashgacha, I was asked to be on a panel discussing the film, and as much as I tried to get a wide assortment of Rabbis to join me, for one reason or another, no one I contacted could or would come. So there I was, a woman with no biological children, confronting a former Torah student, who the sages say is like a child, and challenging the premises upon which he had built his obviously biased ‘no-circ’ case. Does G-d have a sense of humor, or what?
Sitting next to him on the panel was a woman who arranged the appearance of Eliyahu (the student-filmmaker- not the prophet by the same name who is said to visit-chuckle- every Brit Milah in history.) Both of the latter have written extensively and obviously about Brit Milah from a primarily negative perspective. Therefore, I who have not written about the subject, feel called to challenge their agenda. As much as I tried to present counter arguments that evening I felt I could not express my thoughts in the given time frame. Also, many people in Jewish Boulder were not able to come that night, so it is for their benefit too that I am writing. Appropriately, this is also the week of Parshat Lech Lecha, where Abraham, at the age of 99 was commanded to circumcise himself.
One preliminary clarification: There is no mandate for Jews to insist that non-Jews undergo circumcision for either health or religious benefit. The Talmud speaks of seven Noahide laws, mentioned in last week’s Torah portion, that apply to all humanity. Brit Milah or medical circumcision is NOT one of the Noahide laws. The only exception might be if it were proven that circumcision were a clear and unequivocal health benefit for all. Then this could go under the general Noahide law of establishing a public monitoring of areas affecting critical life issues.
I began my response to the film by highlighting the three primary issues cited: pleasure, health, and religion, all of which, including the third, I felt might not be coming from a true Torah outlook. Let me explain why.
Pleasure is the most obvious contrast. Maimonides was cited in a sarcastic tone as stating that circumcision lessens the man’s sexual pleasure, and many ‘patriarchal’ rabbis accept that premise. In the film a couple where the man had a circumcision later in life was extensively interviewed. They reported how much each one’s sexual pleasure was decreased from what it was before. I don’t know if this couple was even Jewish but what caught my attention was that each one reported the decrease in his and her OWN pleasure, rather than in relating to the other. And that is exactly the point of Maimonides et al.
Man’s instinctive or animal nature is such that, if unrestrained by Mitzvot- legislated commandments – or if necessary, added boundaries, individuals would not recognize the needs and sensitivities of others, in the pursuit of personal gratification. The Torah’s commandments most abound in those areas where callousness and mindlessness would set in, such as sex, food, speech, etc.
The complex laws of Mikvah, Kashrut and blessings; Lashon Harah, etc. are all meant to elevate areas of instinctual reactivity to higher places of soulfulness and caring relationships.
There is a Hassidic story of a wealthy miser who was visited by a Rabbi who needed money for some orphans. Before expressing his request, the rabbi led the man to the window, and asked what he saw. After the man replied, ‘people walking back and forth,’ the rabbi then led him to a mirror and asked the same question. The man responded, ‘I see myself.’ Exactly, said the rabbi. ‘As soon as a little silver covers the glass, you can’t really see anyone else.’
I think this story captures the Torah’s perspective on the pleasure principle, and how a small sliver of flesh is like the silver in back of the mirror. Of course, the question often arises, as it did in Hellenistic times and in more recent eras, ‘if G-d wanted the male body circumcised, why didn’t He create it that way?’ This too is an age old question and was explicitly addressed in the Talmud by the Roman general Turnus Rufus to Rabbi Akiva. In stead of a direct answer, Rabbi Akiva had a tray brought in with raw grain on one side, and fresh baked bread on the other and asked the general which he preferred to eat. (This did not take place in Boulder.)
This contrast is actually very profound. From a Torah point of view, G-d deliberately designed nature with imperfections, so that we should be able to perfect it. This is a key understanding of the idea of being created in the image of G-d- that humans are supposed to be partners in improving life on many levels. This is the idea of Tikun Olam, as so many Jews in Boulder speak about. And to paraphrase, ‘Tikun begins at home,’ which for a male is, health permitting, on the eighth day of life.
As a fascinating premise, the sages actually connect permission and obligation to intervene medically, to the mitzvah of Brit Milah. If not for the premise of G-d allowing or even creating imperfection in nature, with the corollary mandate of Tikun Olam, Judaism might be more like religions that say, since everything is G-d’s will, who are we to make changes?!
This touches on the second issue, of health. Here too the Torah addresses these concerns in no uncertain terms. There are tomes and tomes of Rabbinic writing about the care that is needed to make sure the Halacha, Torah law, is carried out in the most hygienic manner, and that the baby has no even slightly possible medical issues that could be the least dangerous. And of course, if new medical concerns and issues arise, like all areas where health is involved, the family and the Mohel must consult with the latest medical findings. If there is even one suspicion of danger in that particular case, the Brit must be postponed. Or, G-d forbid, if there were some kind of plague that put male infants at risk – that would obviously be possible cause for at least postponing a Brit Milah. However, the tone of the film even from liberal Jewish proponents of Brit would make it sound as if, in the case of overwhelming contemporary health issues, Jews should consider abrogating Brit Milah in general! This is a far cry from caution in specific circumstances.
Now let’s look at what I would consider the critical question that needs to be asked: ‘What is a person’s ultimate life principle, or overarching value?’ If for a Jew, it is living a Torah life, then one abides by thousands of years of Torah values to decide the risks and benefits of any procedure not as an either or choice of Halacha OR health, but as a combined assessment. However, if one’s standard is health at any cost, then the choice would be similar to that which people make, for example, of eating organic chicken over kosher. The false premise is that a Jew must choose sides between ‘the G-d of Torah and the G-d of science or health.’
There was another argument that the film as well as some of the panel made against circumcision which I did not explicitly bring up, and that was the ethical question of imposing an act that causes pain on a helpless child. This is probably the most passionately expressed protest, but also, I feel, the most theologically as well as philosophically weak. First of all, any definition of pain and suffering is very tenuous. In this context, when used negatively, it becomes synonymous with ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. But is changing a diaper, or giving a sharp vaccination, or eliminating sweet but harmful foods, or ‘forcing a child’ to get an education, in this category? If not, it is because there is a premise that these acts are necessary for the well being of the child, and are decisions that parents, of necessity, have to make.
This takes us to the religious question. If Brit Milah is not accepted in the category of necessary minimal pain, then it’s mainly because Brit Milah is already assumed to NOT be of similar primary value to the above examples. In this case, it seems to me that a definition of what is ethical depends on a choice between whether ethics are divinely ordained, or subject to social, cultural, or individual standards. If Brit Milah is merely sociological, cultural, or even religious if religion can be defined by relative standards, then it would more easily give way to ‘progressive’ concerns.
I mentioned on the panel that halachically Jews do not perform Brit Milah merely as a covenant going back to Abraham, but rather because of the collective covenant at Sinai when the nation declared ‘with one voice,’ ‘Naaseh v’nishma, we will accept and then understand.’ Eliyahu Ungar stated that he thought to be a Jew was to argue with G-d but I think he is conflating the areas where one is encouraged to debate, learn, understand, and apply to ongoing situations, in contrast to an acceptance of the Torah as Divinely ordained, i.e., we will accept and THEN understand. Of course there have been and still are fuzzy edges even among the most traditional rabbis, but those debates involve peripheral areas. In the case of Brit Milah there are ongoing discussions about what kind of implements, how to draw out a minimal drop of blood, etc. but NEVER about the fact that the Brit needs to be physical.
There is a famous story of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe when he was in prison. Someone pointed a gun at his head while he was praying. The Rebbe calmly replied, ‘the only people who are afraid of that ‘toy’ are people who have one world and many gods, but those who have many worlds and one G-d, are not afraid.’ I think this story is also relevant in defense of Brit Milah for Jews. Jews throughout the ages and up to this day have risked their lives to fulfill commandments- especially that of Brit Milah, because, consciously or unconsciously, they knew that it touched the very core of Jewish identity and existence. Note, in particular, the gut wrenching story of the woman in the Holocaust who asked a Nazi for a knife before he killed her son so that she might ‘return him to G-d, as a complete Jew.
The rabbis have many teachings about the supreme importance of Brit Milah. I want to conclude with just a sampling of them:
Before I do, on a personal note, my research on the topic has led me to an interesting personal observation. The Talmud states explicitly that ‘a woman is considered circumcised at birth.’ This too became an object of derision at the film discussion, and I tried to defuse the negative note with a humorous comparison that seemed to go over most people’s heads. I referred to the anecdote of two elderly women who were vacationing in Miami, and complaining about the hotel. One said to the other, ‘wasn’t the food horrible? It tasted like poison, and they gave us such small portions!’ Similarly, I said, some of you seem to make the argument: ‘Circumcision is barbaric, and women are ritually excluded!’
Now for a few sayings:
Great is Brit Milah for no one was as diligent as Abraham in fulfilling G-d’s commandments, yet he was called ‘complete’ only because of the mitzvah of Milah (Talmud: Nedarim 31)
The sages say, ‘Great is Brit Milah, for were it not for Brit Milah, heaven and earth would have not endured, as it is written, ‘Were it not for My Covenant, I would not have created day and night and the laws of heaven and earth.’
Milah is equivalent to all the other 612 commandments combined. The Zohar brings al allusion to this by pointing to the numerical equivalent of the word, Brit, to be 612.
The Orlah, the foreskin, represents a barrier between a Jew and his connection both to Torah, to his fellow human beings, and to G-d. Removing the foreskin reveals the inner levels of the soul and therefore opens the channels to a holy relationship with all three.
The Hebrew root word of Milah is related, says a contemporary Rabbi, Rabbi Shwab, to the word, ‘Mahul,’ meaning blended. The import of this connection is elaborated upon in Hassidic teachings. A primary purpose of a Jew’s existence in the world is to close the gap between spiritual and material realms. As expressed in the classic Hassidic work, Tanya, from the Midrash, ‘G-d desires a dwelling place in the lowest of worlds,’ meaning in the most material planes of existence. The mystics teach that the physical Brit Milah actually imprints the divine ineffable Name on the reproductive male organ responsible for the continuity of life in this world. No amount of ceremonies, verbal expressions of contractual agreements, or well-meaning wishes or philosophical musings, can substitute for this very real, down to earth and therefore most holy, act of ‘sealing the covenant in the flesh,’ that is expressed through Brit Milah.
May Jews everywhere continue to engage in religious dialogue about their tradition, but with an open and humble mind and heart, and not one covered up by a foreskin of sarcasm, closed-mindedness, and unwillingness to deepen their understanding of a heritage that has brought the world so many of its positive values like universal justice and education, the right to health and happiness, and ethical monotheism.