Why is it that when we might die if caught observing our traditions we hold them precious, but when we can freely observe them we all too easily abandon them?
Take brit milah, ritual circumcision, and the debate over whether Jews should continue circumcising their sons.
The question isn’t whether we, as parents, are willing to have our children undergo some pain for a greater good. Most of us take our kids for their immunizations even though the shots are painful. I remember my son cried a whole lot longer and harder with his DPT shots than he did at his brit milah, where he cried a little when he was held down. The circumcision itself was over before he let out another peep.
So the real question is whether brit milah is one of those greater goods we want for our sons.
Some scientific studies show that circumcision protects against STD’s and certain types of cancer and infections for men and the women they are with. Others argue that careful and consistent personal hygiene ameliorates such concerns, though the operative words are careful and consistent. But the greater good here is not really about physical health as much as spiritual health.
For thousands of years, beginning with Abraham’s circumcision of his son, Isaac, Jewish parents have ritually circumcised their sons on the eighth day after birth. Observing this important tradition has not always been easy. The Books of the Maccabees, for example, recount how women caught circumcising their babies were executed, along with their babies, the rest of their families and the mohalim who had done the circumcisions (I Mac. 1:60). This was one reason for the Maccabean revolt we celebrate on Hanukkah.
Why was ritual circumcision so important to them? Because it is an indelible sign of our acceptance of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. This sign is in the flesh for several reasons: It symbolizes the reality that we are, and can be, more than just the lusts and instincts of our body.
Circumcision reminds us that we can direct even this strongest of impulses, the sexual drive, to holy ends, in how, when, and with whom we relate on intimate terms. Circumcision also symbolizes the responsibility each of us has to perfect creation. Even the child when born requires some perfection, here in the circumcision. The eighth day also represents this as the day beyond the seven days of creation, reflecting the potential of each child to perfect the world and bring messianic days of peace and plenty.
For me, the most important reason I gave my son a brit milah was because I wanted him to be joined to the great link between God and the Jewish people in a visceral and very personal way that will be with him for life. It is the greatest gift I could give him after birth itself.
It is true we have no such ancient or equivalent ceremony for girls. (In my congregation, we celebrate a girls’ welcome into the covenant as a brit bat with candles, reflecting the covenant of the pieces God made with Abraham, and, on the Sabbath, using the Torah, the study of which girls were so long excluded from.) However, that does not take away from the power and importance of brit milah for our sons.
Sometimes what is precious when someone had to die for it remains precious even when we are free to observe it.