As modern readers, circumcision often strikes us as strange at best and barbaric at worst. A flood of questions emerges: Why would a loving parent do such a thing to an innocent and defenseless child? Why would a loving God command it? Does it make sense that so many Jews, seemingly so far removed from tradition, still feel a deep visceral need to affirm their Judaism and Jewishness in precisely this of all ways? What does this ancient and ostensibly bizarre practice tell us about how Jews understand themselves and their role in the world?
At the heart of Jewish theology is the idea that God and Israel have entered into an eternal covenant of redemption. The Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, which on the surface would appear to be a relatively obscure event in the history of a small Near Eastern tribe, is understood by the Jewish people to represent a promise and a paradigm: Despite the fact that human history has been mired in oppression and degradation, there will come a time when all human beings will live in full dignity and freedom, when Tzelem Elohim, the Image of God, will seem less a Pollyanna-ish fantasy than a tangible reality. God wants such a world, and the Jewish people agree to try and help build it. The covenant between God and Israel is most fundamentally about redemption--about believing that human reality can be other than it is, and about struggling to make that dream a reality, bit by bit, day by day.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the centrality of the covenant idea in Jewish theology and self-perception. Our ultimate dream is our ultimate task--to redeem the world (or, at the very least, to participate in its redemption). The covenant is that bond through which God and the Jewish people dream together and work together toward an alternate reality, a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.
The Jewish covenant is a covenant for the ages. Each generation contributes to redemption as much as it can, and it raises children who share the redemptive dream and the covenantal commitment. Without the insights and accomplishments of our ancestors, we would have no basis on which to stand; without the hope for our children and our children's children, the task would seem too much to bear, and we would succumb to cynicism and despair. Countless generations of Jews have suffered for want of the Messiah. But these same generations have rejoiced in the conviction that though he may tarry, their children might well meet him in person. "Jewish continuity" is, at its deepest level, covenantal continuity. It is about keeping the Exodus and its promises alive.
The Jewish tradition has, not surprisingly, always placed a great deal of emphasis on procreation and family. The covenant is, in a very real sense, biologically transmitted. Each generation quite literally inherits both the promises and the responsibilities of the covenant with God. As I hope I have begun to demonstrate, there is much that is beautiful in this idea. But there is also much that is disturbing. Is not a biological covenant dangerous; does it not contain within it the very real possibilities of triumphalism and even outright racism? It is for this reason that the possibility of adoption is so crucial theologically. The covenant is biological, and yet anyone can become a full biological member (Maimonides famously insisted that a convert may pray without reservation or hesitation to "the God of our fathers," even though he is not their direct biological descendant). If the Jewish story compels you, and the Jewish dream grips you, you can join the covenant without having been born into it. It is not easy--one has to understand and take on the costs and burdens--but it is possible. And that possibility is critical.
There is much more. In altering the very biology of a newborn child, we state powerfully that we are incomplete at birth. As Jews, we strive to become worthy covenantal partners of God; we must never grow complacent about who and what we are. Life begins with the circumcision of our bodies; it culminates, ideally, in the circumcision of our hearts. The former happens once, during the first days of our lives; the latter is the religious, covenantal task of a lifetime.