For once, I'm glad the biblical patriarchs didn't give as much attention to their girls. Circumcision is weird.I remember clearly when the thought first hit me, even though it was 16 years ago. I was nursing my infant son, surrounded by loved ones who had gathered to celebrate our firstborn's circumcision. The mohel (ritual circumciser) gently asked me not to nurse the baby because my son might pee on the spectators. Over those first seven days, I too had learned to move quickly with a new diaper--and to giggle at the tender outrages of parenthood. So I laughed. But then I panicked. It was as if I suddenly came to my senses.This was crazy! I had yearned for this child, doing everything I could to protect him during my pregnancy. Now I should submit him to have--of all things--the tip of his penis altered?! A penis that was perfectly healthy just the way it was! Was this a perverse joke?I felt betrayed. I had assumed that the naming ceremony would bring the same warmth that other Jewish rituals had brought to my life's events. Big mistake!Tradition wisely dictates that the mother should not be present during the circumcision, so I fumed and gnashed my teeth in another room. Luckily, it was over quickly--long before my sputtering hardened to courage. One second longer, and I would have stormed the living room to rescue my baby and apologize to my guests for involving them in this disturbing ritual.If my son cried, I didn't hear him. In fact, I never ever saw any indication that it hurt him at all. But reality is no match for my anxiety. After a day or so of caring for the "area," which had turned an alarming shade of scarlet, I went to see my pediatrician."Is this the way it's supposed to look?" I asked. He peered over his glasses to make sure our gazes locked, and dripping with sarcasm he said, "This is the best looking penis I've ever seen in my life."
I fired him. But the implication stuck. If I was so upset by this business, why had I done it? Especially since pediatricians say circumcisions have no effect on health.I struggled with the worry that it's a form of genital mutilation. Why couldn't our forebears have picked another part of the body, such as the ears for listening or the lips for praying? Marking a penis as a sign of dedication seemed so...kinky. During his follow-up visit, our mohel explained that the ancients were less squeamish than we about very personal matters. A quick read of Leviticus proves his point. Nor did the Israelites invent circumcision; other groups used it to celebrate male puberty and fertility. The covenant has to do with offspring--Abraham promised God that Jews would be loyal, and God promised that Jews would be numerous and possess land--so the penis seems an appropriate site. Phew! At least Father Abraham wasn't a complete sicko.I decided to ask my son, now 16, if he had any regrets. "Of course not!" he said. Why? "Because I'm Jewish!" It was as simple as that.He went on with a mischievous grin: "Sometimes, I wonder if Abraham was just a crazy guy hearing voices." He gave a quick shtick of Genesis 22, when Abraham invited his son Isaac to his saved-in-the-knick-of-time-sacrifice. "Not to vorry, my boychick..."He's right. Abraham's mental health seems iffy.But maybe--in our horror--lies the point. Abraham proved his commitment by almost sacrificing his beloved son. When we draw our infant's blood--something that strips the gears of our parental instincts--we too are showing our commitment--as well as our entitlement to God's promises.A pact with God deserves a frightening, unsettling act. Anything less wouldn't have the same impact. Maybe we should think of circumcision as a mini-sacrifice with mammoth implications. When circumcisions became commonplace, I think we closed our eyes to its grisly nature and forgot that we were closing a deal with the Almighty.Shouldn't someone figure out a more symbolic ritual? I celebrate Passover without actually slaughtering a lamb and painting my doorpost with its blood.Maybe someday someone will, but until then, as my son said: We do this because that's what Jews have always done.When I see how comfortably he accepts his Jewish connection-- including his circumcision--I find I can admit something to myself.For reasons that can't be processed with my left hemisphere, I feel proud. With this strange and scary act, I proclaim my identity, and my children's Jewish origins are something they can see. I did something important: I passed the baton. My team is still in the game. It's as if I'm shouting to the bullies of history, "Hey! Look who's still here!"
Maybe Abraham wasn't so crazy after all.