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Brit Milah – A Moment When Mitzvah and Free Choice Collide

Below is a sermon about Brit Milah / Circumcision that I delivered at Beth El Synagogue on Shabbat, October 26, 2013.


A story is told about a Catholic Priest, a Baptist Preacher, and a Rabbi. They served together as chaplains at a local hospital and would get together two or three times a month for coffee and just to talk. One day, someone made the comment that working with people isn't really all that hard - a real challenge would be to work with a bear, to bring a bear to faith in God.

One thing led to another, and they decided to do an experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it, and attempt to convert it.

Seven days later, they all came together to discuss their experience Father Flannery, who had his arm in a sling, was on crutches, and had various bandages on his body and limbs, went first.

'Well,' he said,'I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him, I began to read to him from the Catechism. Well, that bear wanted nothing to do with me and began to slap me around. So I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and he became as gentle as a lamb. The Bishop is coming out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.'

Reverend Billy Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, had one arm and both legs in casts, and had an IV drip. In his bestfire-and-brimstone oratory, he claimed, 'WELL, brothers, you KNOW that we don't sprinkle! I went out and I FOUND me a bear. And then I began to read to my bear from God's HOLY WORD! But that bear wanted nothing to do with me. So I took HOLD of him and we began to wrestle. We wrestled down one hill, UP another and DOWN another until we came to a creek. So I quickly DUNKED him and BAPTIZED his hairy soul. And just like you said, he became as gentle as a lamb.

The priest and the reverend both looked down at the Rabbi, who was lying in a hospital bed. He was in a body-cast and traction with IVs and monitors running in and out of him. He was in really bad shape.

The Rabbi looked up and said: "Looking back on it, ... circumcision may not have been the best way to start."


Circumcision is not an easy way to begin, but it was actually one of the first questions that I was asked as rabbi of Beth El, even before I was here full time; already during my year in Israel, I was contacted by a woman in our community who did not want to circumcise her son. In a little while, I want to share with you some thoughts which I shared with her, but I want to begin by pointing out that in her resistance to circumcision, she is not alone. In 2007 an article entitled, “The battle for Elijah’s foreskin,” appeared The Week, a national news magazine, in which the Jewish author detailed his family’s pain in wrestling with the decision. More recently, in November of 2010, a ballot measure was proposed in San Francisco that would have made it a misdemeanor to “circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the genitals of all minors.” The ballot’s author, Llyod Schofield, reasoned that circumcision is mutilation without consent of the patient and told a local CBS affiliate that “people can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body.” And just this Wednesday, the Knesset held a discussion about a resolution passed just a few weeks ago by The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a pan-European group, condemning circumcision of children as a violation of human rights, a resolution which passed with 78 in favor to just 13 against. These are just a few of many examples in the public sphere that call into question one of Judaism’s oldest and most precious mitzvoth.

Opposition to circumcision is complicated.  Some, such as the European ban, is motivated by anti-Semitism – not just anti-Judaism, but anti-Semitism in the sense that it targets both Jews and Muslims, Semitic peoples. It is interesting to note that, after years of strained relations following the Gaza Flotilla incident in 2010, Israel approached Turkey this month and suggested that the two countries work together to oppose the recent European resolution condemning ritual circumcision. Circumcision, it seems, makes strange bedfellows, as it were.

But some opposition is not anti-Semitic; but rather reflects an important place where Judaism and modern liberalism conflict.  Modern liberalism values choice, and circumcision is something we don’t give baby boys a choice about. It is something we do to them, or, more generously, for, them.  The debate about circumcision is one part of a much larger conversation about the teaching of religion in liberal societies. In a fascinating article, “Jewish Religious Education and Indoctrination,” Professor Michael Rosenak (z”l) writes,

The teaching of commitment to a specific or explicit religion, seen not as an illustration of a general human tendency but as an autonomous source of truth, is all but universally condemned as indoctrination. And since indoctrination is, by definition, miseducative, and worthy of condemnation, education in a specific religion is said to be theoretically unacceptable to the thoughtful person who believes in human freedom and self-development, even as it has shown itself to be unpalatable to masses of men in the modern world.

Circumcision is argued to be “unacceptable to the thoughtful person who believes in human freedom.” Why? Because a boy doesn’t choose it for himself.  I want to devote some time this morning to thinking about this intersection between Judaism and modern liberalism and how it is that a thoughtful person can, and should, decide to make this decision for a Jewish baby boy.

One of the deep insights at stake in the mitzvah of brit milah is the very fact that it represents parents making a prior, very physical, commitment to the Jewish people and our covenant with God for their child. Why is ethical for us to make this choice on behalf of our children? If we are intellectually and emotionally honest, we must acknowledge that we cannot escape making commitments for our children.  Just by bringing them into the world, we made a decision for them to be, rather than not to be.  By raising our children to make choices for themselves, we are imposing a system of beliefs upon them: one that says they should make up their own mind.  There is no escape from making decisions for our children, so we should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the question is not whether or not we are coercing our children into a value system, but rather which value system we are imposing upon them. Brit milah is a powerful and permanent statement to a Jewish boy that, while it will be up to him to live his own Jewish commitments and relationship with God, we as parents want to give to him the blessing of the covenant that we were blessed to receive from our ancestors and theirs before them. 

A related point is: while we want to raise our children to make good choices, it is not actually true that we want our kids to make up their own mind about everything.  Even if we are incredibly committed to our kids making up their own mind, I believe we will work to prevent our kids from choosing, for instance, to be racist or homophobic. A good choice is not merely a choice freely made. We believe some choices are better than others and impose those values upon our children, rightly so. Is brit milah a choice we make for our children? Yes, it is one among many things good parents impose upon their children.

Another element of brit milah is that it is surgery; it involves physical pain. There is anesthetic nowadays and, at a young age, kids get over it very quickly, but it is an unavoidably painful procedure, though I sometimes think it is the parents, not the children, who suffer most. The ceremony of brit milah is a rehearsal for parents and children; a reminder that being protected from small physical harms doesn’t actually help us to grow. Avoiding physical pain for our children is not the highest value we hope for our children. The mitzvah of brit milah is a decision a parent makes for a son – that he is part of a people and a covenant that puts other values above the avoidance of physical pain.

Health is not measured by being free of germs – rather it is the ability of our body to encounter the world’s harms in bigger and bigger ways, and to heal from them.  As a parent, I know it is hard to actually choose to inflict that pain upon our children, rather than have it happen to our kids and then help them to recover. As we circumcised our own boys, of course it was still hard, but I tried to use it as a moment to remind myself of important parenting wisdom: we can help our kids by allowing them to encounter bumps in the road – including physical pain – so they can grow into healthy adults who are able to encounter an often difficult and painful world and recover from what awaits them.

What about the medical questions? While, as of August 2012, the American Pediatric Association does not recommend routine circumcision, its most current policy says, “the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks and that families who choose to circumcise their baby boys should be able to.” Further, I know of no respected medical establishment that argues it is dangerous, and I know of many physicians who argue that it is an important preventative against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and against penile cancer and other urinary tract infections. But we make a mistake if we evaluate religion by a medical standard. Some believe that Jews refrained from eating pig for thousands of years because pig carried a disease called triganonsis and, now that health department rules protect us from triganosis, Jews should be able to eat pig.  But kashrut never purported to be about promoting good health.  It aims to make us holy by separating between the permitted and forbidden, by transforming the act of eating meat from something routine to something that requires thought and self-control.  Judaism has, built into the halakhic system, safeguards to prevent unnecessary medical risk. If a doctor has concerns about the baby’s ability to undergo circumcision on the 8th day, Jewish law requires that the bris be postponed until it is safe.  But absent evidence that circumcision is a threat to the child’s life, we circumcise even though some physical pain is associated with the surgery because, religion exists not to make our lives easier, but rather more meaningful.

The Torah places our physical existence in the context of the spirit.  In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh tells Moses, “Adonai be with you when I send you and your children away!  See!  Evil will be before you! (Exodus 10:10)” Rashi explains that Pharoah sees “evil” for the Jewish people because his astrologers saw an omen of blood awaiting them in the desert.  Interestingly, Pharaoh’s astrologers are not wrong, but the blood awaiting the Jewish people is not the blood of death.  According to Rashi, it is the blood of circumcision before the people enter the land of Israel in the time of Joshua.  In other words, Pharaoh’s astrologers are not wrong about the blood; but they have misunderstood its meaning.  Not all blood is about death.  Not all blood is an evil.

In his bible commentary, Robert Alter points out that when Moses’s wife, Zipporah, circumcises their son, Gershom, the “circumcision serves as an apotropaic device, to ward off the hostility of a dangerous deity.”  The blood of the circumcision foreshadows the blood on the doorpost that will protect the Jewish people as God sends the angel of death to kill Egypt’s first born at the 10th plague.  And, many of us know that as part of the bris ceremony, the baby boy is placed on the chair of Elijah because according to Jewish tradition, Elijah is present at every bris.  Why? In The Observant Life, Carl Astor writes in the passage about brit milah, “The belief reflects an incident related in the First Book of Kings that takes place just after Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In this part of the story, Elijah questions the loyalty of the Israelites, saying to God, ‘I am consumed with zeal for the Eternal, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, destroyed Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword, so that I alone am left’ (1 Kings 19:10).” Astor continues, “As a result of this, tradition imagines that Elijah was subsequently destined to attend every b’rit milah in order to witness that he had spoken harshly and mistakenly about the people of Israel.”  Elijah, it seems, gave up on the Jewish people. Every brit milah testifies that he was wrong to despair, wrong to give up hope, wrong to lose faith in our future.

The blood of the bris, while admittedly scary, uncomfortable, is beautiful by an aesthetic of the spirit because it gives hope for the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  It affirms that life itself derives its meaning not from what pleasure we can have and what pain we can avoid, but rather when life is lived in the context of a loving relationship with the Torah and God.  More than we hope for a long life, we hope for a life filled with meaning, and from the very beginning of life, we force that hope upon our children, or, more charitable, we give them the gift of knowing that they belong to a people with a proud heritage, a loving relationship with God and a precious future.

Our son Ranon’s middle name is Jay, named after my children friend Jay Rosen who died in 1996. I will close this morning with the words I spoke at Ranon’s bris nearly eight years ago:

Ranon Ya’akov, Ranon Jay, our new son, – my friend Jay, for whom you are named, once wrote to me, “I’d like to know what the future holds, but I don’t.”  I don’t know what the future holds for you so, today, on the day of your bris, I offer you this blessing: May God bless you with a full life, a life full in years, but more importantly a life fully lived, with mitzvoth, with love, with service to the Holy Blessing One who has blessed us with your sweet, holy soul.  Kein Ye’hi Ratzon – may God make it so.  Amen.”