I have never paid much attention to the infant circumcision debate. As an observant Jew, there is no debate for me. Since Biblical times, our boys have been circumcised on the eighth day of life. When our sons were born, it was a given that each one would be brought into the Covenant just as their father, uncles, grandfathers, and so on, had been. Each bris (or brit milah) was a profound experience for me as a mother and for our family.
As a rabbi, however, I am often asked about this seemingly archaic practice. Where does circumcision even come from, and why do we still do it today?
We find its origin in the book of Genesis. Just 17 chapters into the Torah, Abraham receives a strange command from God:
You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin.
No reason given other than, as God says, it will be a sign of the Eternal covenant between God and Abraham and all of his descendants. The text makes it clear that circumcision must occur on the eighth day of life and falls to every Jewish male. No exception. Those who choose not to obey this commandment, continues God, will be cut off from the Jewish people for breaking this sacred agreement.
Abraham. The same Abraham who later accepts God’s command to take his son, Isaac, on a three day camping trip and sacrifice him. Without asking a single question. (Spoiler Alert: For those who have yet to read the story, Isaac lives.)
Nor does Abe ask any questions about circumcising himself and committing all future generations to the same act.
Not. A. Single. Question.
We, on the other hand, have plenty of questions. Starting with “why?”
The text does not explicitly provide a reason. Generations of Rabbinic sages have attempted to answer Abraham’s unasked questions. Because let’s face it—this was a rather unconventional demand. And the Rabbis were anticipating the inevitable questions future generations would have. They have done an admirable job infusing the act with spiritual depth so that the bris is far more than the act of the removal of a piece of skin.
What we do know is that in Biblical times, ritual circumcision was a defining act for the young Israelite nation and continued to distinguish us from other peoples. From the Hellenistic period on, ruling powers attempted to outlaw circumcision, knowing that it was an essential expression of Jewish faith. Scores of Jewish parents in prior generations risked their, and their sons’, lives to fulfill the Covenant that Abraham made with God. Stories of men forced by the Nazis to pull down their pants in order to determine if they were Jewish still haunt us.
Contemporary debates about health and sanitary issues are not part of the conversation as far as traditional Judaism is concerned. because ultimately the bris is not done for any practical reason. Nor is it simply a medical procedure.
It is a sacred act that binds our sons to the thousands of generations who preceded them—and the generations to follow.