Who Stole the Bris Kit?: Lekh Lekha 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: What kinds of customs (religious or otherwise) make you uncomfortable? Are you able to recognize the purposes of such customs, or are you more overwhelmed by your discomfort?

Even if we are unfazed by the idea of ritual circumcision in Judaism, there’s no doubt that the subject is uncomfortable, despite the matter-of-fact way it’s introduced in the Torah text:

The Pitch: “God further said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.’ …” – Genesis 17:9-12a

Swing #1: “The covenant imposes only one obligation on Abraham and his heirs: circumcision. That’s it. This is God’s single requirement. It’s an inspired choice. Circumcision is painful enough that no one will undertake it lightly. It’s visible, and so it obviously demarcates you from others. And it’s irreversible.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “Genesis 17 sends out decidedly mixed signals regarding Sarah and her status. On the one hand, Sarah’s non-circumcision seems to betoken her adjunctive quality among the covenantal people. Her motherhood is not celebrated the way Abraham’s fatherhood is celebrated. Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5), but Sarah is not given the title ‘mother of nations.’ The Torah declares, She shall give rise to nations, rulers of people shall issue from her (Genesis 17:16), but the nations and peoples that she is to bear are Abraham’s. He is the father and she is his reproductive agent; Sarah is not a covenantal person in her own right. The word berit appears 13 times in Genesis 17, but not once is the word or concept associated with Sarah.” – Shaye J. D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism

Swing #3: “Like Philo, the rabbis also saw circumcision as fundamentally linked to issues of procreation. This connection becomes evident when the rabbis consider how Abraham knew he was supposed to circumcise the penis and not some other organ. After all, God instructs Abraham to circumcise ‘the flesh of his foreskin.’ How did Abraham know that God intended him to circumcise the sexual organ and not the foreskin of his heart or ears? … [Rav Huna says in Genesis Rabbah that] just as foreskin of trees refers to the place where it yields fruit, foreskin of man must refer to the place where he produces fruit. Another sage disagrees and suggests that the covenantal language itself signaled that God had in mind the foreskin of the penis [Leviticus Rabbah]. … Like Philo, the rabbis also saw an analogy between circumcision and horticultural practices.” – Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman & Arthur Waskow

Late-Inning Questions: What, according to our commentators, seems to be the most important meaning of ritual circumcision? Which meaning is most compelling to you? What are the best ways to find modern meaning in ancient ritual? Does the Jewish world today do an effective job of making such an uncomfortable practice meaningful?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Congratulations to everyone who participated in collecting goods for victims of recent hurricanes. We feel fortunate to be able to give back to those who were not as lucky as those in the Charleston area over the last few weeks.

The Big Inning at the End: Jews are far from the only people who engage in unusual ritual. But it’s striking when those not usually associated with Jewish practice takes Jewish ideas and makes them their own. For instance, Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs was known to draw the Hebrew letters of the word “chai” – life  – in the dirt before every at-bat.

Shabbat Shalom!