Rabbi Michael Barclay
Lech L’cha: The Power and Importance of Circumcision
This week’s reading of Parsha Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27) relates the beginning of God’s dialogue with Avraham (whose name is still Avram for the majority of this reading) and the formation of the Jewish people. Towards the end of the portion (Gen. 17:10), Avram is commanded by God to perform the Brit Milah (bris), the ritual circumcision that must be performed on every Jewish male at the age of eight days. This ritual is so important to do as commanded that if the eighth day is a Shabbat or even Yom Kippur, the commandment to circumcise supersedes the observance of those holidays. It is the primary observance by a Jew that can only be postponed beyond eight days if there is a health issue with the child. Its importance cannot be overstated, and yet there have continually been movements around the world to make the process illegal.
Brit means “covenant”, and the word is first used when God makes a covenant with humanity after the flood that He will never destroy humanity again with water. In the case of Brit Milah, it is the “covenant of the cut”, and is a guarantee from God that as long as we keep this ritual, we will always survive. But other than “because God says so”, families often ask if there are any other reasons to keep this primary Jewish commandment.
There have been those throughout the centuries who have tried to justify the brit using health and cleanliness as a reason. And while there may be a health benefit, there is a much deeper and more “spiritual” reason to always observe this commandment.
Jewish theology determines that we are in partnership with God. It is often said that God creates the garden, and we are the gardeners who are to tend and take care of it. We see the reminder of this truth every Shabbat as we drink the kiddush wine as a symbol of that partnership: God creates the grapes and we apply the work to make the grapes into wine. We need God’s creation, and He needs our efforts to make the wine. It is a Divine partnership.
This teaching is illustrated with a famous story in Midrash Tanchuma. Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor of Judea in the 2nd century repeatedly attempted to out-debate the great Rabbi Akiva, especially on the subject of circumcision (the Roman culture worshipped the body, and so circumcision was a particular affront to them). Turnus asked why we circumcise given that God can make heavens and earth and humans can’t, and therefore what is made by God is superior. Akiva counters that what man makes is better in this world, and demonstrates this by holding up raw sheaves of wheat and baked cakes, and pointing out that the cakes are better. Turnus then reformulates the question, asking that if God wants circumcision, why aren’t babies born circumcised? Akiva responds with the question as to why babies are born with an umbilical cord that must be cut? Akiva then concludes that babies are born uncircumcised so that He could command the Jewish people to “refine themselves”. The bottom line: God gives us raw materials but it is our responsibility to refine them…in ways such as the brit milah.
This idea of refinement through partnership is a basic understanding of parenting. All parents teach their children basic things to refine their behavior. We teach them not to stick their fingers in electrical outlets; to look both ways before crossing the street; basic ethical behavior, etc. The brit is a ritualized action demonstrating our life long commitment to be involved parents who will refine our children through teaching. It is the first of many acts that will help the children be conscious partners with God.
In recent years there have been consistent efforts to make the brit milah illegal. This has been attempted not only in Europe and the former Soviet Union, but much of the anti-circumcision movement in recent years has been spearheaded here in California. There have been multiple attempts to have ballot measures or laws in California that would prohibit this basic ritual of the Jewish people, especially in San Francisco and surrounding communities. It was so prevalent in the last two decades that in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill prohibiting local authorities from enacting legislation prohibiting circumcision.
These new attempts are simply reenactments of the ancient Romans’ anti-Semitism; and for thousands of years this idea of prohibiting the brit milah has been and continues to be a manifestation of anti-Semitic hatred in an attempt to destroy our religion. Rather than ever succumbing to the anti-circumcision “movement” of these anti-Semites, we must always take joy and pride in this ancient ritual that is a direct commandment of God. This is one of the reasons that everyone is always invited to a brit milah, and we should always attend this primary Jewish ceremony whenever we have the opportunity.
As an extra piece of kabbalistic information, we believe that the sandak (the person holding the baby) has an especially high spiritual place, rivaled only by a bride on her wedding day. We are to go to him and ask him for blessings (health, prosperity, love, children, etc) immediately after the circumcision as we believe that there is a clear flow of God through him on that day.
The brit milah is an important reminder of both the partnership between God and the Jewish people; and of God’s covenant that we will always survive. It is a primary religious responsibility and privilege, and no government from the Romans to any modern legislature has the ability to take away this right…unless we allow them to. We should all pray and act in ways to make sure that this Jewish obligation is always protected, and embrace the beauty of this Divine partnership.
May we all have the blessing to attend this beautiful ritual as often as possible; to always remember God’s promise and our obligation; and to constantly remember to act in righteous ways that enhance God’s presence in the physical world.
This teaching is in honor of the Schwarzblatt family and the health of Daniel, Ariel and their new baby, who will participate in the Brit Milah this Sunday, B”H.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
October 14th, 2021
8th of Cheshvan, 5782