I recently had the great privilege of being the sandak at the brit mila of my
great-grandson. As I sat in the “chair of Elijah the Prophet” holding the baby,
I had mixed emotions.
On the one hand I was thrilled to be involved in
bringing a child of the third generation of my descendants into the covenant of
Abraham, continuing the ancient traditions of Judaism and assuring the future of
the Jewish People. On the other hand, the baby cried bitterly, which somewhat
dampened my joy.
The brit took place just at a time when the news was
filled with reports about the banning of circumcision by a German court and
further talk about banning it in Austria, Switzerland and Norway. It made me
appreciate living in Israel, where such a ban would obviously be impossible. But
I also had time to think about the objections to circumcision and to remember
that this is nothing new; It goes back as far as Hellenistic and Roman times.
Indeed, there were periods when circumcision was forbidden in the Land of Israel
by the Roman authorities. The notorious Hadrianic decrees in the second century
CE included such a ban. Rabbinic sources depict with great pathos the situation
in which people were going to be executed by the Romans for circumcising their
As part of the ceremony I heard the recitation not only of the
Shema prayer, our supreme acclamation of belief, but also the verse from
Ezekiel, “In your blood shall you live, in your blood shall you live!” (Ezekiel
16:6). The prophet is predicting that even though the people of Israel had been
wounded and therefore bloodied, they would nevertheless live. When the midrash
uses this verse, it refers it to the blood of circumcision as that which gives
life to the Jewish People (Mechilta 5). It is the observance of these
commandments that keeps us alive.
The original reason for the Roman ban
was not anti-Semitism but their belief that circumcision was mutilation of the
body. The Romans had banned castration for that reason. Circumcision was known,
practiced and accepted in the Near East in ancient times.
It was not
exclusively a practice of the Hebrews. Objections to it came not from the Middle
East but from European culture, specifically the Greeks and the Romans. I
suspect that the reason was their excessive admiration for the human body and
the beauty of physical perfection. For the Greeks especially, the naked body was
the pinnacle of beauty, as their magnificent statuary proves. Cutting the body
would be a mutilation, ruining the perfection of the human form. Judaism takes
the opposite view.
The midrash tells the story of the Roman governor
Tineius Rufus, who questioned Rabbi Akiva about the practice of
He asked Akiva which was superior: divine creation or what
humans are able to make? Akiva, knowing he was leading up to a question about
circumcision, answered, “That which humans make.” The Roman then asked why, if
God wanted people circumcised, He did not create them that way to begin
Akiva explained to him that God wanted to give us an opportunity to
follow His commands in order to purify and better ourselves (Tanhuma Tazria 5).
In other words, God deliberately left something for humans to do to bring about
bodily perfection, thus making us partners of God in the work of
The Romans considered it mutilation of the body; modern critics
consider it mutilation and a violation of children's rights, ignoring the fact
that modern medicine has found that the practice is of benefit in many ways. We
could never explain ourselves to the Romans and we will probably never be able
to persuade modern critics either. But just as our ancestors – those who wanted
to remain Jews – understood that this practice must continue and that we have
the right to religious freedom, so we too will have to continue to defend our
rites and our rights so that we may live not in spite of the brit but because of
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical
Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).