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 sons.

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 circumcision.

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 with.

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 creation.

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 it.

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).

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