Parasha picture: Covenant, circumcision and the future

“On the eighth day the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3)

Illustrative photo (photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)
Illustrative photo
(photo credit: ISRAEL WEISS)

We read in this week’s parasha, Tazria, “On the eighth day the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). This comes in a section of Torah about regulations regarding mothers and birth – what sacrifices she must bring and the length of her ritual impurity.

The doubling of time of impurity for a girl compared to a boy is noted. Many commentaries soften or do away with any patriarchal attitude found. With cleaning our homes of hametz (leavened products), which has already begun as Passover fast approaches, we recognize the impossibility of completely fulfilling that assignment – hence we recite “Kol Hamira” (relinquishing ownership of any hametz), acknowledging that reality. The same may be said of other incidents, even well-intentioned, of completely explaining away a biblical patriarchal standpoint.

That said, implied within the rite of circumcision, a male baby is born physically imperfect, unlike a female baby. A fascinating verbal chess match exchange between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman consular legate Tyrannus Rufus offers insight (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria 5):

“It happened that Tyrannus Rufus the wicked asked Akiva, ‘Which works are more beautiful? Those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of flesh and blood?’

“Akiva answered, ‘Those of flesh and blood are more beautiful.’

Nurses take care of newborn babies at a nursery in Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem (credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)Nurses take care of newborn babies at a nursery in Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem (credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

“Tyrannus Rufus then said, ‘Look at the heavens and the earth. Are you able to make anything like them?’

“Rabbi Akiva responded, ‘Do not talk to me about something that is high above mortals, things over which they have no control, but about things that are usual among people.’

“Tyrannus Rufus asked, ‘Why do you circumcise?’

“Akiva explained, ‘I also knew that you were going to say this to me. I therefore anticipated [your question] when I said to you, “A work of flesh and blood is more beautiful than one of the Holy One, blessed be He.” Bring me wheat spikes and white bread; the former is the work of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the latter is the work of flesh and blood. Isn’t the latter more beautiful?’

“Tyrannus Rufus said to him, ‘Inasmuch as God finds pleasure in circumcision, why does no one emerge from his mother’s belly circumcised?’

“Akiva countered, ‘And why does his umbilical cord come out on him? Doesn’t his mother cut his umbilical cord? So why does he not come out circumcised? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel the commandments only in order to purify them. Therefore, David said, “the word of the Lord is pure” (Psalms 12:6/II Sam. 22:31).’”

In short, a male baby must be purified through circumcision, while a baby girl does not need such improvement. 

ACCORDING TO the biblical text, circumcision is done on “the flesh of the foreskin.” What exactly does that mean? Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky of the Jewish Theological Seminary points out, “As far as I know, we have no idea what ancient circumcision was like. From a biblical perspective, we know nothing.” Alluding to when Tzipporah, the wife of Moses, circumcised their son Gershom (Exodus 4:24-26), Kalmanofsky adds, “We even have no idea what Tzipporah did with that flint!”

Robert G. Hall, professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College, adds, “Some Jews practiced a form of circumcision that did not show. The reaction can be seen in the Mishna’s requirement that valid circumcision must bare the glans (Mishna Shabbat 19:6). The need for this ruling implies that some Jews practiced a form of circumcision – perhaps by simply nicking the foreskin – in a way that did not bare the glans. Removing only a little of the foreskin... Jews who circumcised in this manner did not set out to abrogate the covenant of circumcision; they merely tried to keep the covenant without offending their gentile neighbors by baring the glans.”

This understanding that there can be a range of circumcision – a little, to some, to all the foreskin being removed – perhaps opens a door for the increasing number of Jews who decide against circumcision for their sons. Knowing a less stringent option might be available may be worth exploring, including by halachic authorities. 

CIRCUMCISION IS so paramount to Judaism that it overrides Shabbat. That is an interesting contradistinction to the building of the Mishkan – God’s dwelling place within the Israelite community during the desert years. We learned last month, in Parashat Vayakhel, that the building of the Mishkan is stopped by Shabbat; yet circumcision takes place on Shabbat if it falls on the eighth day. In that context, why is circumcision more important than the building of the Mishkan?

Nehama Leibowitz notes that the mitzvah of brit milah is introduced in Genesis (17:10-12) to Abraham: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you… and he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every manchild in your generations.” She comments, “Then why is it repeated in our parasha? Several commentators ask why this commandment is repeated in [our] Parashat Tazria… According to Or Hahayim, the repetition in Tazria teaches us that the law of circumcision overrides the Shabbat, seeing that it must be performed ‘on the eighth day.’ Since this did not apply to Abraham, it was not mentioned in Genesis!”

While that may be the case, it still does not give the thinking behind why a brit overrides Shabbat. An answer may lie in the fact that the brit takes place on the eighth day, and eight symbolizes the future. Eight is what follows seven – the unit of wholeness, as in the week of Creation; eight is the next moment, the beginning of the future. We also note that Shavuot celebrates the future between God and the Jewish people through the Giving of the Torah. And when does it take place? The 50th day after leaving slavery. And what is 50? Forty-nine plus one, or the day after seven full weeks – the first day of the eighth week; the future.

Commenting on eight, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that “by such a counting of seven days, the condition of a previous period is entirely closed, and with the eighth day a new beginning is made, similar to the octave in music, on a higher level.”

The brit is done on the eighth day since it marks the part of the male body that contributes to the creation of the next, the future, generation.

We as a people have always been concerned with the future of the Jewish people, the generations we will never know, but feel a connection, a responsibility toward. We read near the end of the Torah, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). In this values-clarification exercise, Judaism decided that the act of circumcision outweighs the ideal of Shabbat rest. That child does not symbolize the future of the Jewish people. That child is the future.

The writer is Rabbi Emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.