In the 21st century, the practice of circumcision remains a deeply ingrained aspect of Jewish tradition and heritage. While some individuals view it as archaic and a potential infringement on a child’s rights, the significance of brit milah goes beyond its surface and is rooted in national, religious, and historical contexts.
For thousands of years, Jewish parents have upheld this sacred rite, passing down an unbroken chain of tradition that links generations and maintains the connection to their forefathers. Despite various attempts to suppress this practice throughout history, the Jewish community has demonstrated resilience in preserving circumcision as an essential element of their faith.
The practice finds its origins in the Book of Genesis (17:10-14). In these verses, God establishes a covenant with Abraham, commanding him to circumcise every male child as a sign of the sacred bond between the Jewish people and their Creator.
This covenant is described as an everlasting agreement that extends through generations, reflecting the profound spiritual connection between Jews and their heritage. It is, therefore, more than just a physical act; it symbolizes a spiritual bond, a mark of dedication to a shared history, and a commitment to faith.
The act of circumcision also transcends the realm of religious observance.
Circumcision: Transcending the realm of religious observance
It’s a powerful expression of cultural and national identity. By participating in this ancient ritual, Jewish parents not only fulfill a religious duty but also reinforce their children’s connection to their heritage. It’s a way of saying, “You are part of a greater narrative, a story that has persisted through millennia.” The practice serves as a tangible reminder of the unbroken chain of tradition that links generations together, fostering a sense of belonging and unity within the Jewish community.
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, various regimes and rulers have attempted to suppress or ban the practice of circumcision. From Antiochus Epiphanes to Emperor Hadrian, and even more recent figures like Stalin and Hitler, the Jewish community has faced opposition to their cultural and religious practices. Despite these challenges, Jews have displayed remarkable resilience and determination in preserving circumcision.
The fact that these regimes have faded into history while the practice continues to thrive, underscores the enduring importance of brit milah in the face of adversity.
In contemporary discussions, some critics argue that circumcision infringes upon a child’s rights to bodily autonomy and freedom from unnecessary medical procedures. While these concerns are valid and should be carefully considered, it’s essential to understand that circumcision is deeply embedded in religious and cultural contexts that span thousands of years. For Jewish parents, the act is not merely a medical procedure but a profound expression of their faith and heritage. Striking a balance between individual rights and cultural practices requires nuanced discussions that respect both perspectives.
Prof. Michael Freeman, a distinguished legal scholar and expert in English law at University College London, has offered a compelling perspective on the practice of circumcision within the context of Orthodox Jewish and practicing Muslim families.
Contrary to viewing it as an infringement on a child’s human rights, Freeman argues that it can be seen as a human right itself, especially within specific cultural contexts. He posits that refraining from circumcising a child in such families might actually constitute an abuse of the child’s human rights, both psychologically and physically. His argument underscores the importance of understanding cultural context when evaluating practices such as circumcision. He suggests that it’s crucial to examine each child within the specific environment of their home and cultural background. What might be considered abuse in one context, might not hold true in another. This highlights the cultural sensitivity that needs to be taken into account when assessing practices that have deep-rooted significance within specific communities.
In the case of Orthodox Jewish families, circumcision is not just a medical procedure but an integral part of their cultural and religious identity. Freeman’s argument recognizes that failure to perform circumcision might potentially harm the child’s sense of belonging and identity within the community. This is particularly relevant when the child grows up and finds himself in a distinct position, due to the absence of a ritual performed on most of his peers.
One of the critical points is the potential psychological and physical harm that might result from not performing circumcision. Delaying the procedure to adulthood can have adverse effects on the child. Psychologically, he could feel different from his peer group (and might be subject to bullying or social isolation).
Additionally, the physical aspect of undergoing circumcision as an adult is considerably more painful and invasive than if done during infancy.
Freeman’s perspective also emphasizes the idea of preserving choice for the child in the future. While some argue that a child should have the right to choose for himself whether to undergo circumcision, Freeman suggests that the absence of the initial ritual might limit that choice. By deferring circumcision, the child could face a more challenging decision in adulthood. This viewpoint suggests that early circumcision ensures a seamless continuation of cultural and religious heritage.
So, circumcision is not just a ritual; it’s a continuation of a legacy.
Jewish parents who choose to uphold this tradition do so to ensure that their sons remain connected to their forefathers and ancestors who walked the same path.
By participating in this age-old practice, parents offer their children a tangible connection to their past while preparing them to be carriers of tradition into the future.
The writer is a rabbi, physician, and mohel who has performed more than 1,000 circumcisions.