Give brit mila a chance

I tend to use the word “barbaric” when describing adult circumcision.

A RABBI prepares for a circumcision. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A RABBI prepares for a circumcision.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was the holiday season about 10 years ago when I got the call: it’s a boy. My older sister was the first of my siblings to have a child. My whole family was elated. At that time, I was living and studying and studying in New York and she was in Philadelphia. She remarked that the brit mila would be on the first Sunday after she arrived home from the hospital, which was before the eighth day mandated by Jewish law.
I responded, “Don’t mess with his brit. I don’t care what else you do in his life, but don’t mess with that.” My intention was, don’t do anything that may need correcting later on life. She heeded my advice and the event was held on the eighth day.
Even before I was a rabbi and mohel, it seemed to me that there was something primal about the brit mila. There was actually a time when I thought the rite was what made someone Jewish. After learning a limited portion of the laws of circumcision, I quickly understood that that is not the case. Being born to a Jewish mother is what makes one Jewish. So, with all the attacks on brit mila in the world, the question is: is this mitzva more important than any other mitzva?
At first glance, it seems like brit mila should not be prioritized, that we should be black-and-white on the issue. Either we should care about all the mitzvot or for none of them. Why should one specifically care about circumcision as opposed to Shabbat observance? Most people would not be caught dead sticking their noses in other people’s religious life. But still, even those people may have something to say when it comes to the brit mila, and I think they’re correct in doing so.
When a family chooses not to perform a brit, it upsets people because it is a sign of national identity for the child. It’s true that a boy born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, but without a brit, a piece of national identity is missing. There’s no doubt that the identifying marker that brit mila once was has been watered down in America (as well as in other parts of the world) because so many non-Jews also circumcise their children. But its prevalence in the non-Jewish world does not make our practice any less meaningful.
One of the most common complaints lodged against brit mila is that it’s barbaric. In this criticism lies the difference between brit mila and all other mitzvot. If parents are not observant, the effect it has on their child is massive, and most likely that child will also not be observant. But if one day he wants to become observant, with minimal work, he can do so almost at the drop of a hat.
But circumcision is different. If a child hasn’t had a brit, it takes a lot of work to rectify that issue. In fact, I tend to use the word “barbaric” when describing adult circumcision. On a technical level, things are identical. The removal of skin is practically the same. But the healing process is longer and more complicated; and to top it off, the patient remembers the experience, unlike a baby.
One of the most powerful things written on brit mila is the first law in the Tor (the halachic work that preceded the Shulchan Aruch). It states that while brit mila is a “sign” just like tallit and tefillin, mila is different. Tallit and tefillin can be cast away, taken off, but not mila. It can never be tossed aside. It is an everlasting sign of our covenant with God. And although there are those who would claim that mila’s immutability is precisely the issue, I see it as it’s most essential quality. Its permanence is what imbues the ritual with meaning and gives us our identity.
If you’re asking me my opinion on what I would like people to do when it comes to observance, I think the answer is obvious. I’m a mohel and a rabbi, after all. I’d be ecstatic if people observed every mitzva. But if you’re asking me a hypothetical question, as if I were going to a deserted island and could only take one mitzva with me, which would it be? I’d have to choose mila. It’s too important to the life of the Jewish People. And I’m not just saying that because I have a vested interest.
The author, a mohel and rabbi, lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.