What brit milah really means

Milah is the brit, the Covenant, that binds every Jew.

Brit milah ceremony 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Brit milah ceremony 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you want to understand the importance of brit milah – and clearly, there are judges and even state officials in Germany who as yet still haven’t – it is worth recalling two events from the past couple of weeks.
The first of these concerns Rabbi David Goldberg, the rabbi of the small Bavarian town of Hof and a man who estimates that he has performed around 3,000 Jewish circumcisions in a nearly 40-year career as a mohel. Rabbi Goldberg is a very proud mohel (his e-mail address even contains the word “mohel”) and he isn’t about to hide what he does for a living.
Rabbi Goldberg’s up-front role as a Jewish circumciser was probably the reason a doctor from the German region of Hesse – the other side of the country to Hof – chose to target him as a test case. The doctor filed a private complaint with the Bavarian police, not for a specific act that Rabbi Goldberg had performed but rather for the very fact that Rabbi Goldberg performs and continues to perform ritual circumcisions.
Rabbi Goldberg found out about this private complaint second-hand through the Internet and through friends. But he wasn’t worried about it when I spoke to him. In fact, he was about to perform another brit the following day in an even smaller Jewish community than that of Hof.
That is an important point because when you get smaller than Hof, you generally get less religiously observant in a Jewish sort of way. It’s not always easy in such places to find 10 men for a minyan or a mikvah for a ritual bathe, or an employer that lets you off on a Friday afternoon in the winter. Kosher food might also be harder to locate.
In the smaller communities of Europe, mitzvah observance, even of the non-painful type, is often more observed in the breach thereof. Keeping Jewish dietary laws doesn’t hurt and neither does donning phylacteries. And the point is that all the evidence points to the fact that if maybe they did – just a little – even more Jews might perform these acts.
As the saying goes, Jews are still Jews even when they err, but the greatest statement of Jewish identity, which we call a “Kiddush Hashem,” sanctification of the Divine Name, comes when they can err – and don’t. The practice by Jews and the defense of authentic brit milah stand testament to this.
Because Jews – almost all Jews bar the most alienated fraction of a single percentage point – will move heaven and earth to get their baby boy circumcised by a mohel at eight days of age. Most mothers of these Jewish infants will stay right at the back of the room, even in a different room, because they can’t bear the sight of their infant crying, but they will still ask for the brit to occur and joyously celebrate the event – whatever, and sometimes in spite of, their own personal level of religious observance.
Sure, the babies can’t choose, but the mothers can and they do.
You can’t explain or justify a mother’s love for her baby or the lengths to which she will go in order that her child not suffer. I can’t explain this and I won’t try, but suffice to say that Jewish mothers love their children and Jewish lineage is determined by the mother. And so is Jewish identity.
Event number two happened last week in Berlin. I am suitably informed that Herr Thomas Heilmann, Berlin’s Senator for Justice, meant well when he clarified for the German capital’s Jewish and Muslim communities that the city-state would protect religious rights of circumcision – provided they weren’t done by mohelim and with what – for him – were other ostensibly light restrictions on the practice.
“We explicitly welcome Jewish and Muslim life in Berlin,” said Herr Heilmann. “This also applies to the practice of their religion.” That is a laudable and an honorable statement.
The response from the Berlin Jewish community, however, – all of them – Orthodox, Progressive, secular – was clear. For this community, circumcision is the ultimate act of Jewish identity. We’ve done it for 4,000 years, it has kept us going as a community when other great nations and empires have disappeared and we are going to keep doing it in exactly the same manner we always have, always making sure that our mohelim are well-trained and concerned for the welfare of the infant.
Without brit milah there aren’t Jewish communities because there aren’t Jews. We may argue about Israel, about many Jewish practices and sometimes just for the sake of arguing. But we don’t argue about brit milah.
That is the message that must go out to the legislators in the Bundestag when they come to discuss how to fill this legal vacuum that exists in Germany and the message must be transmitted throughout Europe and the world. This is not something that belongs just to rabbis or just some groups of Jews, it belongs to all Jews. It is Judaism. It is the Jewish People.
It’s not an easy thing to see restrictions on brit milah and there are some in our own community – again probably with the best of intentions – who think the way to go about this is to scream “Germans,” “Shoah” and “Nazis.” In the short term, possibly they are right. Guilt-tripping a few more legislators may be the way to go in the land of Goethe to win a vote or two, to gain a headline or another hit on a website. And it can be even less painful when you don’t even live in Germany and don’t have to deal with the consequences. But what argument are they going to use in other European states?
As Jews, we must never cheapen Jewish history or Jewish identity and certainly not the memory of the victims of the Shoah, not in Germany and not anywhere. The way to win this is to keep stating, just like the mohel from Hof and the Jewish community of Berlin, that milah is Judaism in exactly the way all Jews do it. We will tell the truth without compromises and we will not use misplaced and hurtful rhetoric to do it. We know and appreciate that Germany allows us to be full citizens, but we want it to be clear that Germany allows us also to be Jews.
Milah is the brit, the Covenant, that binds every Jew. The late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik of sainted memory wrote that there is a Covenant of Fate among Jews and a Covenant of Faith. The former is often found in adversity and determined by external forces, the latter keeps going and comes from the very core of our Jewish identity. Today, in Europe, the brit milah is both.
The writer is International Relations Director of the Conference of European Rabbis and is based in Brussels.