The Significance Of Circumcision


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:02 p.m.
Torah reading: Lev. 12:1-13:56; Ex. 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
Shabbat ends: 8:02 p.m.

Ritual purity and impurity dominate this week’s Torah portion of Tazria, but after the destruction of the Second Temple these religious institutions have been discontinued in Jewish life. Nor do many contemporary Jews yearn for their return, for what meaning could the ancient purity rituals offer Jews trying to understand the world in modern terms? By contrast, the commandment for Jewish males to undergo ritual circumcision, [Leviticus 12:3], which also appears in Tazria, continues to be a key to Jewish identity, a subject that continues to ignite controversy today.

Like Jewish identity itself, circumcision carries a dual significance, both ethnic and religious. It is the Jewish male’s quintessential sign of ethnic belonging and biological lineage. Though only a small percentage of Jews today consider themselves believers in any traditional sense, nearly every Jewish male undergoes circumcision. Indeed, circumcision is the most popular custom observed among our people. As the hallmark of national identity, it was the most visible difference between Jews and their Greek counterparts in the second century B.C.E., when Hellenists ruled over the Jewish commonwealth, and two millennia later it was, tragically, the tell-tale sign of Jews when Nazis hunted them down during the Shoah.

The ethnic significance of circumcision helps explain a mysterious incident in the life of Moses that is described in Exodus Chapter 4. After growing up in Pharaoh’s court and then spending 60 years in Midian, alienated from any Jewish identity, Moses was tormented by his unformed identity. He was psychologically unable to make the fateful existential choice between throwing his lot in with a nation of slaves or living an easy but purposeless life tending sheep in Midian. Because he lacked the commitment to his people and his higher destiny, God sought to kill him until his wife, Tzipora, hurriedly circumcised their son. It was that act which solidified Moses’ identity and endowed him with the determination to redeem his people.

Yet the Bible is more concerned with the theological meaning of circumcision than its ethnic significance. First commanded to Abraham, circumcision in the Bible does not constitute the brit (covenant) itself, but is the most permanent ot (sign) of someone who undertakes to live in covenant with God. Without this commitment, circumcision carries only surgical meaning; and without circumcision, the Bible’s commandments that were intended to be suffused with higher religious dimension lose their value. Hence, according to rabbinic tradition, the Jews in Egypt had to circumcise themselves before performing the first paschal sacrifice, and according to the Book of Joshua, 40 years later the next generation of Jews circumcised themselves before they entered the Promised Land.

What is this Jewish brit, the covenant of which circumcision is only a sign? In rabbinic parlance, it is to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven—a life of responsibility, or as God tells Abraham, the imperative “to teach your children to do righteousness and justice” (tzedakah and mishpat).

Maimonides merged both dimensions of circumcision, hoping it would unify Jews as well as foster “love among all bearers of the same sign of brit milah.” He envisaged circumcision as the carrier of God’s seal with us and a catalyst for Jews to act with peace and communal loyalty toward each other. Perhaps he had in mind Malachi’s admonition, “Have we not all one Father … why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?”

Jewish law supports this notion of communal solidarity regarding circumcision, for if the baby’s family cannot afford the cost of the circumcision, the community then assumes the responsibility to usher the child into the covenant of Abraham.

There is a famous fictional dialogue in the Talmud between the Roman official Tarnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva concerning circumcision. The Roman challenged Akiva about why circumcision should performed at all: “If God wanted humans circumcised, He would have ensured that babies leave the womb without foreskins.” In reply, Rabbi Akiva tells Tarnus Rufus the secret and glory of the Torah: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave commandments only for the purpose of refining human beings.”

Commandments are about improving ourselves, raising ourselves from mere biological objects to moral beings, about moving from facts to values, and about constantly striving for spiritual perfection. Judaism knows no noble savage. On the contrary, Jewish nobility is found only in the elevated being who has overcome the brute conditions of nature. On a national level, it means the transformation of an ethnic collection into a holy people. Individually or nationally, this transformation does not come cheap. It requires effort and sacrifice — the blood that transforms a medical procedure into a covenantal event.

Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the old purity/impurity rituals — the staking out of values, and the importance of human striving to improve, purify and elevate. Though the rituals are relegated to antiquity, their underlying spiritual message seems eternal.

Rabbi Eugene Korn is American director of Israel’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and editor of Meorot-A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse.