THE COVENANTAL CUT by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week it makes sense to consider circumcision.  Some governments are banning it.  Some liberal movements are opposing it.  Some families are demanding it.  And some doctors are unsure about it.  But why this week?  Because this week we will read the Torah commandment:  “This is My covenant that you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants…  At eight days old, let every male be circumcised throughout your generations…  My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”  In Judaism the process is thus called Brit Milah – the covenant of circumcision.  Far more than a medical operation.

Why eight days?  We find various reasons, from mystical to medical.  Considering the number 7 to be a basic time unit in our lives, the next day begins something new.  A new week.  A new chapter of life.  Also quoted is the opinion that 8 days is when the surgery will cause the least pain.  (How to determine that is something of a mystery in itself.)   And in a following Torah passage we read that Abraham’s son Isaac was the first baby boy to be circumcised at the age of 8 days.   We also read that Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 99 years.  Talk about courage!  And his older son Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, had it done at 13 years of age.  Many of his descendants still observe that age.  (Could that custom influence an Arab tendency to violence?)

This year, courts and governments in places as far removed as Germany and Tasmania are considering bans on circumcision of minors.  In the U.S., both California and New York are dealing with the question: does this operation constitute a violation of a child’s rights?  Extreme opinions sound out from both sides.  One blogger called the practice “creepy.”  Another commentator charged the judge who approved the ban with “reviving German hate.”  “Worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust!”  Etc. etc.  Definitely, in countries like Germany, Austria, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark, this is one issue where Jews and Muslims can agree.  We don’t want it banned.

To his credit, California governor Jerry Brown struck down such a ban.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg found himself dealing with the question of how the operation is performed, specifically the problem of metzitzah b’peh – using the mouth to remove blood from the wound – a custom which is primarily widespread among Haredim, the so-called Ultra-Orthodox.  Just for the record, a majority of mohalim – ritual circumcisers – use a glass tube which is sterile and poses no danger of infection.    

My friend Dr. Stephen Dickstein, who practiced urology and also functioned as a traditional mohelfor many years, says: “As a physician and urologist, I consider male circumcision to be an important and valid public health procedure.  As a mohel, I consider it to be a fundamental part of Judaism.  Even the most disaffiliated and assimilated Jews chose Brit Milah as their one Jewish act.”

His opinion speaks for many of those directly concerned with circumcision.  A Dr. Perlstein even posts figures on line about the number of illnesses reduced or prevented by this procedure. Reportedly, the king of the Zulus requested that Israel send mohalim to circumcise his 10,000 royal guardsmen, and establish some 70-80 circumcision clinics in his South African territory.  All this as part of the war on AIDS.

The Hertz Commentary on the Torah compares it to the rainbow.  G-d gave Noah a visible sign of the covenant that no future deluge would destroy the world.   Abraham and his descendants give G-d and the world a visible sign of the covenant that defines “the consecration of the Children of Abraham to the G-d of Abraham.”

No wonder a Bris is a time for family celebration.   L’chaim – To Life!  Even the baby gets a sip of wine!


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