I’ve been reading about efforts to ban Brit Milah (circumcision) in Scandinavian countries. There is enormous support for these initiatives and so, as a religious Jew, I felt it was important to explain *why* we do circumcision. I’m going to skip all the tradition-based, health-based, and religious-freedom-based arguments.
I’m going to skip to the core symbolic purpose of this act.
Where Christianity values love and faith and the secular world values self-determination and personal expression, Judaism values Creation. So many of the laws in the Torah focus on countering ritual impurity – which is actually about keeping our distance from destruction and the loss of potential. Jews embrace creation – which is why the Torah (Bible) introduces our G-d as the G-d of Creation.
No act is more fundamentally creative than the act of reproduction. Among humans, there are two biological players in this act. One has reproductive will (the male) and one has reproductive actualization (the female). Even today, in a world with birth control, women don’t have positive reproductive will; they need a man’s willful contribution. And no matter how hard he tries, a man can’t bring a baby to term. The distinction is made clear in the words for mankind (Adam, which is masculine) and earth (Adama, which is the feminine form of the same word). Mankind can plant crops, but the feminine earth is what yields them.
But we do not simply create. We create in order to have a relationship with G-d. This is why there are two creation stories in Genesis – the first is about Darwin (everything after its seed) while the second is about man acting in the image of the divine, as a Creator in his own right. We are given *purpose* in the second story.
When Avraham (Abraham) is commanded to circumcise himself, he isn’t carrying out a meaningless ritual. Instead, he is marking that his reproductive will is not simply biological. Instead, it has a higher purpose. He is dedicating his reproductive will towards the maintenance of the divine relationship. We change a creative act (sexual reproduction) into a creative act dedicated to the relationship with G-d. But our dedication is only temporary because we are mortal. When Avraham circumcises the baby Yitzchak (Isaac) it is because the only way we can have a timeless relationship is by dedicating our future to that relationship. This act is core to the Jewish people. This is why Moshe (Moses) couldn’t become a leader of the people until he circumcised his own son. He had to be all in before he could lead.
Self-actualization and self-determination are not core Jewish values. The experience and maximization of pleasure is not a core Jewish value. Creation and the dedication of that creation to the relationship with G-d is. And nothing is more core to Jewish practice than marking the next generation’s creative ability as being in the service of the divine.
I know these are alien concepts to cultures which place love, sexual desire, personal expression and self-determination at the top of their tree of values. The Jewish religion has a different axiom at the top – and that difference results in practices which do not match the values of others. We do not attempt to impose those values on others. However, when others make our practices illegal or force us to violate our values, then they are saying that there is no place for us and our values. They are saying – as many have before them – that we as Jewish people are not welcome in their lands.
History shows that those who have expelled us have suffered from the loss of our creative energies. I suggest that those who would ban Jewish practice take the time to understand our values before they drive us away.
p.s. the image is of David ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the modern state of Israel as the sandek of the first child born in modern Eilat.