A Dvar Torah for Parshat Bo 5772
The very first seder, about which we read this morning in the Torah, must have been a somewhat uncomfortable affair in more ways than one. Certainly, it was filled with anxiety, as the Israelites consumed the Passover offering in a rush to prepare for the Exodus from Egypt that would happen the next morning, then awoke to the sounds of anguished suffering of their Egyptian neighbors immersed in the plague of the firstborn at midnight. However, the latter part of Exodus, chapter 12, points to what may have been a different source of discomfort, by mentioning different categories of people, men more specifically, who could not consume the Passover offering. These included any non-Israelite, specifically any non-circumcised male such as one’s slave, a resident alien, two categories of employed laborers, and any Israelite who was not circumcised. The Torah makes clear that circumcision is the distinction that determines eligibility for consuming the Passover offering. We might imagine the absurdity of the scene at that first seder in Egypt: households preparing for this major feast before the Lord in anticipation of real freedom, suddenly in an uproar as male celebrants are forced to show their credentials at the door, or to submit to circumcision before they can be part of the celebration. A passage like this likely offends liberal Western sensibilities because it emphasizes exclusivity of membership in the Israelite clan as well as the primitive blood ritual of circumcision, what we call brit milah, as the price to be paid for acquiring membership. Isn’t the seder experience supposed to celebrate the universality of freedom and the struggle against oppression in which all good people are included? Further, why would the Torah demand that a man undergo a ritual such as circumcision in order to be part of what should be a beautiful reenactment of the quest for freedom?
Our contemporary seder is a ritualized re-telling of the Exodus story that has been generously reinterpreted over millennia through the prisms of many different individuals and groups seeking to find their own stories of slavery and freedom in it. Today’s seders, even among plenty of Orthodox Jews, include non-Jewish colleagues, friends, and family for whom this re-telling is often their first encounter with Judaism and the power of the Jewish experience. However, the actual consumption of the ancient Passover offering was an exclusive affair of the Jewish community; its ticket of admission was circumcision. This reflects one major value of Judaism that many people do not like but about which the Torah is unabashed: Jewish identity and community are at times highly particularistic. Further, unlike Christianity whose major criterion of membership is what or how you believe, a major criterion of Jewish membership is how you behave and what you do, including what you do with your body to show that you are part of the Jewish people.
Asserting the distinctiveness of Jewish identity and community has never been an easy thing for the Jews. It has been the major source of anti-Semitism and persecution of our people for many thousands of years, beginning with pagan and early Christian refusals to accept that the Jews have a right to be different. From the time of the Spanish Inquisition all the way through to the development of modern anti-Semitism and Nazism, this same hatred of Jewish distinctiveness took on virulent racial and blood-line overtones: being Jewish wasn’t simply a curse that could be overcome through the abandonment of Judaism, it was an inherent state of imperfection, even pathology, that could never be eradicated without physically destroying the Jewish people.
One of the most telling examples of these enormous challenges to Jewish distinctiveness has been circumcision. When they occupied the land of Israel many centuries ago, the Greeks derided this Jewish practice as a barbaric mutilation of the body that stood in stark contrast to the Hellenistic emphasis on the body’s perfection as living sculpture. Eager to fit in at the Greek gymnasium, many Jewish men of that time sought to hide this mark on their bodies, while others practiced it even under the threat of persecution and death at the hands of some Greek authorities. Later rabbis living in the land of Israel under the Romans’ occupation energetically taught their fellow Jews that circumcision is what makes the body beautiful, rather than what the dominant culture asserts is beautiful, because this is what God asks of us.
In our time, this age-old debate over circumcision has taken on a very destructive tone. Anti-circumcision activists, under the cover of child advocacy, have turned their guns on the freedom of Jews and Muslims to practice our religions by attempting to put anti-circumcision laws on city and statewide ballots across the country. They argue mostly that circumcision is mutilation no different from mutilation forced upon young girls in developing nations. Further, since there is no evidence that circumcision has any medical benefits, all it does it cruelly rob a person of full sexual fulfillment in his adult life; a person is perfect as he is from birth and not in need of such barbaric procedures. These arguments are both old and new, but they are all, in my opinion, disingenuous, and some are motivated by pure bigotry. Brit milah is a profoundly embodied sign of a new Jewish boy’s relationship with God, Jewish history and our people, as the Torah shows us in numerous passages. It bears no real resemblance to female genital mutilation which is used in some cultures to utterly, brutally control women’s sexuality and lives. Further, the argument that circumcision robs men of their sexual capacities wrongly assumes that this can somehow be measured and tested. It obsessively focuses on the anatomy and physiology of a body part as the exclusive determinant of sexuality, an offensively reductionistic way of thinking about relationships, love and desire, and it sends a crude, insidious message that Jewish men are somehow weak and disabled by virtue of their Jewishness. Finally, though circumcision’s benefits are not medically undisputed, there is a body of research indicating that it may be beneficial. However, even if this were not the case, it would be religiously irrelevant: Jews and Muslims don’t circumcise their kids for medical reasons, we do this because this is how we connect to God, history, peoplehood, our values, and our identities.
Obviously, not everyone who opposes circumcision is an anti-Semite, and I respect any Jewish family’s right not to perform brit milah on their own children, as long as they don’t try to tell me or my community what to do as religious people. However, I would ask them the following questions before they make such a decision. Is your decision motivated by a well-thought out opposition to brit milah based upon careful study of its history and meaning? Are you opposed to brit milah on the basis of misinformation that often terrorizes parents of newborns into believing that they are hurting their kids? Do you really want one of the most basic rites of passage into the Jewish family, whose power is precisely its primitiveness, to be a mere matter of choice? Can you stay open to the fact that, within the bounds of safety and parental responsibility, not every act and ceremony needs to be rational or fit the dominant culture’s demands? That religion is sometimes about leaps of faith of a whole community into a different way of living in the world, one that lends a depth of meaning to its adherents’ lives? Do you recognize that as a Jewish family the most potent way for you to be a part of the world is at times to live apart from the world, to embrace the universal by living proudly within what makes us particular?
Like the Passover offering, brit milah is an uncomfortable yet powerful reminder that to be Jewish is to choose to be more than just an individual, it is about choosing to be part of a sacred people called forth by God with a huge mission to heal the world, throughout the dimensions of time and space. It is one permanent symbol that helps us to literally embody that mission in our lives as individuals and as a community.