Religious Life

Embodying the Maccabees – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – November 30, 2018

Shalom Chaverim

It has been a busy week of life cycles with brises, a baby naming, b’nai mitzvah and unfortunately, funerals. As we look ahead to Chanukah and as I officiated at these s’machot, I got to thinking about brit milah.* In some parts of the American Jewish community, circumcision has become an optional mitzvah where it used to be a given. In Europe, there are regular attempts to ban it. This is not (yet) the case in the Twin Cities. But I fear it is coming. I have recently been approached by a few couples who have opted not to circumcise their son.

So, it is worth reviewing the idea behind a ritual so central to Jewish life that it overrides even Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Ours is not the first generation of Jews uncomfortable with circumcision. We read in the Book of Maccabees: “Some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So, they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant” (1:1:14-15). Another passage describes two women who were arrested and publicly executed for having their sons circumcised.

The move to eliminate circumcision was not simply a result of a ban by King Antiochus IV. Jews themselves, seeking to adopt Greek culture, sought to reverse their circumcisions and discard the commandment. This is evidence of growing religious indifference and Hellenization among these Jews.

I want to be clear. I am not claiming that today’s parents who choose not to circumcise their sons have exactly the same motivation as early Jewish Hellenizers. They are not necessarily looking to assimilate. In my experience, they still want to give their sons Jewish names and celebrate with a Jewish naming ceremony.  Instead, they object to circumcision for a whole variety of reasons. They say, for example, that it is medically unnecessary, is a form of mutilation, causes avoidable pain, carries risk, is non-egalitarian, etc..

These objections must be taken seriously. I am happy to speak to people about their concerns. At the same time, when it comes to health concerns, I know that for every study I cite, someone else will offer opposing data.

At the end of the day, brit milah is a religious ceremony, not a medical one. It is about faith, identity and tradition, not medicine.** We intuitively understand the distinction. Afterall, we call it “a bris” (covenant) not a “milah” (circumcision).

I have officiated at hundreds of britot and performed the mitzvah on my four boys. There is no denying that this most ancient Jewish ritual is a raw and emotional. That is what gives it its power. Bringing a boy into the covenant through circumcision affirms as parents and as a community our commitment to a faith that stretches back to Abraham. It is a sign inscribed in the flesh that we are bound to a people with a sacred mission, that we embody the spirit of the Maccabees proudly inheriting and bequeathing a covenant with God from generation to generation.

Rabbi Alexander Davis

*We proudly celebrate the birth of our daughters and welcome them into the covenant with a Simchat Bat ceremony.

**It is for this reason that we use mohalim who are board-certified doctors and who are knowledgeable, observant Jews.