Parashat Lech Lecha: the covenant of circumcision

This sidra contains a number of different covenants, but the covenant of circumcision is one which continues to resonate with us as a sine qua none of Jewish identity. “God further said to Abraham, As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Genesis 17:9-11  

The Brit Milah is the first of the rites of passage, and it quite literally etches into the child the central values of Judaism, connecting him to the past and future of the Jewish people.   In the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) we find a story which makes this clear – it tells of a father of a baby who gives to the guests some good wine to drink in celebration, and says “Drink of this wine, and I trust in my God that I shall also be able to give you wine on the day may son marries”. The guests replied with a blessing that is also found in the ceremony – “Just as the child has entered the covenant, so may he also enter into Torah and into good deeds and be married under the Chuppah”. With this blessing is the clear hope that the Brit Milah is the beginning of a child entering the Jewish community, and the expectation that this will be a lifetime’s commitment. The Brit Milah does not make the child Jewish – that is acquired through birth to a Jewish mother – but it gives the child the mark of Judaism, and with it a Jewish identity.

 Brit Milah may or may not have other reasons to support (or not) its usage – some talk of hygiene, of lower levels of cervical cancer in women whose partners are circumcised, of social or psychological reasons to do it-or not. But the reason why Jews have fulfilled the obligation of Brit Milah down the generations – often at serious personal sacrifice or danger – is precisely because it is just that – an obligation, a mitzvah. It symbolises our willingness to be connected to God, it reminds us of the relationship begun between God and Abraham of which we are a part.

 Circumcision is also seen as an act of completion or perfection. The ceremony is understood traditionally to be one of ‘finishing’ the creation of the child, so that we participate with God in the act of Creation. It is also seen as a willingness to submit, to give up a part of the child for the sake of the whole. As Judah HaNasi (c200CE) wrote – “Great is circumcision, for despite all the commandments that Abraham our father carried out, he was called complete (shalem) only with his circumcision, as it is written (Gen 17) “Walk before Me and be perfect” .

 Whatever one’s view about circumcision, it has become the sign not only of the biblical covenant, but of the male Jew. It has been said that it is not so much the mark of a Jewish man, as the mark of a man whose parents have chosen for him to be Jewish, who were prepared to undergo this ceremony in order to enter him into the Covenant. It is the mark of one generation upon the next, the physical expression of what we want for our child. There is much debate as to its meaning – and the changes in its meaning – over the years. Was it simply a transformation of a pagan fertility ritual, done not to a man at puberty or marriage in order to increase sexual potency but to a child at eight days in order to increase spiritual connection? Was it a fertility rite that extended through agricultural practise to human beings – a sacrifice of a small part for a greater good? Was it a divine requirement to cleanse the people, separating the idolatrous ancestors of Abraham from his monotheistic descendants? Or a blood rite parallel to the Temple sacrifice, that found echoes in Christianity and the crucifixion, returning to express salvation through self not another?  It is all these and more, but when one considers the importance of the rite throughout Jewish history it is hard not to see it as a unifying symbol, the mitzvah which most Jews have practised and with which we pass on covenantal Judaism to this day.

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