By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו
And on the eighth day the foreskin of his flesh shall be circumcised.
— Vayikra 12:3
The above verse comes from the opening lines of this week’s parashah — and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history. A b’ris is a covenant, and through the millennia, Jews have kept this mitzvah like no other and have thereby maintained their eternal covenant with G‑d.
There were times when giving one’s son a b’ris was punishable by death, but Jewish parents still kept the covenant. My wife’s grandfather, Reb Elchonon Shagalov, became a holy martyr for his faith because in Stalin’s Russia he dared to practice as a mohel, circumcising Jewish children in the town of Homil. One day he was taken by the KGB, never to be seen by his family again. His wife and children struggled valiantly and eventually made it to the free world, where they raised dedicated families of faithful Jews.
Today, so many young — and not so young — Jews throughout the former Soviet Union are embracing the covenant, knowing full well that it would have been far easier at eight days old. And though we now hear voices from “enlightened” quarters suggesting that circumcision is barbaric and a violation of an infant’s human rights, it remains the most widely practiced mitzvah in the world. And, please G‑d, it will retain that distinction forever.
I have no intention of getting into a health debate. I am a rabbi, not a doctor. There are enough medical experts who can prove the physiological benefits and certainly justify it even if there were no compelling religious motivation. Nor do I intend to wax philosophical here on the underlying symbolisms of circumcision.
Simply speaking, from a traditional Jewish point of view, this is the way we connect to G‑d. It is an indelible, eternal connection between the Jew and his Creator. The fact that it is performed on a newborn child who wasn’t asked his opinion only emphasizes the idea that the covenant is not limited by our finite, rational mind but transcends the boundaries of human understanding.
Our bond with G‑d is not something that can be explained rationally. Were that the case, we would have long ago ceased to be. The continuing saga of Jewish survival defies logic. Logically we shouldn’t exist. The b’ris symbolizes that transcendence and the Jewish people’s never-wavering commitment to the covenant has always been reciprocated by the G‑dly miracles that have delivered us time and again.
Some years ago, my wife and I were leading a discussion group with young couples. At one point in the evening, a young man poured cold water on my arguments by declaring himself an agnostic. I asked him if he had any children. He said yes. I asked if he had a son. Again, he answered affirmatively. “Did you give your son a b’ris?” I asked. At which point he looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet. “What kind of ridiculous question is that?” he demanded.
I explained that if you’re really not sure that there is a G‑d out there, then why subject your child to unnecessary surgery? Without the religious motivation, it might very well be considered barbaric. Through his son’s b’ris, he realized he wasn’t such an agnostic after all.
I am not a mohel, but as a rabbi I have attended hundreds of circumcision ceremonies. I find it very moving to see parents, including those who are not at all religiously observant, cry with emotion as they experience the continuing link of Jewish peoplehood being manifested in their very own family dynasty.
I guess some fathers would probably have trouble explaining why they gave their son a b’ris. But I imagine they’d have more difficulty if they had to explain why they didn’t.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.