Give Brit Milah a Chance
It was the holiday season about ten years ago when I got the call: it’s a boy. My older sister was the first of my siblings to have a child. My whole family was elated. At that time, I was living and studying and studying in New York and she was in Philadelphia. She remarked that the Bris would be on the first Sunday after she arrived home from the hospital, which was before the eighth day. I responded, “Don’t mess with his Bris. I don’t care what else you do in his life, but don’t mess with that.” My intention was, don’t do anything that may need correcting later on life. She heeded my advice and the Simcha was on the eighth day.
Even before I was a rabbi and mohel, it seemed to me that there was something primal about the importance of Brit Milah. There was actually a time when I thought the rite was what makes someone Jewish. After learning a limited portion of Hilchot Milah (the laws of circumcision), I quickly understood that that is not the case. Being born to a Jewish mother is what makes one Jewish. So, with all the attacks on Brit Milah in the world, the question is: is this Mitzvah more important than any other Mitzvah?
At first glance, it seems like Milah should not be prioritized, that we should be black and white on the issue. Either we should care if people do all of the Mitzvot or we shouldn’t care if they do any Mitzvot. Why should one specifically care about circumcision as opposed to Shabbat observance, especially if we’d never persuade others to keep anything? Most people would not be caught dead sticking their noses in other people’s religious life. But still, even those people may have something to say when it comes to Milah, and I think they’re correct in doing so.
When a family chooses not to do a Brit Milah, it upsets people because it is a sign of national identity for the child. It’s true that a boy born to a Jewish mother is Jewish, but without a Bris, a piece of national identity is missing. There’s no doubt that the identifying marker that Milah once was has been watered down in America (as well as in other parts of the world) because so many non-Jews also circumcise their children. But its prevalence in the non-Jewish world does not make our practice any less meaningful.
One of the most common complaints lodged against Brit Milah is that it’s barbaric. In this criticism lies the difference between Milah and all other Mitzvot. If parents are not observant, the effect it has on their child is massive, and most likely, that child will also not be observant. But if one day he wants to become observant, with minimal work, he can start keeping Shabbat at almost the drop of a hat.
But Milah is different. If a child hasn’t had a Bris, it takes a lot of work to rectify that issue. In fact, I tend to use the word barbaric when describing adult circumcision. On a technical level, things are identical. The removal of skin is practically the same. But the healing process is longer and more complicated; and to top it off, the patient remembers the experience, unlike a baby.
One of the most powerful things written on Brit Milah is the first Halacha in the Tor (the Halachic work that preceded the Shulchan Aruch). It states that while Brit Milah is a ‘sign’ just like Tallit and Tefillin, Milah is different. Tallit and Tefillin can be cast away, taken off, but not Milah. It can never be tossed aside. It is an everlasting sign of our covenant with God. And although there are those who would claim that Milah’s immutability in precisely the issue, I see it as it’s most essential quality. Its permanence is what imbues the ritual with meaning and gives us our identity.
If you’re asking me my opinion on what I would like people to do when it comes to observance, I think the answer is obvious: I’m a mohel and a rabbi. I’d be ecstatic if people kept everything. But if you’re asking me a hypothetical question, as if I were going to a deserted religious island and I could only take one Mitzvah with me, which would it be? I’d have to choose Milah. It’s too important to the life of the Jewish people. And I’m not just saying that because I have a vested interest.
This originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post