This Sunday we attended a circumcision ceremony for our friends’ firstborn son, and it reminded me that this was one of the topics we originally agreed on discussing last year. You said we should save it for last among those topics, because it is “delicate”, and I will stick to my promise of no gory details 😛 I have a fairly funny memory of when you first brought it up eight years ago, in the context of what is required for a conversion. I was like “…Do I seriously have to talk to this 24-year-old male Christian about circumcision?! How did I get my 19-year-old religious Jewish female self into this?!” Well, eight years, a husband, and three sons later, I am well over being shy about it 😛
These days, circumcision has become one of those hotly debated early-parenting topics, alongside breastfeeding, birth choices, and vaccines. As I tentatively learned more about this debate, I understood that people circumcise their sons for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with religion–health-related, social, or aesthetic. There was a period in history in which all boys were circumcised in the USA as a matter of public health policy. The health benefits, at least according to the current recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, outweigh the risks of the procedure, but not by enough to recommend that it be done universally. Obviously, it is extremely daunting to imagine carrying out an irreversible surgical procedure on your son, even more so on his most sensitive parts, and many parents feel that it is cruel to do this without the child’s consent. I totally hear that argument and it very well may be that if I weren’t Jewish and didn’t believe God required it, I might not have done it myself. On the other hand, it is a fairly simple procedure when the child is a baby that becomes more complicated and difficult when he is older, so it’s more complex than just waiting to let him decide. The debate taps into all kinds of deeper issues, like what it means to be responsible for your children vs. respecting their autonomy, what it means to protect your children from harm, etc. Fascinating topic, but we’re not going to get any further into it than that here.
Because the fact is that I feel kind of outside of the debate. I circumcise my sons for one reason and one alone, that has no logical basis and therefore is basically non-debatable: “God said so.” Genesis 17:10: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” (I mean, you can argue about the divine origin of the Torah, and whether God exists and all that, but that’s a whole different conversation!)
Circumcision is one of those mitzvot that I feel test me and my commitment to Torah the most. It is really hard to stand there while someone intentionally hurts your tiny eight-day-old son, and listen to him cry in pain, and you can’t do anything to comfort him. Of course, as the mother of a child who underwent 3 surgeries in his first 4 months of life and several more since, I have become a lot tougher about things like this. Sometimes you have to let someone hurt your child for his overall well-being. I believe circumcision is essential for his spiritual well-being, so I grit my teeth and get it done.
As I wrote about that awful Shabbat last year without power, “Some mitzvot (commandments) are very hard to follow. Ultimately, our willingness to stay committed despite how difficult it is can bring us closer to Him, and Him closer to us. It is an eternal sign between us. Most times, it is a bed of petals. Occasionally, it is a bed of thorns. Ultimately, it is all roses.” (Incidentally, yet another snowstorm is being predicted this weekend, and we are braving staying at home… wish us luck :-/ )
Why would God ask us to do something like this? Well, circumcision is like kashrut in that it’s a chok, the type of mitzvah without a logical explanation or given reason. So the answer is that we don’t know. Some sages teach that making a permanent physical mark on a part of the body that embodies our most base desires, is a symbolic expression and reminder to “master” those desires. The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel) teaches an idea that I really connect to:
In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image”. There are many commentaries trying to explain why God used the plural in this statement. My favorite explanation is that God created us incomplete; the completion of our own creation is in our own hands. That is, He is inviting us to become a partner in our own creation. By making good choices and striving to be better and to seek Him, we complete ourselves. The Maharal explains that circumcision is a physical manifestation of this idea.
So what about women then, I hear you ask?
What, childbirth isn’t enough?! 😛
No but seriously, the Maharal says that women are created more whole spiritually and therefore do not need this physical completion.
On to the practicalities. What does a circumcision ceremony look like? (Wait!!! Don’t run away! I will stick to my promise of no gory details! 😛 I’m not going to describe the procedure itself, I’m going to describe the ceremony around it.) (Okay? Are you breathing? Good. 😛 )
The circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the baby’s life, barring any medical reasons to postpone it. In essence, the ceremony involves welcoming the baby to the Jewish people. So it begins with the congregation saying the words: “Barukh haba”; “Welcome”. Though the obligation for circumcising one’s son is on the baby’s father, the procedure is usually carried out by a man called a mohel. There are mohels who are also doctors, but for the most part these are guys who have trained specifically to do circumcisions. I have heard that even gentiles sometimes prefer to have a mohel perform it because they are more experienced and well-trained in this particular procedure than most pediatricians. The mohel is also sort of the “master of ceremonies” and leads the congregation through the ceremony.
So the father brings the baby into the room–usually on a decorative pillow.
Some verses are recited responsively by the father and the congregation, and eventually the baby is placed on someone’s lap, who is seated on the “Chair of Elijah”. (This is usually a grandfather, uncle, or other loved one, who the parents wish to honor with this role. There are lots of symbolic “honor roles” in the ceremony–who gets to pass the baby between the mother and the father, who gets to recite which blessing, etc.) The mohel performs the procedure–making a blessing beforehand, because it’s a mitzvah–and then someone else reads a prayer blessing the baby and the parents, and announcing the baby’s name. You see, it is customary to wait until the brit to call the baby by his name, because he is not considered a part of the community until he has been circumcised. There is an idea that the parents have “divine inspiration” when they select the name for their children that borders on prophecy. We believe names have deep significance and affect the child’s destiny. As you know, we put a lot of thought into our sons’ names. Usually, by this time, the baby is already calm. After the blessings have been recited, the baby is handed back to the mother. A festive meal follows. (…Of course. Because no Jewish event is complete without food!) In Ashkenazi communities, it is customary to serve bagels, because they are round, symbolizing the life cycle.
The Sephardi/Mizrahi circumcisions I’ve attended involved a full-out feast with plenty of meat. In one I attended last year, the son of a couple of friends of North African descent, there were large platters of sweets and candies going around, and lots of songs I didn’t recognize. But there was the same spirit of joy, lots of singing and clapping and dancing. It’s really a joyful event, of welcoming a new baby into the community, and celebrating the new parents and/or big siblings.
So what about girls, I hear you ask? How are girls welcomed into the Jewish community?
Well, yes, there’s much less pomp and circumstance around it. A female baby’s name is usually announced during a Torah reading in the middle of a prayer service–on Monday, Thursday, or Shabbat. (I was born on a Monday before dawn, and my mother says my father went straight to prayer service and announced my name right then.) It is customary to hold a simchat bat, a “celebration for a girl”, which is basically just a party. Some people make it more like a brit by reciting verses and waiting to announce the name on that day. I attended a really beautiful simchat bat like that once. But it’s not really required by halakha, so people often put it off until the baby is a few months old, or indefinitely 😛 Speaking of putting off religious ceremonies for babies, I am waiting to hear about your traditions around baptism. 😉
See? That wasn’t so bad! 😛
Blog readers: Tell us about how babies are welcomed into your communities!