We hear a lot of pop culture references to “I Love You Just the Way You Are,” “Born This Way,” etc. The Greeks also thought we were perfect as we are. So why would God create man needing a bris? What is Judaism trying to tell us about why we need circumcision? Shouldn’t we have the self-esteem to feel proud of who we are without needing to change?
It’s been a while since I’ve used one of these questions to shamelessly self-promote, so let me start by recommending my book The Taryag Companion, which addresses the reasons underlying the 613 mitzvos, at least insofar as we understand them. That having been said, let’s examine the rationale underlying the mitzvah of milah (circumcision).
In Genesis 17:10, God says, “This is My covenant that you must honor, between Me and you and among your descendants: every male among you must be circumcised.” God promised Abraham great things for him and his descendants. In exchange, He commanded that all males be circumcised – optimally at the age of eight days old – as a sign of this covenant. By performing this act, we partner with God in completing the act of creation.
The reason for this mitzvah according to the Sefer HaChinuch is that it forms a permanent, physical sign of our covenant with God. The Talmud in Menachos (43b) stresses this point when it relates a story involving King David. On one occasion, David entered the bath house and was saddened when he considered that he was bereft of his tallis, tefillin, the Torah scroll that a Jewish king is commanded to carry with him, and all the other symbols of the Jewish people’s commitment to fulfilling God’s will. When he looked down and saw the place of his circumcision, however, he was comforted.
Now consider the alternative: if we were not commanded to circumcise (or if we were born pre-circumcised), God would have promised great things to Abraham and his descendants, in exchange for which He would have asked for… nothing. Seems pretty one-sided! The permanent sign of our covenant would be… nothing! David would have been comforted by… nothing! We would partner with God in completing the act of creation by doing… nothing!
This doesn’t sound like there’s any shame in how we’re born. Rather, it’s doing something to take us to the next level as a sign of our membership in an exclusive club. We don’t tattoo (doing so is actually prohibited by the Torah) but consider this analogous to a marine getting a “Semper Fidelis” eagle tattoo. There’s nothing wrong with his bicep without it, he just chooses to use it to display his pride of membership.
Now, there are certainly others who circumcise for a variety of other reasons – religious, health, aesthetic or otherwise. The fact that we are not exclusive in this practice doesn’t take away from it at all. In a previous article, I mentioned how cultural hairstyles sometimes favor payes (sidelocks worn by Jewish men) and sometimes these styles go against them; we grow our hair a certain way regardless of what’s popular. Well, the same is true of circumcision. We had the better part of a century in which circumcision was popular in the US thanks to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who, in addition to being inventor of the corn flake, was an anti-masturbation crusader and a circumcision proponent. (This is not a joke.) The popularity pendulum started swinging the other way – in the US and in Europe – in the 1990s and 2000s. In recent years, a number of European countries have instituted or considered circumcision bans. So, popularity or lack thereof notwithstanding, we consider circumcising to be our right, privilege and duty.
One last thought: We have a tradition that Abraham observed the entire Torah, based on Genesis 26:5 (“because Abraham heeded My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws”). If Abraham was able to intuit all the laws of the Torah and observe them voluntarily, why didn’t he circumcise himself before God commanded it? The reason is because he intuited the prohibition against self-injury (Deuteronomy 14:1). If not for God’s command, we would not be permitted to circumcise, except as might be required in cases of medical necessity.
That being the case, it should be evident that, while Judaism considers circumcision to be the fulfillment of God’s will, it simultaneously considers female “circumcision” to be a form of mutilation. The women’s morning blessing that God “formed me according to His will” is not intended as the “consolation prize” that some like to frame it. Rather, it is a statement that God made women – the pinnacle of creation – physically perfect, as He desires them.
Such is not the case with men, whom God formed not according to the way He ultimately wants us. Rather, He designed us requiring a small alteration, enabling us to partner with Him as a sign of the covenant. And there’s no shame in that.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent