Saturday, July 26, 2008

Selling Circumcision to Jewish Progressives

A few days ago, my newborn grandson Uri had his bris.

Circumcision is one of Judaism's oldest customs; according to the Bible, it predates the covenant at Sinai. It is also practiced in many areas around the world. It is a primitive – some would say 'barbaric' – practice. What bothers people most about circumcision in the Jewish case is that an irreversible and painful procedure of questionable medical benefit is performed on human beings without their knowledge and consent. But even if it is a relatively benign procedure, the idea of having it conducted by a mohel, and then having a party after it, while the baby is still in pain…well, you catch the difficulty. And if you don't, then go watch the Seinfeld episode where Kramer kidnaps the baby before the bris.

There is nothing liberal or progressive about male infant circumcision. And yet, when asked to say a few words at the reception, this is what I said.

Cicumcision is the only custom in Judaism where Jews are commanded to perform an action that brings pain on ourselves (According to the Torah, our children are extension of ourselves.) Of course, pain is not essential to the mitzvah; if one could circumcize without causing pain,that would be fine. Circumcision is the sign of the covenant with God, according to the Bible. But in most cases the pain will be there, and the ethical imperative against unnecessarily causing pain is the strongest argument against circumcision.

Yet circumcision can be removed from the category of unnecessarily producing pain if the pain that is produced has a humanizing effect. Not on the infant, of course, but on ourselves.

The Jew believe that circumcision is good for the infant because being part of the covenant with God is good. But no matter how good we think it is, we are or should be aware that the infant is in pain. And that should cause us pain, and cause us to want to alleviate the infant's pain – and to make us feel guilty that we were the cause of the pain, even if it's for our good.

The infant is powerless to determine his destiny. Only if the powerful are able to empathize with the pain of the powerless can that pain have meaning.

This we learn from Abram, who, according to the Midrash, was recovering from this circumcision when the three strangers arrived. Because of his own pain Abram could empathize with the pain of the strangers. And he overcame his pain by running to provide for his guests. Until that time, Abram had never helped anybody beyond the confines of his tribe – unless his own kin, like Lot, were affected. Feeding the strangers was the first selfless action he undertook. And it is not a coincidence that the selfless act followed his circumcision.

Next, Abraham negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Sodom. These were people that were alien to his tribe and to his moral code. Yet thanks, apparently, to the pain of circumcision, he could feel their pain as well.

The idea that circumcision makes one truly human is reflected in those midrashim that see it as the completion of the creation of man. It is also reflected in the commandment in Deuteronomy to circumcise one's heart – to remove the external cover that blocks our feelings of empathy for our less fortunate fellow-creatures.

The opposite of the a circumcised heart is a hardened heart – when we steel ourselves against empathizing or identifying with the less fortunate. If I had to suggest the one sin that characterizes the people Israel today it is that they have hardened their hearts against the suffering of the unfortunate, Jew and non-Jew. They just don't care; they are ready to point the blame but not to take the reponsibility. Ditto for the Palestinians.

You don't need circumcision to teach you the lesson of empathy. But if you are going to accept the covenant of circumcision, then the foreskin shouldn't be the only thing circumcised.

We should let the sensitivity to our and to our children's pain take us beyond ourselves to those other, less fortunate, ones for whose pain we are responsible.



Anonymous said...

As a progressive Jew who favours circumcision,let me congratulate you and offer a yasher koach on wonderfully written and sensitive words.
Now let me poke a hole in your argument -- Abraham after his circumcision, shows empathy for strangers like the visitors, and the men of Sodom. But he shows no empathy to his own family-- God has to intervene and show empathy to Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Issac. If God has to intervene to get you to show empathy to your own family-- you didn't get the message.

Jerry Haber said...

Ploni, I don't agree with you that Abraham lacks empathy in the Hagar story. Abraham is not in a hurry to placate Sarah and to send away Hagar and his son. His dilemma is one of resolving conflicting obligations. Maybe you would say he lacks enough empathy.

Actually, I have a devar torah to say about that one, but maybe I will wait for the parsha/portion to role around. Then you can print it out, take it with you to shul and read it during your progressive davening.

Anonymous said...

"Yet circumcision can be removed from the category of unnecessarily producing pain if the pain that is produced has a humanizing effect. Not on the infant, of course, but on ourselves." If it humanised the infant (as you argue it directly humanised Abraham), one could see more reason for it. Wouldn't it humanise us more if we so empathised with the infant's pain and loss that we didn't inflict it?

Mark Lyndon said...

Not all Jewish people believe in circumcision. Brit Shalom is an alternative naming ceremony to celebrate the birth of baby boys to Jewish families.

These sites are all run by Jews opposed to circumcision:

Ben Bayit said...

It doesn't surprise me that your site would attract Jewish readers opposed to Brit Mila. I can't wait till the מושך ערלתו gang post links to their sites as well.