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.