Bris Milah: the Covenant of Circumcision

A question from my e-mail inbox:

I am very interested in information about Bris Milah. How can we avoid claims that it is a bizarre form of observance—a kind of genital mutilation? How do we avoid feeling that we are harming our child? Why couldn’t our forebears have picked another part of the body to manifest their covenant: ears (to listen to G-d) or the lip (to pray) or forehead (mind) and chest (heart). My point is —one’s genitals seems so peculiar.

Let me deal with each of these issues one by one.

In the first place, it is important to realize that if someone has the point of view that milah is mutilation, then performing it on the ear, finger, or anywhere else will not change his mind. Usually the problem with such a person is that he is anti-religion, at least to some degree.

As to harming the child, any doctor can tell you that it does not harm the child at all, especially when a mohel does it. Do you know that when a good mohel does a Bris Milah it takes approximately a minute and a half to complete the process? When a doctor does it, it can take over twenty minutes. Yet never in history has there been a reported case of a Jewish boy who was damaged by a mohel.

You asked why our forefathers could not have picked another part of the body. With Hashem’s help, I will explain why Bris Milah is done particularly on that part of the body. But first, it’s important to understand that our forefathers didn’t pick any part of the body. Hashem did. And that makes a world of difference.

The area in a man’s life that is the very hardest to control is in that particular organ. Thus, a man who can learn to control that tendency for the sake of Hashem’s Commandments has achieved a significant level of self-maturation and holiness. It is symbolic of all other areas of life. When Adam was created, he had no foreskin. After he sinned, the foreskin grew,
because he had now placed all of humanity in a situation where temptations are now ubiquitous. Likewise, in the Garden of Eden bread grew on trees, clothing grew on trees — everything a person needed was easily accessible. We did not need to harvest and process things in order to use them. Now, we are in a world where everything takes a great deal of work to find its perfection.

On one level, we can learn that controlling our animal instincts will do us no harm (just as the circumcision does us no harm).

It is therefore significant that when certain types of people decry circumcision, they often point out that it diminishes the amount of pleasure a man can have. That is rather ridiculous. It is not as if the man has no pleasure. (Judaism does not prohibit or frown on pleasure.) It is not as if now the man can have pleasure fewer times. It is simply that when he has pleasure, he has a few millimeters less of it. How animalistic can a person be to complain about that?

Nevertheless, if pleasure is all a person thinks he is here on earth for, then he has a point. However, since we Jews believe in two worlds, we take into consideration the next world as well. (And no, this would not convince such people.)

To the Jewish way of thinking, G-d created everything on earth to be perfected by man. G-d created wheat, but it takes humanity to harvest it, grind it, sift it, knead it, and bake it into bread before it can be eaten. G-d created flax, but it takes humanity to cut it, comb it, spin it, and weave it into clothing before it can be worn.

Likewise, man is also incomplete, until he is changed both physically and mentally. He must remove the physical foreskin, and he must also remove the mental barrier, the «foreskin of the heart,» the tendency towards disloyalty to G-d. Man learns to control his passions.

It is noteworthy that woman has no similar Commandment. Most things in the world were created before man, so that it would all be completed and ready for humanity’s use when we were created. Woman, however, was created after man. Thus, we find that woman was created at a higher level. Therefore, man needs woman to become complete, and until a man gets married, says the Talmud, he is not complete. Men are required by Jewish Law to get married. A man breaks a Commandment if he doesn’t get married, but women have no such requirement, and do not break the Commandment if they don’t.

Woman is the completion of man, but woman needs no completion herself.

That is why a woman says the blessing, each morning, «Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe, Who has made me according to His will.» Woman is made according to G-d’s will, but man is not! (For more about this, see my wife’s letter on this subject.)
Man needs woman for completion, man needs circumcision for elevation, but woman needs nothing except what is within her, which was granted her by G-d. The man cannot say that G-d has made him according to G-d’s will. G-d’s will in this case is something that man must complete.

When a man learns that his pleasure is not all that counts, he will then serve G-d all the better.

Incidentally, I might add that had Hashem chosen the milah to be in a more noticeable place, Jews would never have been able to hide from persecutors, such as the Marranos did in Spain, and as many Jews did from the Nazis. So that’s an additional blessing. But that’s not the primary reason, of course. The primary reason for performing any Commandment is simply: to fulfill the will of Hashem.

To learn more about the subject of Bris Milah, go to Traditional Circumcision, which has been set up for a mohel (Rabbi who performs circumcisions) with many years of experience.

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