Covenant Beyond Reason
Rabbi David Zaslow
the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) there are three kinds
of mitzvot (commandments from God). The first are called mishpatim
or "judgments." These are the logical, universal,
moral commandments discovered by all peoples in all spiritual
traditions. Honor your mother and father, do not murder, do
not steal, love your neighbor as yourself - all fall into
this category of logical, ethical commandments. These commandments
can also be thought of as what Thomas Jefferson thought of
as "natural law," or the Torah which is universally
discovered by observing the most efficient systems within
nature and human society.
time all cultures, and religions come to the same conclusion
that murder and stealing are negative, counter-productive,
and therefore prohibited behaviors. In Judaism gossip can
be deemed to be a metaphorical form of murder if the words
"kill" someone's reputation. Good people of all
faiths, I am sure, would agree that murder and stealing in
their common or metaphorical forms are against their will
of the Divine.
second category of mitzvot are eidot, or "memorial rituals."
For example, in the Torah God commands the Jewish people to
make a seder (festive meal) in the springtime to commemorate
the exodus from Egypt. The Festival of Passover is a family
oriented retelling of the exodus story. During the holiday
of Purim the Jewish people retell the story of Queen Esther.
During the holiday of Hanukkah the story of the miracle of
the light is retold. In other words, these not universal commandments,
but strictly tribal reenactments to help those who are Jewish
remember their history.
there are moral and ethical elements to these memorial rituals.
For example, on Passover week learn about the importance of
physical freedom; on Hanukkah we learn about the necessity
of religious freedom. But these ethical teachings are a result
of performing the memorial rituals. Every culture, religion,
and society creates its own unique memorial rituals based
upon local and cultural history.
third category, under which britt milah (the covenant of circumcision)
falls, is the most mysterious. This category is called hukkim
which we translate as "statutes." These include
kosher dietary laws and circumcision. What are they for? There
is no clear answer. Why do we do them? There is no clear answer.
The best we can do is rationalize. We do these mitzvot to
show our love for God. We call it the practice of bittul hanefesh,
(lit. negation of the soul) to put the rational
mind aside so that the heart and soul might open.
are be clear and precise reasons for this kind of mitzvah
(commandment). They can be studied, debated, and rationalized
but no one can claim to be able to explain it them logically
as one can explain the mishpatim (judgments) and eidot (memorial
ancient rite begins with God's desire to make a covenant with
it the patriarch Abraham. The token, or sign, of this pact
is the willingness of Abraham to make a sacrifice. In the
words of the Torah, Genesis 17:10-11, "This is my covenant,
which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after
thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And
ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall
be a sign of the covenant between me and you."
modern person might ask, "Why do we take this commandment
literally? Why not invent a ceremony that would satisfy our
modern sensibilities? Interestingly, the Torah written
3,300 years ago seems to anticipate our need for reason, or
at least an answer to the question, what is the inner meaning
of circumcision? In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah says, And
the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart, and the heart
of your seed, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart
and with all your soul...
almost seems as if God is trying to explain the profound impact
of the ritual as means of increasing compassion and empathy.
In other words, the intent of the ritual is much more profound
than just the technical procedure of removing the foreskin.
In abstaining from non-kosher foods we may not need a clear
reason, but must we cause needless pain to our sons with such
a ancient ritual?
tradition says, Yes. When administered sensitively
the britt ceremony is the most incredible father/son bonding
experience. It is not a means, as some critics have suggested,
of reproducing patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement.
On the contrary, it seems to be a means of reproducing male
love and compassion. Our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters
experience the awesome spiritual bonding power of blood every
month. Men have this opportunity only during circumcision.
is nothing moral or immoral about the choices we make about
circumcision. This is not a moral mitzvah! It is a spiritual
practice that is purposely not based on logic. The ritual
is not necessarily about aesthetics, good medicine, or even
the power of tradition.
britt can be a once in a lifetime chance for the souls of
father and son to bond in the deepest way imaginable. As a
rabbi, this is the intention that I bring into the rite. I
suggest to the fathers that they consider holding the hands
of their sons during the circumcision, and to ask God to bless
their sons with love, peace, health, and joy. I tell the fathers
not to deny that there will be some pain, and to see themselves
carrying that pain for their sons.
sometimes teach the fathers the story of Abraham binding his
son on the alter and ask them to practice the kind of trust
in God that Abraham had in that awesome moment. I suggest
that they imagine the britt milah ceremony as a reenactment
of that event. I encourage the dads to make contact with their
own emotions and to let the tears come on behalf of their
sons, and for all the pain their sons will experience in their
lives. I encourage the dads to cry and to let those tears
be a kind of prayer or offering for all children. This is
the essence, I believe, of making a covenant, a spiritual
pact with the Holy One.
1984 our son Ari had a beautiful, natural, home birth. Our
daughter Rachel was born in the same bed and into the same
loving environment three years earlier. My wife Devorah and
I were resolute about our decision not to circumcise our son.
We felt like pioneers braving the obstacles of both family
and Jewish tradition. We reasoned that if we made such an
effort to create a loving welcome into the world, how could
we inflict unnecessary pain upon this beautiful soul just
because of what seemed to be an archaic tradition?
we all change! In 1988 I had a spiritual awakening. I was
forty-years-old when I heard the call, and soon
I was on the path to becoming a rabbi. At first my personal
spiritual practices and study were not a contradiction to
having an uncircumcised son. Afterall, my original reasoning
against the ritual still seemed true.
little by little something inside me was changing. Not a sense
of returning to tradition. Not a sense of tribal loyalty.
Not even a sense that our decision not to circumcise was a
mistake. But a sense that there is a difference between a
circumcision and a britt. A britt is a covenant or partnership
with the Divine. I was experiencing this covenant myself firsthand.
I no longer saw Jewish rituals as symbolic. They were, when
conducted properly, not symbols but part of a spiritual technology
for covenenting with God.
candlelighting was no longer a quaint representation of an
ancient fire ritual. The wine was not a symbol but an actuality.
Candles and wine were signals to G-d that our family was ready
for Sabbath. And when we sang the Friday evening song to welcome
angels into our home it wasnt because it was symbolic.
We sang it because we were actually welcoming real angels.
We blessed our children because we were connecting the souls
of our children to Shechinah (the feminine name for the Divine
Presence of God).
arranged for Aris belated circumcision when he was six-years
old. My change of mind was strictly spiritual. I believed
that G-ds covenant was a real energy pact. I believed
that Elijah was an animate energy force, and that his chair
at a circumcision was not just symbolic. And if there was
a psychological benefit for Ari to have his penis look like
mine, then that would be an added benefit.
next morning, while lying on the living room floor together
I told my son, my only son, that had I done this when he was
eight days old there would have hardly been any pain. I told
him that I didnt do it then because I didnt want
to cause him any pain. I asked his forgiveness for causing
him so much pain now.
answer still gives me shivers, Of course I forgive you
Daddy. But why didnt you do it then? I wanted you to
do it when I was eight days old! My mind went numb.
I thought, What did he mean by I wanted you to
do it then? Dare I ask? With tears streaming down
both our cheeks we sat together in silence. Six years late,
but the father/son bonding experience was extraordinary.
in the anthology Best Jewish Writing of 2002.
Originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Spring 2002.