A Covenant Beyond Reason
by Rabbi David Zaslow
In 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.
Over 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.
The 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.
Certainly 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.
The 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.
There 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 rituals).
The 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.”
A 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…”
It 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?
Jewish 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.
There 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.
The 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.
I 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.
A Personal Story
In 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?
How 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.
But 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.
Shabbat 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 wasn’t 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).
We arranged for Ari’s belated circumcision when he was six-years old. My change of mind was strictly spiritual. I believed that G-d’s 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.
The 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 didn’t do it then because I didn’t want to cause him any pain. I asked his forgiveness for causing him so much pain now.
His answer still gives me shivers, “Of course I forgive you Daddy. But why didn’t 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.
Selected in the anthology “Best Jewish Writing of 2002.” Originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Spring 2002.