The ritual of circumcision, as explained to me in seminary Scripture classes, was God's command to Moses and the chosen people of Israel, a largely patriarchal society, to set them off as God's own with a sign in the flesh. The blood involved, the human symbol of life, was understandable in light of the sacrificial use of animal blood to signify a sharing of life between God and the people. Because of its uniqueness in the surrounding early culture, there was also an element of the solidarity of the people.
I've learned, in pursuing this today, that b'rit mi'lah = covenant of circumcision is the correct Hebrew term [בְּרִית מִילָה], and that bris is the Yiddish term used. Bris milôh is the Ashkenazi variation. This Jewish religious ceremony is performed on 8-day old male infants by a mohel, and is followed by a meal, seudat mitzvah, literally, commanded meal. A mohel is a Jewish man trained in the ritual of circumcision according to the precepts outlined in classical rabbinic texts. Today they generally receive medical training also, and it is very common to find mohelim who are also doctors.
Judaism views body and soul as holy partners in serving God. So, the Brit is performed on the most physical part, for all of man is holy before his Creator. Brit milah is understood to join the forces of body and soul together in serving God.
The kabbalistic writings teach that seven days represent the physical world of creation. In having lived for eight days, a child is seen to have transcended the physical to the metaphysical. The covenant joining body and soul, physical and spiritual, can now take place.
Brit milah includes three main parts: the blessing and circumcision; the Kiddush and naming; and the
seudat mitzvah, or celebratory meal. Not counting the latter, the entire ceremony of Brit milah takes about 15 minutes.
The child is brought into the room where the ceremony will take place, and as the baby enters, the guests greet him by saying "Baruch haba" = "Blessed be he who comes. This greeting wasn't originally part of the ceremony, but was added as if to express a hope that, perhaps, the messiah had been born and the guests were greeting him. It's customary to honor and invite family and friends to participate in holding the baby at various parts of the Brit. The ceremony begins when the mother hands the baby to the Kvatterin, the Jewish equivalent of a godmother, who then takes the baby from the mother and hands him to the Kvatter, the Jewish equivalent of a godfather. The Kvatter then brings the baby to the mohel.
The highest honor of the ceremony is to be the sandak. The Sandak is the person given the honor of holding the child while the circumcision is performed. If the Sandak is a righteous man, he can help in drawing down a holy soul for the child. In fact, the child takes the good character traits from the Sandak and shares a spiritual connection with him. Since this is the highest honor bestowed at the Brit, many choose the grandfather, brother, a close friend of the father, or some other revered individual for the role. Sometimes the Sandak sits in a special chair called the Chair of Elijah. The prophet is thought to be the child's guardian at the circumcision, hence there is a chair in his honor.
The mohel then recites a blessing over the baby, saying: "Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us in the ritual of circumcision." The circumcision is then performed and the father recites a blessing thanking God for bringing the child into the covenant of Abraham: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to make him enter into the covenant of Abraham our father." After the father has recited the blessing, guests respond with "As he has entered into the covenant, so may he be introduced to the study of Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds."
Next the blessing over the wine (Kiddush) is said and a drop of wine is put into the baby’s mouth. A prayer for his well-being is recited, followed by a longer prayer that gives him his name: "Creator of the universe. May it be Your will to regard and accept this (performance of circumcision), as if I had brought this baby before Your glorious throne. And in Your abundant mercy, through Your holy angels, give a pure and holy heart to ________, the son of ________, who was just now circumcised in honor of Your great Name. May his heart be wide open to comprehend Your holy Law, that he may learn and teach, keep and fulfill Your laws." Ashkenazi-European Jews have the custom of naming a child after someone deceased, a beautiful tradition of immortalizing a close relative or friend. Sephardic Jews customarily name the child after the living. A child may have one or more names, depending on the parents' wishes.
Finally, there is the seudat mitzvah, a celebratory meal required by Jewish law. Through it the joy of a new life in this world is connected with the joy of sharing food with family and friends.
What's the reason for this circumcision of the flesh? The most obvious answer is found in the Hebrew Scriptures: "And God spoke to Abraham saying: ...This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your seed after you -- every male child among you shall be circumcised." (Genesis 17:12) For 3500 years, since the time of their forefather, Abraham, the Jewish people have observed the ritual of circumcision as the fundamental sign of the covenant between God and Israel. It is "the Covenant of Circumcision", much more than simply a medical procedure. Brit milah is the sign of a new-born child's entry into the Jewish tradition. For millennia, in every country where Jews have lived, they have always practiced this ritual, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other ritual, Brit milah is the ultimate affirmation of Jewish identity.
In Of the Special Laws, Book 1, the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BC - AD 50) also gives six other reasons for the practice of circumcision. He attributes four of them to "men of divine spirit and wisdom". These include the idea that circumcision:
- protects against disease;
- secures cleanliness "in a way that is suited to the people consecrated to God";
- causes the circumcised portion of the penis to resemble a heart, thereby representing a physical connection between the "breath contained within the heart [that] is generative of thoughts, and the generative organ itself [that] is productive of living beings";
- promotes the future man being prolific by removing impediments to the flow of semen.
To these, Philo added two of his own reasons:
- it "signified figuratively the excision of all superfluous and excessive pleasure";
- "it is a symbol of a man's knowing himself".
Contemporary Talmudic scholar and professor, Dr. Daniel Boyarin, of the University of California, Berkeley, offers two other innovative reasons for circumcision. One is that it's a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter yud from yesod. The latter is a Kabbalistic term, translated as foundation, the ninth of ten sephirot (emanations). Yesod is associated in the soul with the power to contact, connect and communicate with outer reality, represented by the sefirah of malchut = earth. The foundation (yesod) of a building is its "grounding," its union with the earth. In Christian kabbalah, yesod is compared to the Christian concept of Holy Spirit, that aspect of God that descends upon and sanctifies earth and humankind.
Dr. Boyarin's second reason for circumcision is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the Covenant represents a marriage between Jews and a symbolically male God.
Most of the above explanation is a long way of getting back around to the question which arose in my mind this morning as I read the passage from Deuteronomy 10:16: "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer." What would that mean for me in practice? It would certainly imply the recommittal of my mind, soul, and body, indeed, all my powers, to the living God. Along with that it would involve inwardly sacrificing, "giving up", to use a common Lenten term, letting go, anything standing in the way of growth into maturity in the ways of God, primarily in love. Circumcision of the heart would also, of necessity, conjure up the living memory and reality of all those signficant people in my spiritual life, past and present: "honored people" similar to a Kvatterin, Kvatter, Mohel, and Sandak, who have helped bring me to where I am, spiritually, today. It would also certainly lead me to examine my commitment to the baptismal covenant which I've made and renewed so often in the presence of God and the community of faith, to appreciate and participate with greater devotion in the Christian "commanded meal", the Eucharist: "Take, eat...This is my body...This is my blood...for you." Finally, it would lead me to recommit myself to the Holy Spirit of Love, the foundation and inspiration for study of the Holy Book, for relationships with others, for the doing of good deeds.