The Mitzvah of Circumcision
Parashat Lekh L’kha is the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and, by extension, with all future Israelite generations. The climax of this story is the mitzvah of circumcision. Few mitzvot in our tradition have elicited the enduring commitment and unwavering observance of the majority of our people as has the ritual of circumcision. Few mitzvot have yielded the intensity of emotion and fascination which pervades any brit milah.
Why do we perform this extraordinary ritual? According to the Torah, we observe the mitzvah of circumcision in order to signify our covenant with God, as it states in Genesis 17:
You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you…Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting covenant (v. 11, 13).
Although the Torah is explicit about what circumcision symbolizes, we still yearn for deeper understanding. In what way does removing foreskin establish a covenant with God? In keeping with the rich and diverse traditions of our Jewish heritage, there are many different approaches to this question.
One way to understand the meaning of circumcision for the biblical period is to carefully read the context in which the mitzvah is presented. In the beginning of Genesis 17, God’s promise of a covenant with Abraham is accompanied with the promise of great fertility:
I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous… You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…I will make you exceedingly fertile (v. 2, 4, 6).
The Torah then delineates Abraham’s role in this covenant – the faithful observance of circumcision. The description of the covenant in our parashah suggests a powerful connection between circumcision and fertility.
This connection is further demonstrated by an examination of the term orlah , “foreskin,” in other biblical passages. In the book of Exodus, Moses refers to his speech impediment as the “foreskin” on his lips (Exodus 6:30). In the book of Deuteronomy, in order for the Israelites to love and serve God, they are asked to remove the “foreskin” of their hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16). In the book of Jeremiah, the people are unable to receive and hear the prophetic message because of the “foreskin” on their ears (Jeremiah 6:10). In each of these cases, “foreskin” represents an obstacle to the proper functioning of the organ. From this perspective, God commands Abraham to remove the foreskin of the males in his household in order to more successfully participate in God’s covenant of fertility. This ritual represents the human role in God’s promise of a fruitful nation.
However, circumcision as a method for improving fertility does not speak to the essence of what it means to be in a covenantal relationship with God. In the rabbinic period, the meaning of circumcision assumes several new interpretations. One prevalent notion in the Talmud was that circumcision helps to curb sinful lust (see, for example, Sukkah 52a or Nedarim 32a). This approach to brit milah is articulated in a striking midrash in Menachot 43b:
Our masters taught: Beloved are Israel, whom the Holy One encompassed with commandments; tefillin on their heads, tefillin on their arms, four knotted fringes on their garments, mezuzot on their doorposts. Of these King David said, “Seven times a day do I praise Thee by heeding Thy righteous ordinances (Ps. 119:164). When King David went into a bathhouse and saw himself standing naked, he exclaimed: “Woe is me, that I stand naked without a commandment.” But when he noticed the circumcision in his flesh, his mind was set at rest.
According to this midrash, God has surrounded us with tangible mitzvot which serve as reminders of our covenant with God. In the bathhouse, King David finds himself stripped of the reminders of tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah which protect him daily from sinning. Standing naked in a place of potential temptation, David worries that he will stray from God’s ways without the safeguard of the mitzvot. Finally, he is comforted that wherever he goes, he is guarded from sinning by the seal of God’s covenant in his flesh.
From this rabbinic perspective, circumcision serves as a mark of self-control at the very root of potential sin. For the rabbis, sexual sin was the epitome of idolatry and the rejection of God’s laws. Whether or not this idea resonates with our modern sensibilities, this rabbinic interpretation of brit milah helps us focus on another important aspect of our covenant with God – our willful acceptance of the mitzvot. In this way, circumcision functions as a constant reminder to keep God’s commandments, much like themezuzah on our doorposts. From this approach, we can understand circumcision as our attempt to literally embody the commitment to God’s laws.
A later rabbinic midrash suggests yet another interpretation of the mitzvah of circumcision. Midrash Tanhuma tells the story of a discussion between the Roman governor Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva why the Jewish people are circumcised. In his reply, Rabbi Akiva asserts that, “The works of human beings are more beautiful than those of the Holy One.” To prove his point, Rabbi Akiva presents ears of grain and delicate breads before Rufus, saying: “The ears of grain are the work of the Holy One, the breads are the work of human beings – are not the loaves of bread more beautiful?” Rabbi Akiva then brings stalks of flax and elaborately woven garments. He explains, “The first are the work of God; the second, the work of man. Are not the garments more to be admired?”
This midrash articulates a theology of covenant and an interpretation of circumcision which continues to have profound meaning for us today. This theology asserts that we are partners with God in creation. Circumcision serves as the sign of our commitment to participate with God in this on-going process. Our role in the covenant with God is to help perfect the world in which God has placed us. Therefore, we turn grain into bread and flax into garments; we strive to build just and peaceful societies; and we bring God’s presence into the world through our prayers and our mitzvot. Circumcision is the empowering reminder that we are charged with the awesome responsibility of perfecting God’s creation – even the creation of our own selves! God’s creation of the world is completed in seven days. On the eighth day, we begin where God has left off. On the eighth day, we assume our role in the covenant with God as fellow architects in the building of a better world.