The Power of Circumcision
Unlike Shabbat, circumcision is not a creation of the Jewish religious imagination. It was widely practiced in the ancient Near East, though not in Mesopotamia from where Abraham and his clan migrated. Many of the building blocks of the Torah are borrowed from surrounding cultures. The most notable example is the system of animal sacrifices as the preferred way to worship God. The synagogue, with verbal prayer based on a sacred book, is the true religious breakthrough of Judaism and not the tabernacle in the wilderness or the temple in Jerusalem. The originality of the Torah often lies in its inspired recycling of older religious materials. Adroit adaptation invests a common custom with new meaning that is often stunning.
Such is the case, I submit, with the covenant of circumcision instituted in this week’s parasha. At the age of 99, Abraham is asked by God to circumcise himself and all the male members of his household. And thereafter, “throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days (Genesis 17:12).” The purpose of a symbol is to convey meaning. Just how, we need to askourselves, does the rite of circumcision symbolize the mutual and enduring relationship between God and Abraham known as covenant or, in Hebrew, b’rit?
Outside of ancient Israel, circumcision is usually a puberty rite, clearly related to fertility. The removal of the foreskin admits the young male into manhood by readying him symbolically for procreation. The symbol and substance are closely related and meaning is not hard to identify. In the Torah, however, the rite is relocated to the earliest stage of infancy when the child is little more than an extension of his mother. What possible connection can the rite have to fertility in this new context?
A careful reading of chapter 17 suggests more than we might expect. As the chapter opens, Sarah has still not born Abraham a child. Despite God’s repeated assurances to Abraham of many offspring and national greatness (Genesis 12:2, 15:4-6ff), Sarah remained sadly barren. Some fourteen years before, after a decade of living in Canaan, Sarah had proposed giving Abraham a child through his maidservant Hagar. The practice is well-attested elsewhere. But the adoption of Ishmael as her son brought neither happiness nor fertility to Sarah. With advanced age, infertility threatened to make a mockery of Abraham’s dream.
It is at this juncture that God intervenes again. “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous (Genesis 17:1-2).” For effect, God changes Abraham’s name from “Abram” to “Abraham,” with the additional heh, endowing it with the meaning of “the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:5).” The physical symbol of this everlasting covenant is to be circumcision. Indeed, Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac only after her elderly husband has undergone the operation. Circumcision is as critical to setting human history on a new course as the original call to Abraham to leave his native land and his father’s house. Fertility comes to Sarah at the age of 90 with Abraham’s entry into the sacred covenant. Moreover, her name is likewise changed by the addition of the letter heh from “Sarai” to “Sarah (Genesis 17:15),” a letter that in both cases may represent the transfer of the letter heh from God’s name (i.e. the Tetragrammaton) to that of Abraham and Sarah. The new names signify not only a change in their fortune but a nearness and fidelity to God. The absence of offspring had not diminished their faith.
But circumcision as symbol goes beyond fertility. It must do justice to the reciprocal nature of a covenantal relationship. If, on the one hand, it recalls the Creator as Procreator, the Guarantor of fertility to an unsettled clan, on the other it expresses human allegiance and devotion to God. The commandment to Abraham henceforth to circumcise each newborn male on the eighth day after birth severs the rite from any subliminal fertility associations which anthropologists might wish to read into it. To my mind, the key to this ever-present meaning of circumcision, as opposed to its historical content, lies in the insistence on doing it on the eighth day.
There is nothing arbitrary about the selection of the day. Given the import of the symbolism, the Torah could not have chosen any other. The significance of the eighth day is illuminated by a singular prohibition in Leviticus: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord (Lev. 22:27).” In other words, no sacrificial animal is to be removed from its mother for the first seven days of its life. Divine prerogative defers for a time to the intensity of the kinship relationship.
Similarly, circumcision is delayed to the eighth day, as if to say that is the very first time when the male child may symbolically be dedicated to the service of God. The rite is a pledge of fealty and the mark, a lifelong external sign of apartness. Till the eighth day the child is without its own identity, entirely in the domain of its mother. The partnership with God is not forged until the first faint signs of viability and independence. The bestowal of a name at the same time underscores the transition to individuality and responsibility. Thereafter, male Jews spend the rest of their lives moving from fate to faith, turning “the covenant in the flesh (b’rit milah)” into a testimonial of spiritual nobility.
The Torah has thus transformed circumcision into a resonant symbol of Jewish destiny: a divine promise of national fertility coupled with a human commitment to live by God’s law. The challenge of our egalitarian age is to shape a worthy initiation rite for our newborn daughters.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,