Having just celebrated (if that’s the word for it) the circumcisions of two grandsons in the past few months, I have to admit the German court that ruled the practice “bodily harm” got my attention as much for its compassion as its presumption. Jewish parents, no less than gentile jurists, approach this ritual at least fascinated, at times skeptical, a little queasy, certainly pained.
Does this act, first attributed to Abraham, not violate the most natural instinct we have as parents around a newborn, which is to protect him absolutely? Abraham, too, was a loving father but he was also capable of treating his sons with, let us say, fervor. Why has this ritual remained so cherished, indeed foundational, while so many other ancient commandments have fallen into eclipse?
Some say Jews practice the brit mila because it is ancient and, they’ll tell you, one dare not break a chain others have died for. Chronicles of martyrdom can break your heart, but if chains of devotion were themselves reason enough to preserve scripturally sanctioned ways, we would be stoning children for impudence and sacrificing lambs to quell (consequent) feelings of guilt. As for claims of ancient hygiene, I leave that to ancients' hygienists. Today’s data is hardly definitive on what might be gained by losing one’s foreskin. Presumably, modern soap may be trusted.
I hasten to add that circumcision can hardly be thought determinative of a baby boy’s sexual development, however much Alex Portnoy might complain about his bris as a dim precursor to later castration threats. If the pain of circumcision is traumatically invasive, then applying Desitin to diaper rash is molestation. The late, great Hitchens assures us that circumcision reduces sexual sensation, pleasure, etc., in adult men, and wounds them before they can state their desires, drawing a parallel to female circumcision—which is of course incomparable, since the latter removes the source of all sexual pleasure in women. But is he even right about men? In the first place, how would he know? In the second, a man’s most important sexual organ is his brain, and, third, I doubt many women would mind if male sexual sensation were reduced by, say, seven minutes.
Most thinking Jews, justifiably, will counter all this physiological speculation (and hyperbole) by insisting that circumcision is not a practical matter at all. Rather, it is a primordial act of covenant, a kind of throwback to sacrifice, actually, which marks the commitment of our children to the Jewish people and its mission. But this begs the question, precisely, of how to understand the covenantal mission and how to engender it. The same Jews believe that the mission unfolds as life and history unfold. Our commitment is to inherited principles, not to inherited genes. The act has to be consistent with, or evoke, enduring principles. What are they?
So we are left with a puzzle. What deeper meaning might be implied by circumcision, so that Jewish parents, generation after generation, swallow hard and do it? How does the back of the mind take in the brit mila, so that Jewish sages thought its lessons were indispensible?
Permit a passionate father (and grandfather) to suggest a direction, if not a whole answer. The poet Robert Bly once said, “A man’s wound is his genius.” I think parents who perform circumcision on a tender baby cannot but feel the beginning of an acknowledgement, which will grow over time—something bitter-sweet and wise. It is that our role is not merely to protect our children but to expose them. We are required to introduce them—affectionately, yet at times strictly—to the stings of the world, which are everywhere; these are the real prompts of maturity and autonomy—thus the deepest sources of their happiness. This ritual infliction of pain, like the insistence of broken glass at a wedding, is an act of love, arguably divine love—that is, love of human beings as we truly are, without (dare I say, childish?) illusions.
You don't have to have a mother like Sophie Portnoy to know that over-protection is the ultimate form of child abuse. Who among us would live our lives over again without the pains that instructed, fashioned and liberated us?
And since this was a German court, however secular, let’s cover another base. Saint Paul said that we ought rather to circumcise the heart. (Actually, Leviticus, and later Jeremiah, suggest the same, arguably without the “rather.”) Well, I have had both circumcisions, of the flesh and heart, and I can report that the latter is far more painful. Human life is calculated to make us lose every person we love, but who lives happier by shielding himself from love?
The part of Paul’s theology I admire most suggests that the divine proved truest by becoming flesh to suffer with us, thus to truly know us. I like to think the divine was first present in my life at the tiny suffering of my circumcised flesh; that God slyly instructed Abraham to circumcise his sons because he wanted to imply what some rabbis have had the wit to add, generation after generation. Before circumcision a man is not whole. Genesis Rabbah states, glossing circumcision: “All that was created during the six days of creation requires improvement. For example, the mustard seed needs to be sweetened and the lupine need to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, and even a person needs improvement.” Indeed, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.