"If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin should be circumcised"—Leviticus 12:2-3.
Aside for being one of the many mitzvot, the obligation to circumcise a Jewish child at the age of eight days uniquely expresses a profound and fundamental religious truth inherent in all the mitzvot.
This is one of the reasons why the first mitzvah given to our forefather Abraham was that of brit milah (circumcision).
In fact, it has been said that brit milah is the mitzvah most universally accepted and performed by Jews of all denominations to this current day. And indeed, throughout the generations, despite the worst persecutions, the Jews have kept the mitzvah of brit milah with incredible devotion, self-sacrifice and joy.1
The obligation to circumcise a child at the age of eight days expresses a profound religious truth inherent in all the mitzvotPerhaps it can be said that the extraordinary message expressed by circumcision is what caused it to rise to the top of the list of rituals our enemies sought to eradicate time and again throughout our history. Perhaps they too recognized the power of its message.
But what is this unique message?
The power of the brit milah's message lies as much in its timing, at eight days old, as it does in the actitself.
The importance of this mitzvah's timing and prompt fulfillment can be learned from a startling Biblical episode which describes Moses' journey from Midian to Egypt to rescue his nation from captivity.
"When he was on the way, at the inn, G‑d encountered him and sought to kill him."2
The Midrash3 explains what led to this encounter:
"The angel sought to kill Moses for he had not yet circumcised his son, Eliezer... [Moses] said: Shall I perform the circumcision and then depart on the journey? Traveling poses a danger to the infant until three days have elapsed after the circumcision. Shall I perform the circumcision and wait three days? The Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded me, 'Go return to Egypt!' So why was Moses to be punished by death? Because he busied himself with making his arrangements first, before performing the circumcision…"
This means that the monumental mission of redeeming G‑d's people, as well as the life of Moses, came second to the timely fulfillment of a circumcision!
As I write these lines, a legislative bill is in the hands of the Massachusetts Joint Committee of the Judiciary, seeking to ban all circumcision performed on anyone under the age of eighteen without their express consent, unless there is a compelling medical need. The bill specifically bans circumcision for religious reasons. This bill – which fortunately seems to have little chance of being passed in to law – would penalize "illegal" circumcision with a fine, imprisonment of up to fourteen years, or both.
Shouldn't a child's consent be necessary before he is operated upon?Sadly, a couple in Finland who had a British rabbi circumcise their baby boy was recently found guilty of conspiracy to commit bodily harm by the Helsinki District Court. The court ordered the parents to pay their child 1,500 Euros for pain and suffering!
Something about these news items is eerily reminiscent of ancient Persia or Greece…
But don't the circumcision opponents have a point?
Shouldn't a child's consent be necessary before he is operated upon?
While surgery is sometimes necessary or desirable, in the case of circumcision how do we know that this is the child's desire?
The following excerpt of a letter written by the Rebbe might shed some light:
…You ask me about my reference to Maimonides where it contains in substance, though in different terms, the concepts of the conscious and the subconscious of modern psychology. I had in mind a passage in Hilchot Gerushin (end of chapter 2) in his magnum opus, Yad Hachazaka.
The gist of that passage follows: There are certain matters in Jewish law, the performance of which requires free volition, not coercion. However where the Jewish law requires specific performance, it is permitted to use coercive measures until the reluctant party declares, "I am willing," and his performance is valid and considered voluntary. There seems to be here an obvious contradiction: If it is permitted to compel performance, why is it necessary that the person should declare himself "willing"? And if compulsory performance is not valid, what good is it, if the person declares himself "willing" under compulsion?
And here comes the essential point of Maimonides' explanation:
Every Jew, regardless of his status and station, is essentially willing to do all that he is commanded by our Torah. However, sometimes, the Yetzer, the evil inclination, prevails over his better judgment and prevents him from doing what he has to do in accordance with the Torah.
When, therefore, the Beis Din [court of Jewish law] compels a Jew to do something, it is not with a view to create in him a newdesire, but rather to release him from the compulsion which had paralyzed his desire, thus enabling him to express his true self. Under these circumstances, when he declares "I am willing" it is an authentic declaration.
To put the above in contemporary terminology: The conscious state of a Jew can be affected by external pressures that induce states of mind and even behavior which is contrary to his subconscious, which is the Jew's essential nature. When the external pressures are removed, it does not constitute a change or transformation of his essential nature, but, on the contrary, is merely the reassertion of his innate and true character…"
In a different letter, written by the Rebbe to a youngster who informed the Rebbe about his upcoming bar mitzvah, the Rebbe added the following postscript:4
Regarding that which you write that "you stem from a secular family": certainly the "secular-ness" is an ancillary condition and an external "garment" that covers your essence and core. For every member of your family is the son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and the daughter of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) and, following them, tensof generations of followers of Torah and its precepts.
(Only that G‑d gave Man choice with regards to his actions, however, he cannot whatsoeverchange the essence, the core and his truest nature.)
Given the Jew's inherent desire to fulfill G‑d's will at all times, it becomes obvious that, if asked, the child would definitely consent to have the mitzvah of brit milah fulfilled.
Circumcision, performed at an age when explicit consent cannot be obtained, reveals the subconscious consent of each Jew to always fulfill the will of G‑dAnd so, of all the mitzvot, it is brit milah, performed at an age when explicit consent cannot be obtained, that reveals the implicit or subconscious consent of each Jew to always fulfill the will of G‑d.
Could this be the reason why circumcision came to symbolize Judaism to our enemies, and has, conversely, resonated so deeply within the collective Jewish heart and soul throughout the ages?
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson