Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why Are Jews Circumcised?

Abraham was the first Jew, living about 3700 years ago. The Bible tells us that when Abraham was 99 years old, God instructed him to circumcise himself, his 13-year-old son Ishmael and all of the men of his household. God told Abraham that all Jewish baby boys would from now on be circumcised at the age of eight days old, as Abraham would later do for his son Isaac. The circumcision was a sign of the covenant, the brit, between the Jewish people and God, which is why we call the ceremony a brit, or bris.

The covenant with God requires Jews to be loyal to God and to follow the commandments of Judaism. In return God will make the Jewish people into a great nation, give us the land of Israel and be with us, protecting us throughout history. Today, a mohel, or moyel, a Jew with special training, performs the ritual of circumcision when the baby boy is eight days old. During the ceremony, the baby is circumcised, receives his Hebrew name and is welcomed into the covenant of the Jewish people.

Over the millennia, most Jewish communities remained committed to circumcision. However, there are time periods when it fell out of favor. Jews living in Ancient Greece, over 2000 years ago, were one community that struggled with the ritual of circumcision.

Jews at the time were Hellenized, trying to assimilate into the larger Greek culture while remaining committed to their religion. At that time, Greek men participated in wrestling matches in the nude. As the Greeks did not practice circumcision, the matches made it all too plain who was Jewish and who was not. There are accounts of Jews having painful surgeries to reverse a circumcision in order to participate in these games.

In modern-day American society as a whole, circumcision has come in and out of favor. Currently, some 79% of all American men are circumcised, but newborn circumcision rates have dropped in recent decades to about 65%. Doctors continue to debate the health benefits or lack thereof from circumcision.

As reported recently in the New York Times, The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is considering promoting routine circumcision for all baby boys born in the United States. The purpose is to reduce the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Studies in Africa have shown that circumcised men are half as likely to get HIV from an infected woman than uncircumcised men.

There is a non-governmental organization, Operation Abraham, whose mission is to encourage circumcision in Africa. Based in Jerusalem, Operation Abraham is a collaboration between the Jerusalem AIDS project and the Haddash Medical Organization. I found this to be amazing and inspiring; Israeli Jews promoting circumcision to help save Africans from AIDS.

As a rabbi, I officiate at a bris or a baby naming for a boy or a girl. The service for a newborn girl has all of the same rituals including the giving of the name and entering the covenant, without the actual circumcision. Just a few weeks ago, I officiated at a baby naming service for a boy, who was circumcised in the hospital. The parents, an interfaith couple, felt more comfortable having a medical doctor perform the circumcision, which is done on day 2. At the parent’s home, I blessed the baby boy and gave him his Hebrew name, welcoming him into the Covenant of the Jewish people.

From a Jewish perspective, circumcision is a vital and necessary part of our tradition. The ritual of circumcision makes the baby into a Jew. The baby boy receives his Hebrew name and now is a part of the people Israel. We have adapted certain parts of the ritual to meet the needs of our times. Yet the bris will remain a central and meaningful ritual in Judaism for every generation to come.

To read the article from the New York Times on circumcision: CLICK HERE


SteveB said...


I am very happy that you didn't take the old line of health reasons, but explained the importance of the covenant: to create a unique people.

I guess it was the Pittsburg Platform that induced people to want to make the special requirements of Judaism be explained by scientific reasons. I had a big fight with my mother in law over this a few years back. She's a classical Reformed, actually "Cultural," German Jew who is really sold on the rationality explanation.

Fernweher said...

This is a well-written post answering an interesting question. I did not know the theology behind circumcision, and even if it just helps me understand the people around me, I am glad I read this.