Jewish Perspectives on Bioethics

As it turns out, circumcision may be good for you. And not just spiritually.

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) recently released draft guidelines for physicians to counsel parents on the health benefits of circumcision and encourage its practice. While not a universal recommendation, the CDC noted it many health benefits, including protection against sexually transmitted diseases, reduction in the likelihood of cancers, and decreasing the risk of infections. When most news about circumcision are about trying to ban the practice, even a value-neutral story, let alone an endorsement by a leading medical organization is a breath of fresh air.

Jews have been circumcising their sons for millennia. It’s likely the one ritual that is practiced by the most number of Jews worldwide, regardless of their affiliation, level of observance, or background. But with all due respect to the CDC, this well-ingrained traditional practice has nothing to do with health and everything to do with God.

The very name of the Jewish ritual reflects this important idea. More than just milah – circumcision, the Torah refers to the practice as berit milah – the covenant of circumcision. It recalls the original covenant between God and our forefather Abraham and binds all Jews in a timeless communal covenant. When fathers are called upon to bring their newborn sons into the covenant,

They are compelled to remember, now when it counts, that they belong to a long line of descent, beginning with Abraham, who was called and who sought to walk before God and to be wholehearted … They are summoned to continue the chain by rearing their children looking up to the sacred and the divine, by initiation them into God’s chosen ways (Dr. Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis).

It’s a powerful symbol, an inspiring message, and an impactful way for a young boy to start off his Jewish life. (Interestingly, the same is true for converts, who, before beginning their Jewish lives, are called upon to bind themselves into this historical communal covenant.)

But as one of the many reactions to the CDC’s recent pronouncement, why is it really necessary? As one tweet put it, “Born the way I was meant to be. No need for circumcision.” While perhaps a bit condescending, the question is still a good one. But it’s not new.

The Midrash (Tanhuma, Tazria 7) relates that a Roman commander once asked the famed Rabbi Akiva, “Whose actions are more pleasant (na’itm), those of God or those of man?” After some back and forth and insisting that God’s actions are superior, the commander challenged, “And why do you circumcise yourselves?” Considering that children are naturally born uncircumcised, why should man interfere and change that which God has created?

Throughout the conversation, R. Akiva insists that indeed, the actions of man are in fact greater. After the litany of questions, R. Akiva thoughtfully responds by comparing lavish cakes with bundles of wheat, challenging the Roman commander, “These are the results of man’s actions and these are those of God. Which are better?”

While we instinctively recognize that cakes are a more refined and prefer them to bundles of wheat, why is it that man’s actions should be more pleasant? Is it an affront to God to take that which he created and try to perfect it? When we interfere with the natural order of things – whether it’s baking cakes, circumcising our sons, or developing technologies to combat the ravages of disease and other natural tragedies – are we ‘playing God’? Are we entering a realm that is simply not ours to tinker with?

Judaism’s answer is that God could have created the world differently. But he did not.

All of these examples are not attempts to compete with God. We recognize that trying to do so is futile. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – when we take elements from the natural world and enhance them, we are fulfilling the very mandate God has given us.

After creating Adam and Eve, God charges them to “conquer the land and subdue it” (Bereishit 1:28). As R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained, Adam fulfills this mandate by conquering the universe, imposing his knowledge, technology and culture upon it. We are not challenging God’s superiority when we don’t simply leave nature and worship it as is. Far from it. We are taking the tools that God has given us and using them to perfect the world, fulfilling the very first mandate that God Himself gave to mankind.

In fact, when engaging in the most ‘God-like’ activity known to man, creating new life, the Talmud (Niddah 31a) teaches that there are three contributing partners (shutafim) to creating a child: father, mother, and God Himself. Perfecting the world isn’t a challenge to God; it’s our way of partnering with Him.

Judaism certainly recognizes that God’s handiwork is wondrous. In the opening of his magnum opus (Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2), Maimonides suggests that appreciating the infinite complexity and beauty of the nature around us is the best way to come to a true love and fear of God.

Nature is indeed amazing and beautiful and inspiring and so much more. But that isn’t enough. Judaism teaches that it’s our job to take all of that amazement, beauty, and inspiration and partner with God by bringing it to the next level.

Berit milah is certainly not an act of implicit competition in a [futile] attempt to show man’s superiority to God. It’s not a challenge to God, but instead is the greatest form of respect and admiration – fulfilling His mandate to us and attempting to emulate Him.

Performing a berit milah on a newborn is more than just ushering a child into the Jewish covenantal community from his very first days in this world. Its welcoming message to the child and his parents is, “Welcome to the world. You are the newest member of a proud tradition of Jews who find significant meaning in the world around us. Now it’s up to you to make it a better place.”