Brit Milah is my life. I don’t mean that it’s the only thing that brings me happiness but that it is central to who I am. I’m a rabbi and mohel here in Israel, and Milah has been my work for over a decade. During this time I’ve seen many attacks on this sacred rite. But still, the most challenging are the ones waged from within. Unfortunately, one such attack was recently sounded.
Avi Shauli, in his blog entitled “Brit Milah- Why Does The State Permit Harm to Helpless Babies?” in a sense, asked a fundamental question: “Why are we still keeping this Mitzvah?” If this query had been an honest attempt to reconcile the challenges apparent in the ritual, no one would have had a problem with it. But Shuli’s goal was not to find answers. He only desired to point out these problems to stop people from fulfilling their obligation. Nonetheless, we need to look at each point made in the article to fully understand what’s at stake.
It is true that Brit Milah has no effect on one’s Jewish status. We are Jewish if our mother is Jewish. It’s as simple as that. But the fact that Brit Milah has no impact in this regard does not mean it’s a meaningless ritual and therefore can be dismissed. In fact, Shauli, himself, points out that the punishment for skipping Milah is Kareit. Although it’s unclear exactly what this punishment is, what we do know is that it’s the most severe punishment there is. Therefore, removing the mitzvah from our religious life would be a serious violation.
Brit Mila does not appear in the Ten Commandments. The command for Brit Milah was given at least 400 years before the Israelites reached Mount Sinai. This means that circumcision is one of the first commandments received from God. While protagonists often quote this as a weakness, saying ‘aren’t we so much more enlightened now?’ those of us who are committed to the commandments see this as its defining characteristic. It is precisely the history that gives Brit Milah its strength.
It’s most likely clear without me stating it that Shauli and I do not agree on the origins of the Torah. He is wedded to the idea that it’s a man-made document while I believe it to be divine. But just as I cannot prove that the text was God-given, he too spent no time proving his assertions that Brit Milah is a Pagan ritual. Detractors of traditional Judaism will often quote other cultures having the same traditions or the same stories as ours as proof of a lack of veracity of our religion. In any other academic pursuit, if concurrent evidence is found of anything, it bolsters the claim being made. But when it comes to religion, it’s always used as a way to show that our tradition is somehow invalid.
Shauli is also concerned with the risks involved in circumcision. Complications in circumcision are something that no one wants to think about or even worse experience. But statistics show that complications occur at a staggeringly low rate:
“The rate of procedure-related complications during and after circumcision in the neonate is approximately 2 to 6 per 1000. This rate increases 20-fold for boys who are circumcised between one and nine years of age, and 10-fold for those circumcised after 10 years of age.”
Perhaps more important than the low frequency of occurrence is the rate at which the likelihood of complications increases with age. Any medical professional will tell you that the safest time to perform a circumcision is as young as possible — that is, around eight days of age. While it’s true some cultures still do this at a later stage in life, it would seem to me that this practice is more barbaric in nature than having it done as an infant for even just having to remember the experience.
Shauli also contends that there is an ethical violation of consent when it comes to Brit Milah. If it were true that the procedure could not be done without the child’s permission, then we would have many other problems on our hands. We couldn’t vaccinate our children or even fix a cleft palate.
Neither of these is, nor should they be, heavily debated topics. Parents make decisions for their children at every step of the way — it’s called parenting. And if we refrained from making such choices because in the future our children might disagree with our verdict, then we wouldn’t even be able to choose the schools they attended.
In the modern age, it is necessary for all of us to ask Shauli’s question: “Why do we still practice Brit Milah?” Even though this query is by far the most challenging in our tradition, that does not mean that the Mitzvah is wrong. Asking and answering questions is the essence of Judaism. It’s in our name, Yisrael — to wrestle with God. And just like Yaakov, our father, we can’t run away from the challenges that face us. Those who attack Brit Milah may “wrench our hip”, but we must stand our ground, and press on even if these challenges distress and frighten us. Brit Milah is what has kept us and defined us as a people for thousands of years. And, please God, it will continue that way for eternity.