Reform Judaism has done away with a number of ritual observances that
conflict with our contemporary cultural and aesthetic sensibilities. And it is
difficult to imagine any ceremony that stands more at odds with the views and
habits of modern civilization than berit milah, ritual circumcision.
Critics of the procedure, including a not-insignificant number of Jews, condemn
it as a gruesome and dangerous procedure, some calling it “genital mutilation.”
Many would add that a ritual from which females are naturally excluded calls
into question our Reform Jewish commitment to gender equality.
Yet this practice survives. Indeed, berit milah is enjoying somewhat
of a renaissance in our Movement.
Historians tell us that Reform Jews never abandoned circumcision—it has been
a red line Reform Judaism has never crossed. For many years it was a purely
surgical procedure performed in the hospital without accompanying ritual. In
recent decades, however, our people have transformed “circumcision” into
berit milah; that is, we have rediscovered its significance as a ritual
act. Accordingly, we perform circumcision in the setting of its traditional
liturgy, which includes the recitation of blessings (berakhot) that
praise God “who has sanctified us through mitzvot and commanded us” to
bring our sons “into the covenant of Abraham our father,” and have added the
Sephardic custom of reciting shehechiyanu, thanking God for making it
possible for us to reach this joyous event. And in 1984 our Movement established
the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism, which trains and
certifies qualified medical practitioners, men and women, as
mohalim and mohalot.
The question remains, however: why do we Reform Jews, who do not hesitate to
remove outdated prayers from our siddur (prayer book) and to excise
archaic ceremonies from our practice, insist upon maintaining an ancient tribal
rite taught to us in Genesis? (“God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep
my covenant [berit], you and your offspring to come, throughout the ages.
Such is the covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your offspring
to follow: every male among you shall be circumcised…,’” Genesis 17:9–10.) Why
does Gates of Mitzvah, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’
preeminent “guide to the Jewish life cycles,” assert: “It is…a mitzvah to
bring a male child into the covenant through the rite of circumcision—berit
milah”? And why did the CCAR Responsa Committee state in 1982 that
circumcision remains for us an essential sign of the covenant: “We have affirmed
it since the days of Abraham, our Father, and continue to affirm it”?
I think that the answer to these questions lies largely in the words “ancient
tribal rite.” For that’s what berit milah is. That’s why we do it, and,
really, it’s the only reason we do it.
Circumcision is a tribal rite in the same way that every Jewish ritual
observance is a “tribal rite”: a means by which the members of our “tribe”
express their identity as a people, as a community covenanted with God, through
the performance of a “rite” meaningful only within the context of that
covenant. Putting it another way, if we seek to explain why we light Shabbat
candles, or fast on Yom Kippur, or hold a Passover seder, it would be
enough to say simply that “we do these things because we are Jews, because only
Jews do them, and because we rehearse our uniquely Jewish identity by means of
these uniquely Jewish acts.” Every tribe in the world behaves in this way,
proclaiming its sense of community through the performance of rituals that allow
the tribe to tell its story and to recount its sense of self. And make no
mistake: we Jews are a “tribe,” a social grouping that has defined its
existence and historical destiny as that of a family, an ethnos, a
community that reproduces itself by giving birth to Jewish children. (The
Jew-by-choice is no exception to this rule. According to our tradition, one who
has converted to Judaism gives birth to or begets Jewish children, just as if
she or he were a Jew by birth. One who chooses Judaism, in other words, has
chosen to become a member of the tribe.) To say that we are a “tribe” is simply
another way of saying that we are the people of Israel, a community that
asserts its ongoing historical existence. This may be what the author of the
Sefer Hachinukh, a late 13th-century Spanish presentation of the 613
mitzvot, had in mind when he offered this rationale for berit
milah: “The Holy One desired to distinguish His people by means of a sign
fixed upon their bodies, to set them apart in a physical sense from the other
nations, just as they are distinct from those nations in a spiritual sense.”
Translation: circumcision serves as an indelible physical mark of Jewish
peoplehood. Tribal rite.
Of course, we don’t customarily explain our ritual observances as “tribal
rites.” This is partly because the word “tribal” sounds so, well, tribal,
jarring to our modern, sophisticated ears. It’s also because we Jews have a long
history of seeking ta`amei hamitzvot, “explanations for the
mitzvot” that reflect the higher intellectual and cultural temper of the
present age rather than the original (“tribal”) background of those practices.
Berit milah is our classic ceremonial acknowledgment that we,
descendants of Abraham, consider ourselves a community set apart from all others
and set aside in covenant with God. That is the story we have always told, and
continue to tell, about ourselves. To assert our sense of particular Jewish
identity as Jews is therefore in and of itself a mitzvah of the first rank. And
of all the ritual practices by which we have historically made that declaration,
none is more physical, more visceral, or more tangible than berit milah.
In an era when the forces of cultural assimilation pose such a daunting
challenge to our continued existence as a distinct people, this admittedly
ancient tribal custom bears a message that we do well to hear.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky is professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati,