It's not a circumcision - it's a Brit Milah
Rivy Poupko Kletenik
I quote my mother of Blessed Memory often; perhaps too often. I seem to be unable to avoid generously peppering conversations with her wit and wisdom. Her comments about Brit Milah echo through my mind each time I am lucky enough to attend one.
She often remarked that a bris was her favorite simcha. Her observations were many. First, by virtue of time constraints a Brit Milah does not allow for elaborate planning; always a plus. Second, the ritual is elegantly succinct, demanding but a small investment of time from participant, this too is good. Finally, there is little room for family conflicts, because, most significantly, all come wholeheartedly, unified with a spirit of piety.
A Brit Milah is a pure expression of devotion to God. No ulterior motives here. Purity and sacrifice rule the day. Bringing a new Jewish soul into the covenant of Abraham is devoid of any but spiritual motives. The Brit Milah stands austerely among our rites of passage. The excesses which regularly visit us at Bar Mitsvahs, Bat Mitsvahs and weddings are strangers here.
Instead, an aura of mystery and otherworldliness pervade at the Brit Milah. A feeling of the numinous fills the room as the memories of Pinchas ben Elazar Hacohen, of Eliyahu Hanavi, and of course Abraham are evoked. Their “presence” tells us that something far from usual is to occu - that, what we see is not what it seems. As Jacob Neusner explains, a surgical procedure is not under way, but in fact through the power of words, the act is transformed into something wholly different (The Enchantments of Judaism p.3). This, is not the medical operation performed on millions in sterile hospitals, this is something of another magnitude.
The article, “Dr. Ronald Goldman On Circumcision" had some old thoughts and new thoughts in it. The arguments for and against have been vocalized profoundly from both sides in many different arenas. They do not appear to be fading away. They are voiced every now and then in newspapers and books. His article calls to mind other recent treatments of the subject.
Goldman mentions that women are generally more sensitive to the issue. So let's begin with shall we say, one of the more interesting observations offered by Miriam Pollock in her article, Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective. She says, "How many thousands of Jewish boys and how many thousands of Jewish men have been lost throughout the ages because they were unable to “pass” when their lives depended on it? All the oppressor had to do was pull down their pants." Setting aside the graphic ugliness and cruelty of her statement, let us focus on the content.
What is Pollock telling us? By cleverly turning the victim into his own victimizer she faults the Jew for his own persecution. His Brit Milah was the problem. She has achieved new heights in the exercise of Jewish self-hatred. It is tiresome. Here once again we are being told, not to be, too Jewish. In this case it may get you killed.
In this most recent attack against Brit Milah, Goldman maintains that a Brit Milah is a violation of the maternal-child bond. He recalls that “the infant cried strenuously for an extended period of time.” I can't recall a similar experience with our two sons. I do recall their many piercing cries in doctors' offices after being inoculated, cultured or examined. I recall with pain, my own tears at their tears. But knowing that the shots were critical to my child’s health I steeled myself and did what had to be done. I held their hands, wiped their tears, and told them that it would be all right. And so on through our children's lives. Yes, our tough love often visits pain upon our kids. But, most pain leads to growth. Maternal bonds are not shattered by these experiences. To the contrary, it is from mother’s breast that baby suckles and is comforted after the Bris. And every clever mother times her baby's feeding for immediately after the Bris. Pain and comfort the stuff of which life is made.
Back to my mother, I remember vividly attending a certain Brit Milah together. The nervous young mother was beside herself, quivering with anxiety over the approaching ceremony. Standing nearby I was tempted to deliver a lecture. Brit Milah 101. Don't you know? Your child is about to initiated into the Covenant of Abraham. He is to be permanently marked with a sign on his organ of generation. A symbol of our commitment to God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. A symbol of our confidence in God's promise to Abraham that we Jews will be as great as the stars in the sky. A symbol of our commitment to the future and that our future begins with sacrifice. But, I remained quiet.
Instead, I let my Mother respond. She put an arm around the young woman and turned to her with typical frankness, "Look around the room. Every man here had a bris - and they're all doing just fine. Relax."