Saturday, July 02, 2011

Circumcision is a sacred rite and should not be a crime 

One morning not long ago, I went to a congregant's home for a special celebration. Mike and Lisa Cohen had just had their first baby, a boy, and now, on the baby's eighth day, it was time for an ancient ceremony called Brit Milah, or Bris, the "Covenant of Circumcision."

It was a joyous event. Friends and family poured into the Cohens' home bearing trays of food for the celebration, and gifts for the baby. There were hugs and laughter, and soon there would be bagels and cream cheese for all.

Brit Milah ceremonies such as this one are profoundly important religious celebrations, hallowed by Jewish law and centuries of Jewish tradition, yet if a group of San Francisco activists have their way, the event we celebrated that day will soon be illegal in their city.

At the appointed time, I greeted the group gathered in the living room, and Mike's parents came down the stairs holding the baby. They handed him to Dan, one of Mike and Lisa's close friends, who sat on a special chair in front.

The person who performs circumcisions is a mohel — often a physician with special training in the Jewish aspects of the procedure.

Mike and Lisa recited a prayer praising God for having instructed them to bring their child into the covenant of the Jewish people. The mohel recited a blessing of his own, then opened the baby's diaper, circumcised him, bundled him back up, and handed him to Lisa.

The procedure took about two minutes, and within another couple of minutes, the baby had quieted down and was resting comfortably in his mother's arms. In part, that might have been because we let him suck on a wine-soaked piece of gauze to soothe him while the mohel did his work.

"This child is known by the name David Samuel Cohen," I said. "And let him also be known among our people by the name "Daveed Shmuel son of Micha'el and Leah. May it be a name that brings honor to his family and the Jewish people."

I know that the idea of circumcision may sound barbaric. But the practice is not. It is a loving way of bringing a boy into an ancient covenantal relationship with God and the Jewish people, and of marking his participation in that covenant in his very flesh. In the Bible, it seems to have been linked to fertility — it was only after Abraham circumcised himself that his wife Sarah became pregnant with Isaac and Ishmael. Unlike female genital mutilation, Jewish circumcision is not a way to limit or control the child, and it does not destroy sexual desire.

Many find the practice troubling, I believe, because it so dramatically distinguishes religious values from commonly accepted modern American ones. America idealizes nature; Judaism and other religions try to control it and improve it. America sees happiness as the greatest goal, Judaism and other religions see holiness as far more important. Americans identify good parents as those who protect their children from all suffering; Judaism welcomes children into Jewish life with a moment of suffering, and then assures them that, with a hug from mom and a little sweet wine on their lips, it will be all OK very, very soon.

After the ceremony, everyone ate bagels and lox, and little David got more wet, sloppy kisses than his little cheeks knew what to do with. That day, the Cohen family forged one more link in an ancient and deeply hallowed chain of Jewish tradition.

I doubt I can change the minds of those who oppose this procedure, but I want to encourage them to look at this sacred Jewish ritual in its entirety. Do you really think this is the work of barbarians? Do you really think we should see such events as criminal activity? And at the end of the day, do you really think powerful moments of celebration and sanctity such as these make the world worse than it would otherwise be?

You might say yes, but I have a feeling that, years from now, when David Cohen stands at his own son's Brit Milah ceremony, he'll feel glad to live in a nation that affords him the freedom to participate in such a meaningful rite of passage.


Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Chaptzem! Blog