Skin In The Game

'Circumcision' by Jackson Pollock
A couple of days ago, Sidra's and my family celebrated the brit milah, the ritual circumcision, of her new grandson, and all of us future grandparents were given a moment or two to say a few words. One set of grandparents (there are three) are enlightened German Protestants who have more or less embraced Tel Aviv--their eldest son, who also spoke, quoted movingly from Lessing's Nathan the Wise--yet circumcision, so we Jewish sets knew, could not be easy for them to witness, let alone justify.

This was not the first time we thought about the subject. My own son Ben and I struggled with moments quite like this over the past four years, awaiting the births of his and his wife's two children, who turned out to be (adorable!) girls. I tried to find the words to explain why the brit meant something to me, but was taken off the hook by persistent X chromosomes.

And since we've just marked the death of Christopher Hitchens, I might add that you do not actually have to be faced with a brit in the family to reflect on its meaning. Some of the most compelling parts of God Is Not Great were his reflections on circumcision as a form of child abuse, "genital mutilation" (though the book, admittedly hilarious, mostly seemed like the effort to discredit love by detailing every bad marriage one could think of). My friend Danae Elon made a wonderful film about her and her husband Phillipe's second and third thoughts about the circumcision of their three (adorable!) sons. As I say, the practice is simply interesting.

For what it's worth, here are my two minutes of reflection on the subject. I invite comment:

For those who are experiencing a brit milah for the first time, rest assured that those of us who have been to many remain fascinated, at times skeptical, a little queasy, pained as well as elated. Does this act, first attributed to Abraham, not violate the most natural instinct we have around a newborn, which is to protect him absolutely? Abraham, after all, was capable of treating his sons with, let us say, fervor. Why has this ritual remained so cherished, indeed absolute, while so many other ancient commandments have fallen into eclipse?

Some say it is because the brit mila is ancient and one dare not break a chain others have died for. Such claims tear at the heart, but torn hearts are a counterpart of freedom. If chains were themselves reason enough to preserve old ways, we would still be sacrificing doves to quell feelings of guilt. 

As for claims of ancient hygiene, I leave that to ancients hygienists. 

Most Jews, of course, assume that this is a primordial act of covenant, precisely a kind of sacrifice, which marks our commitment of our children to the Jewish people and its mission. But this begs the question in a way. For most Jews also believe that the covenantal mission unfolds as life and history unfold. The commitment is to inherited principles, not to inherited genes. 

What deeper meaning is implied here so that Jewish parents, generation after generation, swallow hard and perform this act? How does the back of the mind take in the brit milah so that certain Jewish sages thought the lessons so indispensible they suggested how men are born imperfect and the circumcision makes us whole? 

The question is too big for a moment of grace. But let me suggest a direction—and it takes us back to torn hearts and the sad secret of freedom. The poet Robert Bly once said, “A man’s wound is his genius.” There is a way this ritual infliction of pain is an act of parental love, and arguably divine love—that is, love of human beings as we truly are, without—dare I say, childish?—illusions. 

For parents who commit this act cannot but feel the beginning of an acknowledgement that will grow over time: that it is not our role merely to protect our children but to expose them; to introduce them, affectionately yet at times strictly, to the stings of the world, which are everywhere, and are the real prompts for their maturity and autonomy—thus the deepest sources of their happiness. You don't have to have Sophie Portnoy for a mother to know that, eventually, protection is the ultimate form of child abuse.

Saint Paul said, following Jeremiah’s admonition, that we ought to circumcise the heart. I have had both circumcisions, of flesh and of heart, and I can report that the latter one is far more painful. But who among us would live our lives over again without the pains that instructed, fashioned and liberated us?

The part of Paul’s theology I love most suggests that the divine proved truest by becoming flesh to suffer with us, thus to truly know us. I like to think the divine is here today, as It was when God slyly instructed Abraham to circumcise his sons, tenderly implying what rabbis have also said, generation after generation, that there is nothing so whole as broken heart. Welcome, little one to our people’s covenant to explore, without cover, this poignant, magnificent world.