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A recent study by the Mayo Clinic confirmed what many of us already knew – circumcision rates for male babies born in this country have steadily declined over the last three decades. In some parts of the West, the circumcision rate is less than 40%. (In the 1960’s, nearly 85% of males were circumcised.) There is a strong anti-circumcision movement on the West Coast which includes many Jewish parents who refuse to circumcise their son.
On the flip side, the study corroborates earlier findings that circumcision in males prevents certain health problems later in life.
The truth is – from a Jewish perspective – none of this really matters. We don’t make our decisions about circumcision based on what “everyone” is doing. And we don’t circumcise our sons for the health benefits.
So, why do we continue to circumcise our sons through the ceremony called ‘brit milah’?
The easy part of the answer is that God tells us to do this. In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Avraham circumcising all of the males in his household. God then declares, “Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days (Gen. 17:12).”
Sure enough, in next week’s portion, when Avraham and Sarah welcome their son Yitzchak into the world, he was circumcised on the eight day (Gen. 21:4).
However, this only tells us that God want us to perform this ‘mitzvah.’ It does not explain WHY God expects this of us.
As we think about why this is such an important ‘mitzvah,’ we should keep several things in mind.
First, it is the oldest, continually practiced ritual in the world. It has been the symbol of entry into the covenant for Jewish males for almost four thousand years. Our sons become linked to their fathers, grandfathers and other male relatives through this ritual.
Second, it is a symbol of our role in creation. The creation of human life is a partnership among a man, a woman and God. The circumcision reminds that we work together with God to create a family.
A third explanation of ‘brit milah’ is that we are created as imperfect beings in an imperfect world. The circumcision represents our ability to perfect ourselves and the world in which we live. That is why we designate a chair at every ‘brit milah’ for Elijah the Prophet – who will one day usher in the Messianic Era. We acknowledge every child’s potential to lead our people toward perfection.
So, whether circumcision is popular or not, whether it has health benefits or not, we continue to bring our sons into the Covenant of Abraham as previous generations have done.