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The Mark of Truth

The Mark of Truth

A Compendium on Circumcision

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A baby is born. Mazel Tov! Now the mad rush begins. Whom do you call first? Parents before siblings, siblings before friends and friends before colleagues. Every call brings new questions: what is the baby’s weight, size, eye color, and of course gender. Is it a boy or a girl? If it’s a boy, inevitably someone asks: Have you called the mohel (ritual circumciser) yet? Oy, the mohel, I almost forgot!

So you quickly call the mohel to ask if he will be available in eight days. Nine days won’t do; neither will seven. It must be eight. Why eight? Because the Torah insists that circumcision be performed on the eighth day: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Why is the Torah in such a rush?

Perfection

We are born with natural instincts for self-preservation. Babies are intrinsically selfish. They cry when they want to be fed, scream when they want to be held and take no interest in other people’s feelings and needs. From our earliest moments, we place ourselves and our needs ahead of others.

In a baby this attitude is cute and charming, but left unchecked this attitude grows corrosive and quickly loses its charm. We become demanding toddlers, then selfish children, and finally self-absorbed adults. The work of purification and refinement must begin early. There really is no time to waste.

Circumcision purifies and refines. It forces us to make a sacrifice. Removing the foreskin diminishes the pleasure and enjoyment of intercourse.1 We sacrifice such pleasure and proclaim that, on our scale, Divine instruction is a greater priority than self-gratification.2

Males could have been created without the foreskin, yet G‑d wanted us to remove it ourselves. This was to demonstrate that as we complete the physical appearance of our bodies, so can we perfect the contours of our personalities and the shapes of our souls.3

In Case of Illness

Circumcision is routinely delayed when a baby is, G‑d forbid, jaundiced or otherwise ill. In explanation, Maimonides writes, “Danger to the baby’s life is the overriding consideration. The circumcision,” he concludes, “can be performed later, but we can never bring back a Jewish soul.”4

Maimonides’ last comment is curious. That the circumcision must be delayed is true, as the value of human life overrides that of circumcision. However, the manner in which he suggests that the circumcision be performed later conveys a cavalier attitude towards the delay. Shouldn’t it rather be viewed as a tragic, though necessary, misfortune?

To answer this, let’s first explore circumcision a little more deeply.

Universal Bond

Our sages saw circumcision as a feature of Jewish identity, a testimony that we are unique in body as we are in soul.5

The mystics explain that as we remove the foreskin and reveal the organ beneath, a veil is simultaneously lifted from our soul that reveals our intrinsic bond with G‑d. This mark is universal to all Jews, for we all share this intrinsic bond.6

Discovering Light

Circumcision does not forge this bond, but rather reveals it. In this sense circumcision is different from all other commandments. All other commandments forge new connections with G‑d; circumcision reveals our existing connection with Him.

By way of illustration, consider a dark room that might be illuminated by one of two methods. One can either turn on a light, or remove the opaque covering from the windows and allow the plentiful sunlight to stream in from outside.

The first method creates a limited amount of light where there was only darkness before. The second method reveals an unlimited source of light that is already in place. It is necessary only to uncover the windows or, in other words, discover the light.

Circumcision works in a similar vein. While the other commandments forge new connections with G‑d and draw new Divine light into our world, circumcision reveals the intense, intrinsic bond that we already enjoy with G‑d, the bond that G‑d forges with all Jews at their moment of birth.7

If our bond with G‑d were forged through circumcision, then even a one-day delay of circumcision would be catastrophic. It would mean losing a full day of Divine connectivity. In truth, however, our bond is intrinsic. We are born with it. Delaying the circumcision does not affect the bond. It only delays the date on which it is revealed.

Deeper Meaning

We can now understand that Maimonides’ final comment is not cavalier toward circumcision. His earlier comment explains that protecting the baby’s life is our primary consideration. Then he adds that delay of circumcision does not affect the baby’s bond with G‑d.

“The circumcision,” he writes, “can be performed later, but we can never bring back a single Jewish soul.” These words might be translated as follows: The delay of circumcision will not affect the baby’s Divine bond, because this bond is eternal. “A Jewish soul,” irrespective of circumcision, “can never be brought back.” It can never be made to turn back or away from G‑d.

Duty to Reveal

Yet if the baby is healthy, the circumcision may not be delayed. This is because the purpose of Torah is to reveal the Divine Presence in our midst. It is not sufficient to enjoy our bond with G‑d in our hearts. It is also necessary to reveal it through circumcision. Absent cases of illness, circumcision must never be delayed.8

Footnotes
1.
Midrash Tanchumah, Tazriah 5 and Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvas Milah (The anonymous author, who identifies himself only as "a Levite from Barcelona," was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, in the thirteenth century). Our sages further taught that circumcision is an offering to G‑d that, like a sacrifice, atones for inherent human weaknesses (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29).
2.
Classical Jewish thought has long maintained this position. However, contemporary scientific studies on this matter have failed to produce conclusive evidence either way.
3.
Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, v. III, ch. 29. See also R. Bachye on Genesis 17:13.
4.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Circumcision 1:18.
5.
Guide for the Perplexed, v. III, ch. 29. See also Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvas Milah.
7.
Likuttei Torah, Vayikra, 21a.
8.
Based on a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Likkutei Sichot, v. III, p. 979.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
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Steve Hollywood, FL September 8, 2011

Circumcision actually improves sexual pleasure With all respect to the author of the above article, I have experience being circumcised as an adult, and it does not diminish the pleasure of intimate relations at all. Quite the opposite, it quite improves it! A great decision, especially from that point of view. Reply

asnatureintended February 11, 2009

If Humans are not perfect... then why we don't circumcise the girls too, NOT JUST BOYS. Reply

Anonymous February 9, 2009

Mark of ignorance! The original Torah never mentions the act of cutting on the human body. Our Creator made us in His image. I'd be insulted if someone ruined my work! Circumcision is believed to be the covenant between the Jews and G-d. But historical research has shows that this "mandate" was an invention of the priests added to their writings circa 550BCE, over 1,000 years after the time of Abraham. Scholars David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom have published a full translation of the original verse, which dates from about 950 B.C. Here, Chapter 17 is conspicuously absent. All we read is that:

It was that day G-d cut a covenant with Abraham: "I gave this land to your seed, from the river of Egypt to the great river, Euphrates-of the Kenite, and Kenizzite, the Kadmonite; of the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Rephaim; of the Amorite, the Canannite, the Jubisite."

As you can see, there is no mention of circumcision as a sign of this bargain. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI July 18, 2007

The Mark of Truth Humans are NOT perfect - that could partly be why we have circumcision! Reply

Circumcision is the first commandment given by G-d to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism.
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