Shalom DovBer was a young chassidic prodigy, a scion of the illustrious Schneersohn family, who would eventually become the fifth rebbe of Chabad. He was four years old when he read of Abraham’s circumcision and of G‑d’s subsequent appearance to him. Something about the story moved him, and he began to cry heavily. He ran to his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, and amidst his tears complained, “Why is it that G‑d appeared to Abraham, but He hasn’t appeared to me!?”
Perhaps his grandfather was surprised that this question should concern a four-year-old boy so genuinely that he was brought to tears. But his grandfather, the rebbe, didn’t minimize his question. He didn’t tell him that Abraham was a very righteous man, the first Jew, and who was he, a four-year-old child, to compare himself to Abraham? Instead, the rebbe presented his grandson with the following answer: “When a Jew, at 99 years old, decides to circumcise himself, he deserves the appearance of His grandfather, the rebbe, didn’t minimize his questionG‑d.”
Young Shalom DovBer asked a serious question, and he got a serious answer. Although G‑d had appeared to Abraham previously, beginning with the commandment to leave his father’s home and travel to Canaan, the expression that the Torah uses to describe this appearance is unique. G‑d’s four-letter name (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey) is used in the opening phrase of the Parshah: “And G‑d appeared to him” (Genesis 18:1). This four-letter name describes G‑d as He transcends time and space. It was with this omnipresence that G‑d appeared to Abraham on that third day after his circumcision. What did Abraham do to deserve this uniquely lofty appearance? And how was he, as a limited human being, able to relate so comfortably to G‑d’s infinity as he did that day?
Although Abraham had done many noble deeds before the age of 99, it was circumcision that brought him to an entirely new plane of spiritual awareness. Abraham had popularized monotheism in a polytheistic world. He had graciously opened his heart and home to the physical and spiritual needs of others. But the circumcision was different. G‑d wanted him to brand himself, to mark his body as a Jew in an irreversible manner. Circumcision is not an intellectual or glamorous act. It’s probably as gory as you get. Yet G‑d describes this act of commitment as one of great importance: “This is My covenant which you should keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). More than other commandments, circumcision creates an irrevocable bond between G‑d and His people.
Circumcision underscores the counterintuitive yet fundamental Kabbalistic notion that the most sublime spiritual energy will find expression in the most material and non-spiritual actions. Our bond of nationhood and communion with G‑d isn’t expressed in a mantra or a meditation, but in a cutting of flesh. The brit is the only conduit for this covenant, a sublime and irreversible connection to G‑d.
The rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, explained to his tender grandson that once Abraham served G‑d with his very flesh, he was able to perceive a much higher level of divine revelation.
As noble as circumcision is, it leaves us females out of the picture. Are women part of G‑d’s eternal covenant? Why are women excluded from an opportunity to make a commitment to G‑d that penetrates our very flesh forever? Why couldn’t G‑d have chosen an organ common to both women and men to brand our Jewish identity?
There is an interesting discussion in the Talmud regarding who can perform a circumcision. Rabbi Yochanan says that the qualification is derived from the biblical verse “himmol yimmol” (Genesis 17:13), which is literally translated as “he needs to be circumcised,” but can also mean “he who is circumcised shall circumcise.” Only someone who is circumcised can perform a circumcision on another person. And yet, Rabbi Yochanan argues that this As noble as circumcision is, it leaves us females out of the picturecriterion does not exclude women. A woman can perform a circumcision, although she was not circumcised herself, because “a woman is considered to be naturally circumcised.” (For a practical halachic ruling, contact your local Orthodox rabbi.) The Talmud understands that whatever is effected through circumcision is already present in women.
What is accomplished through the circumcision? How does it impact a man’s psychological wellbeing and his relationship with G‑d?
Nachmanides, a 13th-century Spanish commentator, explains (in his commentary to Genesis 17:9) that the most important injunction for a Jew is to remember that the reproductive organ, the source of lust and desire, should not lead a person to sin. The brit is a constant reminder that a Jew should express his sexuality in a permitted and holy manner.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, describes circumcision as a sign of the ultimate submission to G‑d: “G‑d commands, as the very first condition, the moral submission of all the bodily urges.” Orlah, “uncircumcised flesh,” is a term that refers to a lack of mastery over one’s bodily inclinations.
Circumcision is a tangible reminder to all men that they are the masters of their bodies, that they are in control of their sexual urges. Cutting back the foreskin represents tapering the self-centered nature of lust. It’s not only about me, but about another person’s dignity and desires. It’s not all about the pleasure that I want, but about the pleasure that G‑d wants me to have.
Perhaps this reasoning behind circumcision can account for the Talmud’s statement that women are born naturally circumcised. Generally speaking, a woman’s nature is not to dominate someone whom she desires. Studies show that female sexual predators make up such a small percentage that there is little known about them as a group. Although women may have many imperfections, it seems that they are naturally less in danger of violating the dignity of others through their lustful impulses.
Sefer ha-Chinuch (Mitzvah 2) explains that the reason for circumcision is to create a permanent sign on the Jewish body that differentiates it from the body of a gentile. Why is this sign imprinted on the reproductive organ? Simply because this organ is the source of a child’s existence. The child’s creation becomes imprinted with his father’s Jewish identity.
But here, too, we can see a noticeable distinction between the male and female contribution to the child’s identity. When a man circumcises himself, he is making a commitment to be a part of the Jewish people. If he marries a Jewish woman, he can transmit his mark of Jewish identity to his child through reproduction. His circumcision does not automatically mean the child will be Jewish, but it does contribute to the child’s identity. A Jewish mother, however, is the determining factor of a child’s Jewish identity. This is an effortless Why is this sign imprinted on the reproductive organ?determination, much like the transmission of DNA. While a father can actively pass down his stamp of national distinction to his child during conception, a woman will passively transmit her Jewish distinction to her child. Perhaps this, too, is part of the Talmud’s statement that “a woman is considered to be naturally circumcised.”
According to chassidic philosophy, the mitzvah of circumcision is the ultimate merging of physicality and spirituality. Circumcision manifests G‑d’s deepest desire for an abode in the lowest plane of existence. To focus on G‑d in the synagogue is lofty. To follow G‑d’s desired food plan brings G‑dliness into the mundane. To mark the body, and arguably the most corporeal part of the body, with G‑d’s sign effectively causes a very deep fusion of body and spirit. The body becomes much more receptive to its holy and selfless calling.
A woman’s body was created with an organ that is naturally quite selfless—a womb. For nine months a woman shares her body with another fragile life, often at great expense to her own comfort. And although pregnancy is cause for celebration and brings personal satisfaction, hosting a new soul at the very beginning of its journey here on earth is holy work. Consciously or unconsciously, the female body is built for benevolence in a radical way, in a holy way. It is the natural fusion of our materialistic body and our lofty soul. Again, perhaps this is part of the Talmud’s intended meaning when saying that “a woman is naturally born circumcised.”
Immediately after G‑d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and all of his male descendants, He relayed a message to Sarah: “As for Sarai your wife, you should not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name” (Gen. 17:15). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that “Sarai” means “of a superior and towering nature,” whereas “Sarah” refers to someone who sets the tone for others through her sensitivity to what is praiseworthy and holy. The phrase “Sarah is her name” implies that she already had this spiritual capacity within her; G‑d was only highlighting her nature. This is in contrast to Abraham’s name change, when G‑d told him, “But your name shall be Abraham,” implying a new, superimposed identity.
It is not coincidence that Sarah’s name change was juxtaposed with G‑d’s instruction to Abraham to circumcise himself, says Rabbi Hirsch. Women don’t require an external sign of the covenant because they naturally feel committed to G‑d.
Both men and women are entrusted to serve G‑d with dignity and consciousness. At the core of this service is the challenge to infuse meaning into the most mundane aspects of our life. To imprint the covenant on our physical body. And perhaps it is in this arena that women are naturally gifted. This gift of “natural circumcision”—the perspective of fluidity between the holy and the mundane—empowers (and obligates) women to become leaders. In the era preceding the global redemption, when the schism between what is worldly and what is G‑dly will vanish, feminine leadership is vital.