Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat Lech Lecha 2011

Parashat Lech Lecha by Rabbi Sandra Kviat
4 November 2011

The big cut

‘I can’t for the love of God understand why this very practice, to remove men’s foreskins, has become perhaps the most central Jewish practice in establishing and upholding a Jewish identity[1]’.

We are back in familiar Torah territory this week, following the patriarchs and matriarchs on their long physical and spiritual journeys through Bereishit. This weekend Abram and Sarai get the call up from God to ‘Get yourself out/Go to where I will show you’. It is a request to a person, who as far as the biblical story goes, has had no previous contact with this entity, yet Abram chooses to listen to the request and go. There are no footnotes, no clarifying questions, nothing in the text that directly shows us that Abram has an inkling of doubts over this request. And it is not the only request/command that Abram is faced with. He is also faced with the command (or is it choice) that if he wants a lasting covenant that will benefit him and all future generations he has to physically mark his and all other able bodied Jewish men as well as servants. He and all males for all time are to be circumcised in order to uphold the covenant with God. Sarai’s and implicitly women’s part of the covenant is implied in the name change from Sarai to Sarah, adding a ‘heh’ representing God’s name as well as the promise of a child and the birth of future nations.

Circumcision has become one of the main markers of Jewish (male) identity to the point that some Jews believe that without circumcision you do not have Jewish status. Proponents of this thought have a tendency to forget that approximately 50% of Jews are then without Jewish status i.e. women. The question and discomfort is rearing its head even more nowadays for so many prospective parents where only one partner is Jewish. The reasoning is slightly different depending on whether it is the mother or the father who is Jewish but nonetheless it is not a given that a boy will necessarily be circumcised and neither should it be. As with so many other Jewish rituals and customs that we have or are questioning, so too should we not take it for granted that this ritual is meaningful to all couples.

If we are truly egalitarian can we then accept a custom that is only for boys? How can we accept that the body of a baby boy is somehow not complete and therefore has to be altered whereas a girl’s body is not? Can we accept something that seems so tribal and outlandish that had it come from another religion we would probably speak out against it? And what, if any, are the possible implications for the child’s sexuality and identity later in life?

One recurring argument against circumcision is that we have no right to make such big decisions for our children. Though I understand the concern, it overlooks the fact that we make such choices every day for our children – even just bringing them up as Jews is a life altering decision.

The opening quote is from a Jewish man who was facing the choice of whether to have his child, born of a non-Jewish mother, circumcised or not. He agonised for months and in the end wrote a four page document outlining the pros and cons of the ritual for the identity of the child. Foremost on his mind was whether the procedure would have implications for the child’s developing Jewish identity, its sexual experiences later in life, and the negative side-effects an adult circumcision could have physically and mentally. He went through all the arguments for and against the ancient ritual and concluded that;

‘There is no doubt that circumcision is a central identity-creating practice [for men] within Judaism. To be circumcised will probably be of benefit to him when he tries to experience, explore and make sense of Judaism, especially as the fact that his mother isn’t Jewish might imply some difficulties with part of the Jewish community...Almost wherever I go in the world, I find family, context and a place at a shabbat table. I enjoy and feel at home with Jews. I love and easily find great meaning in Jewish traditions. I believe that diversity among people enriches the world. And I would like to offer this gift to my son’.

As Liberal Jews we have the right and obligation to make up our own minds based on careful consideration of traditional and contemporary texts, of traditional and contemporary concerns. The choice is not easy or value free and the guilt factor will always be present. But as my friend put it,‘with either decision, he is likely to blame me in twenty years’.

[1] From a private paper about whether to choose circumcision by a prospective Jewish father.