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I vividly remember the brit milah of each of our sons. Visions of family and friends gathered together in our home flood my mind. When I close my eyes I hear everyone singing, and then shouts of "Mazel tov!" fill the air as those close to our family help us welcome our children into the covenant each of us has with God.
For almost four thousand years, since the time of Abraham, Jews have observed brit milah, literally "the covenant of circumcision," as the fundamental sign of the covenant between God and the people Israel. In the Book of Genesis God instructs Abraham, "This is my covenant that you shall keep between Me and you and your descendents after you--every male child among you shall be circumcised." (Genesis 17:12)
For Jews a brit milah, or bris, is much more than a simple medical procedure. Brit milah is the sign of a newborn child's entry into the Jewish people, the Jewish community, and Jewish tradition. It is the first life-cycle event that connects a boy with Judaism and sets the stage for a lifetime of comfort and community. For millennia, in every country where Jews have lived they have always practiced this ritual, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other Jewish ritual, brit milah is the ultimate affirmation of Jewish identity because it expresses the intensity of our relationship with God and dramatically sets us apart from other religious and cultural groups.
Even the early Reform Movement, during the latter half of the nineteenth century and despite an aversion to physical and particularistic expressions of Judaism, defended brit milah and sometimes imposed sanctions where it was omitted. The early Reformers believed that brit milah was not merely one ceremony among others, but a central institution of Judaism which must remain.
Nonetheless, a casual glance at the Internet illustrates the continuing debate surrounding brit milah. Throughout history and today our people have engaged in an ongoing and passionate conversation about the physical and psychological effects of circumcision and whether Jews should continue to practice it. These debates, however, miss the point from the very beginning, when their initial premise compares circumcision to brit milah. Circumcision and brit milah are two very different things. Circumcision is a medical procedure in which the foreskin is removed from a baby boy's penis. Brit milah, however, connects us with our ancestors, celebrates the covenant we share with God, and unites Jews throughout the world in a very real manner. Any rational arguments in support of circumcision or against it are of little concern to Jews who consider the real purpose of brit milah, which is to draw us closer to each other, closer to God, and thereby heighten the sense of holiness in our lives.
In response to articles and websites that speak out against circumcision or in favor of ceremonies that welcome newborn boys into Judaism without circumcision, I can only emphasize that a brit milah without circumcision is not a brit milah. The absence of circumcision separates us from our history, our people, and our God. Rather, we should embrace the beautiful heritage that Jews have struggled and fought to maintain, and that connects us with Jews everywhere.