Lekh Lekha (Genesis 17): A Sensitive Subject

“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, so that it may serve as a sign of the covenant between me and you.”  (Gen 17:11)

There are some wonderfully primitive things about Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the rams horn, one of the oldest and least sophisticated instruments around. On Sukkoth, we shake a bundle of branches East, South, West, North, up, and down.

Then there are other things that are undeniably primitive, yet perhaps not so wonderful. To me, circumcision is one such custom. Actually, it’s more than a custom, it’s a mitzvah, a command.  I agree with Reb Zalman Schacter Shalomi, for whom circumcision is a prime example of a choq (pl. chuqim), a Hebrew word often translated as “statute,” but which later Jewish tradition construed as a particular category of divine command, unalterable and inexplicable.

For Reb Zalman, chuqim ask for “a higher level of surrender to a will that is not our own. Though chuqim can be so hard to accept, they are also the level of mitzvah that I would be most afraid to tamper with, for I have found that they touch much deeper preverbal levels . . . . As sorely tempted as we may be too sometimes rewrite or simply jettison these mitzvot altogether, I don’t think any practice we would make up today – having vetted it for respectability and confirmation to our modern views – could touch us in so deep a way.”

Regarding circumcision, Reb Zalman continues, “All the explanations and all the meanings shatter at the rock of “how can I do this to my son?” This practice cannot be logically defended. I have such trouble with it, have wrestled with it, and yet I feel more commanded with this than I feel with any other mitzvah. I couldn’t do it unless I felt so commanded. It counters so many things that I believe – yet I’m convinced that the transmission would be lost for uncircumcised Jews, that we would lose them. This is raw soul to raw body, without the mind intercepting.”  (Jewish with Feeling, 138).

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