Lech Lecha: Brit Milah and Modern Antisemitism
by Rabbi Avichai Apel
Rabbi Avichai Apel is the Rabbi of Frankfurt, and Chairman of the Conference of Orthodox Rabbis in Germany. He received semikha from Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary.
Concurrent with all the beauty and glory of European Jewry’s renaissance following the horrors of the Holocaust, a renaissance that would have been even more glorious had it taken place in our Holy Land, another process is taking place. Wide swathes of the local gentile population are going out of their way to strengthen the Jewish communities living among the nations at this time.
It is not only Jews who know that the return of the Jewish people to its land and a strong Israel is the anchor for strong Jewish life in the Diaspora. The nations are also aware of Israel’s role in the identity of every Jew. It does not matter whether their criticisms of Israel stem from love, or whether the criticism is addressed to Israel’s leaders and its citizens who have forgotten their European manners.
The nations are also aware that waves of Aliya reduce the size of the Jewish communities in their country. Homes filled with life, unity and friendship, acceptance of the other and initiatives for interfaith activities will become homes filled with memories of what was and is no longer.
There is nothing new in the nations’ jealousy about the role and place of the Jewish people and its practice of Judaism. However, there is a new attempt to harm basic values sacred to the Jewish people and thus prevent any possibility of life in Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The issue of circumcision (Brit Mila) reaches media headlines from time to time in various countries. Children’s rights organizations challenge parents’ rights to educate their children, and they encourage the medical profession and the public to criticize those parents who circumcise their male newborn, thus weakening the resolve of those Jewish parents for whom circumcision is a mere physical act and who are less aware of the significance of circumcision. For those parents who do have a strong Jewish awareness, these criticisms cause them to reconsider the land they are living in and ponder whether they are living at a time of rebirth or at a time of packing up and moving out.
We were commanded to perform circumcision and remove the foreskin (Orla) in this week’s parsha, even before we became a nation, and this is a unique commandment. Although it is a one-time act, it remains imprinted on us for life. Symbolically, there is a connection between the covenant (brit) that is made through the performance of circumcision, and the remembrance of the covenant which is an ongoing act that accompanies man wherever he goes. The one cannot exist without the other (Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch) and just as not performing circumcision severs the connection between a person and his uniqueness as a Jew, so circumcision of the foreskin connects a person to the eternal and deep covenant with his God, his people and with the first member of his nation – the father of a multitude of nations – Avraham Avinu.
The creation of the foreskin in the sons of the father of all humanity, in all of the human race, does not mean that the creation is faulty. When the sons of Avraham remove the foreskin, they are correcting and completing. We will explore this further.
The organ through which the human body gets rid of its waste has an additional function, that of reproduction and the ability to give life to new generations that will fulfill the blessing of I will make you into a great nation, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. The removal of waste from the body means that whatever is not needed for human existence is gathered in this organ and flushed out. Unwanted thoughts have the potential to link with lofty acts in such a place. The uniqueness of reproduction is that it channels man’s greatest strengths and transmits them to a fertile breeding place where they can develop and give rise to high quality humanity. Reproduction must take place in cleanliness and with a purity of traits. The more calculated the reproduction is, the more fruitful it is. To prevent the linking of unworthy matters with the act of reproduction and the birth of the nation, Avraham, and with him we, the Jewish people, are commanded to remove the foreskin and balance the force of giving birth. Giving birth with thought, with a fitting intent and goal. Heavens forbid, we do not want a positive force of building to be linked with unworthy acts simply because of lust and the intervention of negative thoughts and intents.
The Jewish nation is charged with building a nation that cannot be counted. This does not mean a life of abandonment and birth that is not monitored. This nation will be fruitful and multiply like the sand at the seashore and the stars in the heaven. Each and everyone of us is to be found in this connection between heaven and earth. Our task is to take the earth heaped up in our body and give it a form and meaning that we received from heaven. We do not enslave ourselves to the earth. We carefully separate the good from the waste and rid ourselves of the waste on the eighth day after our birth. Each one of us grew up with this understanding that we will one day start our own family and reproduce, but we will make sure to distinguish between what is good and what is not.
The multitude of nations were not commanded to perform circumcision. Their role is to ensure the continued existence of the human race in the world, which is upheld with the birth of each new person. Without lust and desire, even chickens will stop laying their eggs. Desire is a blessing in the world and the nations of the world have to protect it in their own way and, as they were commanded in the Seven Noahide laws, to preserve the family unit.
An additional part of the act of circumcision is the uncovering and pulling back of the inner membrane covering the foreskin (periah). We invest great effort into discovering the inner aspects of our lives. Our efforts to realize our potential in life are blanketed by many covers. Removal of the foreskin (orla) during circumcision is not the only impediment. The word orla appears in other contexts in the Tanakh. “I [Moses] am a man of impeded speech” (Ex. 6:12); “Their ears are blocked” (Jer. 6:10); “Uncircumcised in spirit” (Ezek.44:9). Various organs that are the gateway for absorbing information and distinguishing between what is good and what is not are covered by a foreskin. As a result, we are not able to immediately differentiate between what helps and what impedes. Removing the orla, the foreskin, in the act of circumcision is the first step in a person’s life during which he will have to continually discover the truth and divest himself of falsehood. He is given this task at the very start of his life. Now he has to live up to his designation and remove the impediments that stand in his way to realizing his goal in life.
With our hands and mouths we are unable to speak to blocked ears and explain what we mean by the essence of our existence. With a wise person, use your wisdom … and we know how the sentence continues.
It is incumbent on us to bring our Jewish brethren closer to the performance of this commandment, for our entire existence is dependent on it. Failure to circumcise is not uncommon. Some parents succumb to societal pressure and do not take responsibility for their children’s education to enable them to proudly carry the sign of the covenant on their bodies. These parents leave the decision of whether to be circumcised to their sons when they reach adolescence and are integrated into general society but these young men are lacking a Jewish self-identity.
Let us be strengthened in this time and that those who choose life will merit to reveal the coverings and reach the land of the living.