Why Do Jews Circumcise?

“Intro” students ask terrific questions. They have what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – that is, their minds are open to more possibilities than those of us who have been steeping in a subject for a long time.

Last week, when we were talking about Jewish death and mourning practices, I explained that we have great reverence for the body and try hard to maintain its integrity even after death (no embalming or unnecessary autopsies, etc.) One student asked me, “So then how do you account for circumcision?”

Brilliant question!

Brit milah, ritual circumcision, has been a key Jewish practice for millennia. The Biblical command appears in Genesis 17: 11-12:

Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.

In Biblical terms, we perform brit milah because it is commanded, as a “sign of the covenant.” And indeed, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Like Passover, this is an observance that even minimally-observant Jews worldwide keep. Even Jews who do not believe in God frequently insist on brit milah for their sons out of a feeling that this is simply what Jews do.

On a religious level, this is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behavior connected with the covenant. The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of the brit milah ritual is a way of saying that this child or man is dedicated to the behaviors associated with Torah. He is dedicated to a life that looks beyond self-gratification to a manly holiness of purpose.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We don’t modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity for themselves and their son.


Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.


For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.

A Jewish Birthday Greeting

You may hear one Jew say to another on a birthday: “Ad mea v’esrim!” [Ahd MAY-ah v’es-REEM] If you know your Hebrew numbers, you’ll know that this means “To 120!”

What on earth?

Parashat Vayelech begins:

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old.” – Deuteronomy 31:1-2

This is the beginning of the death narrative of Moses, which will consume the rest of the book of Deuteronomy. We know from this that Moses was 120 at the time of his death. Yes, I know: awfully old. Perhaps Moses meant, “I FEEL 120.”

At any rate, when we say to a birthday person, “Ad mea v’esrim!” we are saying, “May you live to be a ripe old age, and as righteous as Moses!”

Keeping the Change

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s left over, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?

What Makes the Pig So Special?

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the hyrax — for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs — they are unclean for you;  also the swine — for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud — is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses. – Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Have you ever wondered why the pig has become such a primary symbol for Jewish dietary laws? People who know little else about Jews will tell you that Jews don’t eat pork. Jews who are not concerned about cheeseburgers or shrimp sushi will still feel a twinge (or frisson?) of transgression when they eat a slice of bacon.

How did the pig, which is listed almost as an afterthought in this passage from Deuteronomy, become so important a symbol of all that is not-Jewish?

Richard Redding, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, has made a serious study of the role of the pig in the ancient Near Eastern diet. Wild pigs were indigenous to the ancient Near East, and we know from archaeological remains that they were domesticated and eaten in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, (2700-2055 BCE.) His research suggests that pigs gradually declined in use wherever water was scarce, because chickens provided more efficient sources of protein. This has led some Jewish thinkers to ask, is THIS the real reason that pig was prohibited in the Torah? We’ll never get the definitive answer to that, but it adds another theory for those who are interested in such theories.

(In case you are wondering: there’s no evidence in the Bible text itself that pork is forbidden for being unhealthy, because of trichinosis, or because refrigeration hadn’t been invented. The only reason for the dietary prohibitions in the Bible is that old standby of deities and parents over the centuries: “Because I said so.”)

However, the question stands: why did pork take on so much more significance than any other of the forbidden foods?

Redding mentions in his article that the consumption of pig meat began to increase in the region starting in the 2nd century BCE, with the growth in Hellenistic populations. Greeks brought pigs with them and cultivated them. Romans loved their pork. So just as rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take shape, the foreigners most despised by the Jews, the upstart rulers who profaned the Temple and imposed ruinous taxes also made that particular forbidden meat fashionable! So there’s one thing: Pork was the meat of choice of Rome and Greece. No wonder the ancient rabbis regarded it as particularly nasty.

Secondly, as Christianity separated from Judaism sometime around the end of the first century CE, it embraced the Gentile world and its diet. Among the attractions Christianity had to offer was the fact that one did not need to be circumcised or eschew pork to be one of the elect. Later, when it became the established religion of the Empire and later of Europe, the fact that Jews avoided eating pork became a “tell,” a hallmark of Jewishness.

During the Middle Ages, pork became not only a way to identify a Jew, but a way to humiliate and torture Jews. Jews were starved, then offered pork to eat. In Spain, those suspected of being hidden Jews were called Marranos (“pigs.”) In the 20th century, we know that in at least one camp the Nazis fed Jews dried pigs’ feet (Elie Weisel, Night.) Centuries of this association forged a strong connection between the non-consumption of pork and Jewish identity.

Many American and Israeli Jews today choose not to keep kosher, and they consume pork as well. However, even the most secular will attach a certain angst to pork consumption that they don’t attach to shrimp cocktail. Pig meat, an afterthought in Deuteronomy, became a potent symbol for Jewish identity. The reason? History.

Fantasy and the Jewish Future

A reader asked me recently, “Which mitzvot do Reform Jews observe?”

My answer (this was on Twitter, so I had to be brief), “Like all Jews, some observe many mitzvot and some do not.”

I’ve noticed that we have interesting fantasies about our fellow Jews. Reform Jews fantasize that all Orthodox Jews (“the Orthodox”) observe all 613 mitzvot meticulously. Some do, to the best of their ability, which is to say that they do so imperfectly but with the intention of keeping them all: kosher home, kosher lifestyle, kosher family, a seamless way of life. Others identify as Orthodox, but in practice they live a much less observant life. I have met Jews who identified as Orthodox but who were not observant at all: they eat pepperoni pizza except when they think a rabbi is looking.

Correspondingly, there are Orthodox Jews who have fantasies about Reform Jews: we eat cheeseburgers with abandon, intermarry like crazy, and spend Shabbat shopping till we drop. The reality, again, is messier: sure, there are Reform Jews who do those things, but there are also Reform Jews who keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and study Gemara regularly. There are also Reform Jews who interpret kashrut differently, and who have rules for Shabbat but not the traditional rules. There are Reform Jews who care deeply about Israel and about the Jewish future and who work to preserve both.

In other words, it is dangerous to gauge any Jew’s level of observance or love of Am Yisrael merely by asking, “Are you Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform?” It is destructive and divisive to indulge in fantasy about our fellow Jews. Such fantasies get in the way of having genuine relationships with them.

So what, then, is the real difference between Orthodox and Reform? The difference has to do with our respective understandings of halakhah, “the way,” also known as “Jewish Law.” For Orthodoxy, halakhah is given by God and is immutable. For Reform, halakhah is the product of human beings, with inspiration by God, and human beings can reinterpret it if we choose, after study and consideration.

In practice, the vast majority of Jews do things the way their parents did them, whatever their affiliation. If their parents went to synagogue, they go to synagogue. If their parents didn’t, they probably won’t. The same goes for home observance.

None of this is set in stone. Those who want, can learn. Those who are willing can do things differently than their parents. Indeed, I know many intermarried Reform Jews who keep observant homes and raise Jewish children who have every expectation of raising Jewish children themselves someday. I know many converts to Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) who are pillars of their congregations. I know Jews who did not get a Jewish education, who knew nothing when they knocked on the door of the community, who now are active, participating members. It is possible, but only with nurturing and encouraging support from the Jews already in those congregations.

My dream for the Jewish future is that someday instead of indulging in fantasies about other Jews, we’ll get to know them one-on-one. And that someday, instead of wailing about the Jewish future, we’ll see it in every human being who walks in the door of the synagogue.

An Apology to My Readers

I’m one of those people who thinks best when I’m talking or writing out my thoughts, “talking it out.” Every now and then, I do it in an inappropriate setting and I live to regret it.

I withdrew a post just now because I said too much in it, and obscured the meaning for which I was reaching. I posted it last night, instead of letting it “cook” for a day, my usual practice, and I think I have upset some readers. For that, I am very sorry. I will let such posts “cook” longer in future.

And now I think I’ve probably upset some others who are wondering what the heck Rabbi Adar put up on her blog. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything but the messy inside of my head!

When we sin, when we “miss the mark,” the only thing to do is make teshuvah: feel the regret, own the behavior, apologize, and do what we can to make sure it never happens again. I am sorry for putting up a poorly thought through post, and I will think longer and harder in future.