Circumcision of the Heart
Sinai Chronicle October 2013
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Circumcision of the Heart
Coming out of the High Holy Day season and back into ‘normal life as we know it’ seems like a tall order for my young family. Within the space of four months, my husband and I have gone through the last stages of my pregnancy, an Ordination, a rabbinic appointment, childbirth, young parenthood and an international move from Holland to Leeds. Any of these individually already marks an existential and potentially transformative experience and we feel blessed to have gone through all of them (although the ‘international move’ is less memorable and enjoyable than the others!)
Any of these experiences is worthy of its own commentary and reflection. Yet out of all these experiences, one of the most complex, challenging and beautiful things to reflect upon was our son’s Jonathan’s Brit Milah (circumcision). Few rituals in our tradition are as ancient, powerful and unsettling. Circumcision, as it were, cuts to the very core of our being (pun intended).
For my husband and I, Jonathan’s Brit Milah was particularly remarkable. First of all, he is our firstborn child. As brand new and inexperienced parents, the moment seemed perhaps more poignant. Second of all, we come from a country where the ‘anti-circumcision’ debate is in full swing. And third of all, we were honoured to share and celebrate this milestone with our new community in Leeds. When we think of circumcision, we tend to dwell on it from the perspective of the child. It is only natural and appropriate to be preoccupied with the baby’s welfare: Will he be OK? Will it hurt? What does it mean to wish our newborn sons a life of ‘mitzvot, good deeds and the wedding canopy?’ In short, what does this rite of ‘marking his flesh’ mean to him, as a person, a man and a Jew?
It is less obvious then to think of what circumcision means to us, the parents. Who is it supposed to change? The child or the parents? Perhaps the real impact and purpose of Brit Milah is to be not only a transformative reality for the child but also to be a transformative experience for the parents. What does it mean for us, those parents who commit to this ancient and perplexing ritual? In our preparations for the ritual, my husband and I had conversations with Jewish friends who had already gone through it. Many candidly expressed their ambivalence and their discomfort. Why would the Jewish religion, otherwise known to be such a life-affirming, compassionate and family-friendly way of life demand this of us? Is there a ‘safe space’ to express such ambivalence, away from the judgments of the outside world? And better yet: is there a purpose to the discomfort? One of my favourite maxims is ‘the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. Religion is supposed to make us uncomfortable. Not to the point of great anxiety but just enough to make us think, reflect and transform.
And the rite of circumcision certainly does that. And so, Brit Milah is more about the parents than the child. It can be seen as a ‘mini-Akeidah’, referring to the story of the Binding of Isaac by his father Abraham in B’reishit. Just like the angel staying Abraham’s hand, the Brit Milah can be seen as a lesson in parental restraint in order to cultivate unconditional love. Circumcision may be a way to channel our aggressive impulses into a vessel of love, holiness and vulnerability. It is a big warning sign, admonishing us not to hurt our children. If anything, circumcising our sons prompts us to metaphorically circumcise our own hearts, in the words of the Torah and the Prophets: to remain humble, to accept our fears and vulnerabilities and to transform them in the crucible of a loving tradition that binds generations together.
As my husband and I stood by our baby boy Jonathan as he underwent the procedure in the expert hands of mohel Dr. Nigel Zoltie, our hearts overflowed with an ‘ahavah rabbah’, a great and unending love, maybe not unlike God’s unending (parental) love for us. I will gladly admit that it was exceedingly difficult to see our child circumcised – and I am not the squeamish sort. I watched and stood ready: to accept my responsibility as a parent, including in making this difficult choice to side with tradition against the judgments of a broader culture. At the same time, I was overcome by the beauty of it. The warmth and well-wishes of a loving community, the wisdom of a tradition that makes the challenges of young parenthood so visceral, the deep spirituality of our child being covenanted to God, Israel and Torah and the real joy therein. On that day, our hearts were circumcised as my husband and I vowed to remain vulnerable, tender and loving for our child. As parents, we should never harden our hearts (which is quite the opposite of metaphorically circumcising them) to our children but always remain open to growth, change and transformation while being supported by the wisdom of the ancients.
As we settle into our new life here – beyond pregnancy, childbirth and new employment, and through the intense and hectic years of young parenthood – this experience will continue to guide us. And God willing, ‘ledor vador’ - for many generations to come.