Dear Rabbi Daniel and Susan,
Could you help me out? We are reading a Torah Sidra [portion] every Saturday evening as a family. We happened to read the Sidra that included Genesis 17. I have three children and the oldest is a boy of 9. I am sure you can guess where this is going. He had many questions about circumcision.
Circumcision is very important to me. My father, brother, husband and son are all circumcised. My brother’s wife and my brother changed their mind and chose not to circumcise their two boys when they were born. 🙁
I would love my son to be just as proud as we are that he his circumcised, not that he isn’t. But, I am sure someday when he may have awkward conversations with his cousins camping or sports friends.
I just want to make sure that we, as parents, have done everything that we should explaining this very Holy covenant to my children boys and girls. I would be heartbroken if twenty years down the road my grandchildren were not circumcised just because I didn’t convey things to my children properly while they were in my care.
Thank you so much,
Your question is a very apt one for this time of year as Chanukah starts this coming Sunday evening. Among the Jewish observances that the Greek-Syrians outlawed, was circumcision. They also made the studying and teaching of Torah prohibited on penalty of death. These acts of religious oppression led to the rebellion of Chanukah.
So extreme was the Greek aversion to circumcision that the historian Josephus tells us that Hellenist physicians performed plastic surgery operations ‘restoring’ the foreskin. In a culture that extolled the gymnasium and athletic games one needed to “look the part” in order to fit in. This, of course, is the crux of the episode of Chanukah—it was most of all a battle between those Jews eager to shed their connection to God and Judaism and those Jews who remained faithful to their heritage.
Chanukah is the only festival in the Jewish calendar that lasts eight days. Notably, circumcision takes place on the eighth day of a Jewish boy’s life. In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number seven is associated with nature: 7 days of the week; 7 colors of the rainbow; 7 notes in a western musical scale. The number 8 is associated with partnering with God to transcend nature. Circumcision is a statement, both to the young boy and to the community, that the incredible power of sexuality is part of his connection to God and the ability to create life is holy. We are commanded to overcome the animalistic impulse to act as if sex is solely physical. This rejection of secularism is central to both circumcision and Chanukah.
Secular society today, as in the time of the Greeks, elevates the physical over the spiritual. People shout, “It’s my body and I can do with it as I wish.” God’s people disagree. God loaned us wondrous bodies and we have the opportunity to improve our own lives and the lives of those among whom we live by choosing to harness the body’s powers and rise above the animalistic side of our nature. Circumcision is a statement of partnership with God to move beyond mere nature in order to attain our full physical and spiritual potential.
The soon-to-arrive stage at which your wonderful 9-year-old son begins to become aware of the power of his organ upon which his parents placed God’s sign, will also be the time he realizes that not all boys are fortunate enough to carry their own private covenantal reminder. That should open up the blessed opportunity for a parent-led conversation about male-female relationships, intimacy and God’s plans for His people’s happiness and fulfillment. When that time arrives, you will find helpful material in the Thought Tools archives on our website. You can be sure that at a younger and younger age the culture will actively try to corrupt and ensnare him.
The time of Chanukah is so suitable for family discussions about the important willingness to be different from the ‘crowd.’ We do discuss these issues and many more in greater detail in our audio CD Festival of Lights: Transform Your 24/7 Existence into a 25/8 Life, but we hope this gives you the beginning of an understanding of how important your question is.
Continue to enjoy the thrilling challenge of raising unique children with spiritual independence in an age of secular conformity. It sounds as if you’re doing great.
Greeting of light,
Rabbi Daniel & Susan Lapin