THE Greeks who tried to destroy Judaism in the times of the Chanukah story were perceptive. They knew their Judaism. They sought to ban just three out of 613 Jewish practices, and with that to undermine the entire Jewish religion.
Their targets were circumcision, rosh chodesh (marking the first day of each new Hebrew month) and Shabbos. I have written extensively in this space on Shabbos; I focus here on the other two.
Amazingly, notwithstanding the radical divisions within modern Judaism in the past 200 years since the founding of Reform Judaism, two out of these three practices — circumcision and rosh chodesh — remain almost universally held in the traditional sense.
The significance of rosh chodesh may not be immediately evident. Without it, there would be no way to determine the dates of the High Holidays and festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. There would be no Jewish community around the world if, for example, various Jews observed the Passover seder on different days, weeks or months.
Without knowing the first day of the month, the entire Jewish calendar would collapse. There would be no way to determine all of the Jewish holidays, whose timing is fixed in the Torah by the date of the Hebrew month.
In antiquity, the first of each month was determined by the Sanhedrin, based on testimony of two witnesses who saw the new moon. With the destruction of the Second Temple and the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish calendar was determined for all time on the basis of astronomical calculations by ancient rabbinic sages.
Implicitly, at the very least, even those Jews who reject the binding character of ancient, talmudic teachings accept the absolute authority of the talmudic sages who determined the Jewish calendar. For no Jew anywhere in the world — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, humanistic, “just Jewish” — differs on when Rosh Hashanah or Passover (for example) begin. Everyone accepts a single Jewish calendar.
No Jew begins his seder on a different night of the week; likewise, the sounding of the shofar or the fast of Yom Kippur. There is one Jewish calendar.
SIMILARLY, aside from a Jewish fringe that has joined the anti-Semitic campaign against circumcision around the world — a campaign that yielded a temporary ban on circumcision in Cologne, Germany and elsewhere — virtually no Jew rejects the covenant of circumcision.
Jews who came to the Wild West in the US in the 19th century, Jews who lived in the times of King David 3,000 years ago, Jews who lived in ancient Babylonia, medieval Spain or modern Argentina, all circumcised their sons.
The (failed) attempt of former Colorado State Senator Joyce Foster, a Reform Jew, to retain the Medicaid subsidy for circumcision testifies to the near universal Jewish insistence on circumcision as an indispensable rite of Judaism.
A threat to ban circumcision in Denmark resulted in a Danish Jewish author warning that if the ban went through, this would mean the end of Danish Jewry. “The heart of religious life would disappear,” wrote Lene Rachel Andersen.
That’s how central circumcision is to Judaism and Jewish life everywhere.
What, then, is the significance of the covenant of circumcision? Judaism is a religion of covenants, of binding, mutual agreements between G-d and the Jewish people.
In this week’s Torah portion, many of these covenants are set forth. For example:
1. G-d’s promise to Abraham our Patriarch to be a father of many nations (Gen. 17:4-5).
2. G-d’s promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people (Gen. 17:8).
3. G-d’s promise to Abraham to remain the G-d of all of his descendants — the promise of Jewish continuity for all generations (Gen. 17:7).
Conversely, G-d spells out the Jewish side of the bargain — the Jewish people’s covenantal obligations to G-d.
One such obligation is to “walk before G-d and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1), that is, to disseminate the honor of G-d among the nations of the world; to actualize the purpose of creation, namely, the recognition of G-d as the Ruler over all of creation.
A further obligation of the Jewish people is that of circumcision.
Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1892) notes that circumcision holds a special place in the covenantal framework. It is tied to all of the other 13 covenants.
This, no doubt, is a reason why circumcision retains its hold over virtually all Jews today, whatever their theology or observance of other Jewish practices.
Some of the covenants are linked to the land of Israel. For example, sacrifices are forbidden outside the Holy Land. Not so circumcision. It is binding wherever Jews live. Circumcision brings the knowledge of G-d to the entire world.
Paradoxically, circumcision is also a mark of Jewish distinction and separation. It sets Jews apart as they spread throughout the world to declare the oneness and the sovereignty of G-d.
Fundamentally, circumcision is a paradoxical sign: the male Jewish body, if left intact, is incomplete, and, with the removal of the foreskin in the circumcision ceremony, the body becomes complete.
This state of completeness is, in a further paradox, the assumption of the responsibilities of the covenant with G-d, which can never be completed by a single person.
I MADE note of circumcision as a sign of completion when I wrote many years ago in my book, Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transition Figures from Eastern Europe, about a young student who became a preeminent scholar, leader and pedagogue:
“Genesis describes Adam as having been ‘born’ as an adult, created as a fully developed, mature being. Rabbinic commentary observes that Adam was born circumcised — a ritual, in Jewish tradition, symbolizing need for rectification, but, in the case of Adam, born without need of circumcision, a symbol of completion.
“In encountering Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1981), it is as if the accounts of creation in Genesis and in rabbinic commentary were devised as metaphors for him. For example, one opens Rabbi Hutner’s letters, glancing at those written when he was 16. Here, there writes neither a child nor a teenager, but an adult, and in every sense. Ideas are fully developed and often original; sense of self is complete but without the self-consciousness of youth; the Hebrew is remarkable for its crystalline clarity, for is rootedness in biblical metaphor, and, no less, for its control of modern Hebrew, giving the stern, austere biblical metaphor a suppleness and shading not endemic to it. One rereads the date on the letter: surely there has been a mistake. A 16-year-old does not write this way. But there is no mistake. Isaac Hutner was born circumcised.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News