Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: In the spirit of the Torah

0 Comments 25 April 2017

As Jews, it is customary to circumcise a newborn male baby. In Rabbi Rodman’s dvar Torah to Parashat Tazria-Metzora, we learn how the significance of circumcision can be applied to all of  us, female and male, seeking to live a life of justice true to the spirit of the Torah.

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By Rabbi Peretz Rodman

The double parasha we read this week deals extensively with the human body in unusual situations: a woman after childbirth and the concomitant ritual impurity, the strange skin affliction known as tzara‘at and its treatment, and the like. One lone verse, brief and unassuming, is devoted to a very common mitzvah related to the human body: circumcision. In the passage dealing with the aftermath of giving birth to a son, we read, “And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3).

In our time, many people in the developed world, including many Jews, have doubts about the value and the morality of circumcision. Is it necessary? Is it an act of violence against a baby unable to give his consent to such surgery? Despite these questions, Jews loyal to tradition continue to observe this mitzva. One may ask nevertheless: what is the meaning of covenantal circumcision, and why is it so important?

In his book Likkuy Ha-me’orot, published over a century ago, Rabbi Yitzhak Leib Stoliar, who served as rabbi in Odelsk (now in Belarus) and in Kozienice (Poland) in the last decades of the 19th century, wrote about the mitzva of circumcision. His words echo today even more loudly than they did a century ago:

“Covenantal circumcision is our national symbol, by which we are distinguished and separated from the other peoples. But nationhood alone is not enough. Nationalism without Torah provides us with no existence. And that is why we turn to the newborn boy and say: ‘Just as he has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into Torah….'”

Concern for the Jewish people without Torah and its values quickly descends into a chauvinism that imitates the darkest nationalisms that have arisen in modern times. Without the oft-repeated admonition to be concerned with the fate of the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow, circumcision becomes an indication of mere tribalism. Without our Torah’s aspiration to eliminate poverty and injustice, circumcision constitutes an obsession with perfecting the male body.

The author of Deuteronomy was aware of this when writing “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart…” (Deut. 10:16) and then spelled out the implications: “…doing justice for orphan and widow and loving the foreigner to give him bread and cloak. And you shall love the foreigner, for foreigners you were in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18–19). The “foreskin” that dulls sensation exists not only in the body but also in the soul. The mitzva of circumcision is a sign of the hope that we will succeed, in the words of Jeremiah (4:4), in “removing the foreskin from our hearts” in the spirit of the Torah.

photo 2Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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