Circumspect about Circumcision

chayei sara, genesis 24

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 17th 2022. With the Binding (Sacrifice) of Isaac still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspecitve and review the meaning, function and contemporary controversies regarding circumcision.


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sara. After last week’s clubhouse discussion, I dropped in on another clubhouse discussion that segwayed from a discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac to circumcision. It got me thinking…. So with Akedat Yitzchak still on our minds we look at Brit Milah from a fresh perspective and review the meaning, function and maybe even contemporary sensibilities regarding circumcision. So, join us for Circumspect about Circumcision.


Well, welcome, welcome, Rabbi, welcome you faithful. So, you know, this week’s parsha really doesn’t talk all that much about circumcision. So just as excited as I was to link it with the binding of Isaac, I do have to link it to the parsha. So, the parsha begins, … after Sarah passes away, Abraham is concerned about his son Isaac, and he’s concerned like many parents are about finding a nice bride for him. So in Genesis 24: 2 it says as follows. And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, most of our rabbis believe this was Eliezer, who had to charge of all that he owned, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by God, the God of Heaven and the God of Earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell. So “under my thigh” Rashi writes, Rashi almost assumes it is that he was holding the member, the penis of Abraham, but more importantly, the sign of the circumcision of Abraham. And while she explains, because whoever takes an oath, must take in his hand, some sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah, or tefillin, as circumcision was the first commandment given to him. And because it’s only through much pain, it was consequently dear to him; to Abraham. And therefore, he selected this as the object upon which to take the oath. So, we have heard already of the commandment of circumcision, we might even go back during today’s review and see where it’s written. And it’s a sign of the covenant. But we’ve never really had any meat put on it, so to speak. And here is a fascinating instance of how it was used. Rabbi, what do you make? Is this is this something that strange? Does it give us any insight in what circumcision is?  Well, I’ll tell you what the rabbi’s say. You know, throughout rabbinic history, whenever you took an oath, in court, you know, whatever it is, like we put our hand on the Bible, like Jews put their hands on the Bible or hold the Torah. In the Talmud, they hold the Torah scroll. But in the time of Abraham, there was no Torah scroll. There was no mitzvah, the only mitzvah they had was circumcision. So what the Rabbi say is that the reason he grabbed his circumcision is like grabbing a Torah scroll, like putting your hand on the Bible. And this isn’t an isolated case. It happens once more.  No, no, this happens a few other times. It’s not necessarily, you know, an exciting explanation, but it’s probably right. It sounds correct, doesn’t it?

Geoffrey Stern  04:22

Well, it does. Yes, it does appear elsewhere. Under for instance, Jacob; when Jacob is about to pass away, and he wants his family to swear that they’ll take his bones out of Egypt and bury him in the Promised Land. The same thing he says. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned Joseph and said, place your hands…  so number one, it doesn’t seem to be something out of the ordinary, it seems to be kind of accepted. And one of the commentaries Rashbam, but also Shadal who we’ve quoted before, says that the making of a covenant or an oath of a son or a slave to his master was in this fashion for they shared the aspect of subjugation. And it is thus written a son shall honor his father and his slave, his master. However, (this is fascinating) handshaking or cutting an object into two for a covenant and passing between the pieces is found with other persons. So just as I think we’ve established that this was not a unique occurrence, I think what rush bomb and shutdown are saying is that this is something that you might find even in other traditions, it’s a sign of subjugation that a slave might give to the master. And I think of a brand. You know, a rancher brands, his animals, and after a while we do call it an “OT” a sign, it is a sign upon the flesh. So what he’s saying is it at the one level it’s almost like a branding and it’s almost like a slave would touch the sign of the brand. If it’s the okay corral, he puts his hand on that sign of the okay chorale to show fidelity. I think if you want to stop here and say what does Brit now mean between the Jewish people and God, it would be kind of like, we’re God’s servants, we are branded to the Master of the Universe. And that would be a very natural way of taking it. The other thing that Shadal says it is making a covenant and that of course, we saw in the in the original texts, whether Abraham made a covenant between the pieces where he cut animals in half, and maybe Abraham walked through them. But there was this sense of it. I was just blown away when he says כף אל כף, handshaking. It’s like sealing the deal. So we’ve had a metaphor of taking an oath, and holding something tangible, like a bible we have that when you get sworn into office, it seems to be all of these things combined. And seems kind of straightforward. The only thing that I would add is it reminds me a little bit of joining a gang like West Side Story.

Adam Mintz  07:39

Well, I mean, that’s exactly right. It is joining a tribe. And the one sign that the tribe had was bris that’s all they had.

Geoffrey Stern  07:50

But in terms of that tribe, where you would see a tribe or a gang, I should say, where they have their mark. And that would make sense where you make an oath, you touch the mark. And you say, yeah, man, I’m a Jet. Well, I’m a whatever, it does put it in to context, although clearly, when someone like a we read it. It seems very, very strange. But I think it puts it into the context of tribal relations, of swearing on something tangible that has meaning, of a sign. I think it’s in that way, it is it is kind of helpful.

Adam Mintz  08:44

Very helpful. I think what you’re you explain is really an elaboration about what I said; the circumcision, because it was all they had, it represented all of the things that you described, that idea of being part of the tribe, that that that covenant between God and the people, everything was reflected there. Now I find it interesting that he requires this tribal handshake of the person who’s not part of the tribe.

Geoffrey Stern  09:16

So I think, again, if we look back at Genesis 17, where this was all commanded, it’s clear that ….

Adam Mintz  09:26

Eliezer did have a circumcision…

Geoffrey Stern  09:28

It’s your servants to its its real branding. You know, the question is, does the sign of the covenant on a servant, mean fidelity to the master you or does it mean fidelity to the master of masters? But I think in 17, it says God further said to Abraham as for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages, so keep My covenant, such shall be the covenant between me and you and your offspring to follow. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant א֣וֹת בְּרִ֔ית בֵּינִ֖י וּבֵינֵיכֶֽם. And then he goes on to say, as for the home born slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of yours offspring, they must be circumcised home bound and purchased alike. The covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And so clearly, here we have the outcome of that, where Eliezer is going on a very, I wouldn’t say a risky mission…  important mission. And he’s got to take this oath.

Adam Mintz  10:32

With uncertain outcome.

Geoffrey Stern  10:48

Absolutely. Absolutely. And this, this thing of “OT” is also kind of fascinating. You know, we’ve talked in the past, about belief, and whether belief was a commandment, or it was the basis for all the commandments. But here, even though there’s no question that circumcision is one of the 613 commandments, it kind of has a place of its own. in the sense that it is this “OT”. I mean, for instance, in practical terms, so many of the commandments you don’t do on Shabbat, Shabbat, overrides them, but one that doesn’t. And I gotta believe that doing a circumcision on Shabbat, I mean, does that literally break? One of the 39 melachot?

Adam Mintz  11:41

Yes, yes, it does. Yes, it does. To cut skin on purpose is a prohibition, one of the Lamed Tet Melachot, and it’s allowed because it’s a bris.

Geoffrey Stern  11:52

So in a sense, its kind of in a class of its own in that regard. Yochanan who is not here tonight, but who is becoming one of my favorite visitors to Madlik he was on last week in the after-party discussion. And when I went to another place of meeting and clubhouse, and he said that there is this verse that says,  דרכיה דרכי נעם וכל נתיבותיה שלום “Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful” and he quoted one source that says with the exclusion of Brit Milah. So, Brit Milah is in kind of a class of its own. And  that becomes kind of interesting, does it not? I mean, you’re involved with conversion. Circumcision is a big part of conversion. It’s not simply just another commandment.

Adam Mintz  12:53

A male cannot convert to Judaism without circumcision.  Now some non-Jewish men today are circumcised at birth. That was because there was a period where they believed that that was healthy. But and even in that case, they need to have a symbolic, ceremony to turn that circumcision by the doctor in the hospital into a Jewish circumcision. The Jewish handshake as you call that.

Geoffrey Stern  13:28

Is it really called that?

Adam Mintz  13:30

The Jewish Handshake… Yeah, of course it’s called. That’s what you’re referring to when you gave the whole description. The Jewish Handshake.

Geoffrey Stern  13:36

Okay, okay. So there are different metaphors. There are some fascinating stories about circumcision that I’m going to review now. In Exodus, Moses spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and he’s finally going down to Egypt, and he’s going to do his main mission and free the Israelite people. And he’s traveling down with, it seems two sons. And all of a sudden, he’s at a night encampment, Exodus 4: 24 And at the night encampment on the way God encountered him and sought to kill him. So, Tzipora his wife took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin touched his legs with it, saying, You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי And when God let him alone, she added a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision. Well, first of all, we have to ask the question, why did this all happen and what’s the lesson? But clearly then, there is this question of letting blood and this starts to become interesting in the understanding of what that sign is, and I think this will segue us a little bit into starting to think of what how, if any parallels there were to the sacrifice of Isaac or the Akedah. But here somehow she is saying that by doing the circumcision on her son, she is now forever connected to him. And what connects her is the blood that was shed. What do you make of this strange story?

Adam Mintz  14:53

It’s a strange story, very strange story. You know, it’s something about the same thing, which is that was the sign that they were committed to going back to Egypt and representing the people, and therefore the son needed to be circumcised. The question is why Moses doesn’t do it. And why there needs to be such drama. We don’t usually have drama at circumcisions. You just have the circumcision? Why is there so much drama to circumcision? It also raises an interesting question, that the blood of the circumcision is the important part of the circumcision. That introduces the possibility that what we’re talking about here is really a sacrifice. That a circumcision is actually a sacrifice. Now, we don’t believe in human sacrifices, we can’t really give a human sacrifice. But we can do something that in a way reminds us about it, you.

Geoffrey Stern  16:35

So I think in the commentaries that we mentioned last week, when we were talking about call it the sacrifice of Isaac call it  the Binding of Isaac was this John Levinson. And he argues very strongly that the Qaeda, The Binding of Isaac has to be put in the tradition of sacrificing the first fruits, the firstborn to God. And he develops that throughout our tradition, and there’s plenty of legs for him to stand on. Because we have be Bikkurim, the first fruits we have Orla, the first harvest, we have pidyon ha’Ben, (redemption of the first born) we have all of these things, I think what you just said, would fit very well into his tradition, which means that the eradication of sacrificing one’s child or one’s one’s first child, for sure. But any child is something that takes a long time. It doesn’t disappear. It gets redirected. And clearly, and that’s why I was so impressed when I went to that other clubhouse. And they segwayed so naturally, from talking about the sacrifice of Isaac to brit milah. To circumcision, it took me a second to kind of connect the dots. But they were onto something there is this connection, I believe, between the two. And in a sense if that’s the case, then every time we have the Brit Mila, in a sense, we are reenacting….. They talk about the Mikdash ma’at (the small Temple), this is the Akedah Ma’at, is there anything there?

Adam Mintz  18:15

Yeah, no, there’s something there. This is it. This is the Akedah Ma’at, every religious experience, needs an Akedah moment. Now, usually, we don’t think about it as needing, you know, blood or sacrifice or any of those things. But you know, the more literally you take it, the more you get to that conclusion that you actually need a physical act. And like you said, from the beginning of Exodus, that act might require blood. I think that’s something that’s not emphasized enough in that Exodus story. The fact that  חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת that God says you are like the groom of blood for the bris. It’s all about the blood.  You know, as a result of doing my research this week, I said, well, let me pull out a siddur and let me take a look at the Milah, the circumcision ceremony. And I never saw this before. It was just a matter of I looked at the Ashkenazi Siddur on Sefaria and didn’t have the milah ceremony. So I went to the other side. I went into the Sephardic siddur. And I’m going to read you a Ye’hi Ratzon that I found in the Sephardic Siddur. It’s right up there.יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ,   שֶׁיְּהֵא   חָשׁוּב וּמְרֻצֶּה   וּמְקֻבָּל לְפָנֶֽיךָ, may it be the your Will, Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that it  be considered (the Brit Milah) and regarded favorably,  and accepted before You,  כְּאִלּוּ הִקְרַבְתִּֽיהוּ לִפְנֵי כִּסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ as though I had offered him (as a sacrifice) before the throne of your glory.  So, there it is. We don’t have a parallel to that in the Ashkenazi service, do we? That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon, I mean, that clinches your argument right there. You don’t need to go any further than that. That’s the only source we need tonight. That’s an amazing Yehi Ratzon. That Yehi Ratzon means that in the Sephardic tradition, they are supporting that view.  So here’s where we start looping back and connecting the dots. If the Akeda is so difficult for us, what how does that impact upon the Brit Mila, and it I came across the sensitivity in modern society to this because I was involved in a wedding of a young couple. It happened to have a Jewish mom and a husband who had not yet decided to convert but she wanted a Jewish wedding. And sure enough, nine months later, they called me up. And she said, we’ve decided not to circumcise our son. And my father, she said, is beside himself. But we just feel that it’s traumatizes. She, she told me about a movie called American Circumcision, which I hadn’t watched until today. Boy, you know, if you watch this movie, you would be afraid of it too. There are those out there, it’s a new thing. It’s a new thing. There are two areas I think that the younger generation is starting to look at one is what can they do that similar for a girl in terms of a rite of passage, but the other is there are those who are very troubled by the whole circumcision procedure. So, what I told her, I want to work out with you. And I want to see what your opinion is. Before I tell you what I told them. I want to continue with our discussion of Tzipora. So as you say, Why did Moses not give circumcision to his son traditional interpretation is that the reason why Moses had not circumcised him was because they were going on a journey. “If I circumcise him and immediately proceed on the journey the child’s life will be in danger” is what Rashi quotes from the rabbinic sauces סַכָּנָה הִיא לַתִּינוֹק. And most of us know this when a baby is born, and they have jaundice or whatever, that Shabbat might not delay a Brit, but the health of the child definitely delays the circumcision…  to the point, and this was always fascinating to me, that there is a tradition that the whole generation of the Exodus was not circumcised. Meaning to say that in Joshua 5, it says as follows that all the people that Joshua brought …. Moses had died. Now he took the whole new generation out of the desert, and it says “proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites”  וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שֵׁנִֽית. And here the commentary to say something very similar to what they said by Moses and Tzipora and that is לֹא נָשְׁבָה לָהֶם רוּחַ צְפוֹנִית, there was no let-up in this northern wind all 40 years in the desert. And so, it was a sakana, it was too dangerous. There was a perceived health challenge of circumcising in the desert. And so, which is kind of amazing, if you think about it, you know, because you and I both know, they didn’t move every day, they camped out in some places for a long period of time. But nonetheless from this Joshua, there was this tradition, that we learned that if it’s something dangerous to your health, you can postpone it. So, what I told to this couple, because truly, I just felt here was a couple who wanted to be Jewish, who asked for a Jewish wedding, who hopefully had a very good experience, but you watch movies like these, and you can become very scared. And I said, If you truly believe that this is something that is dangerous to your child, you can put off the circumcision. That’s what I told him. And I’m sure there’s no rabbi, including you who will agree with that halachikly. I do think it was the right response because they weren’t going to have a circumcision one way or the other. But I’m curious. I never would have thought of that. But that is actually brilliant. Because now they can always keep in the back of their mind that they can always they can still do it. You didn’t say you’re bad people if you don’t have a circumcision, and I didn’t said you’re delayed.

Geoffrey Stern  25:24

Yeah. And I didn’t say you don’t have to do it or you, you’re gonna not do it. You delay it,

Adam Mintz  25:29

You’re delaying it. We’ll worry about it next.

Geoffrey Stern  25:31

Well, because maybe another movie will come out with other doctors and the other doctors will say it’s okay,

Adam Mintz  25:36

These things are clearly cyclical, because I can just tell you, as someone who’s involved with conversions, Until last year, I almost never had a young man who came to convert who wasn’t physically circumcised. Because 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, everybody was circumcised, the doctors circumcised, everybody in the hospital, just now I’m beginning to get people who are not circumcised. Because 20 and 25 years ago, they started this movement. “American Circumcision” is one example of that movement, that circumcision is bad for you. So, you have these young men who are going around and they’re not circumcised. Now, that’s fine. I mean, that was a decision, but it’s unfortunate when they come to convert to Judaism.

Geoffrey Stern  26:26

So the other thing that I learned, and this is a segue to my next question, practical question to you, is from this Rashi in Joshua, where it says that the whole generation did not get circumcised in the desert. It picks up on the language that it says “a second circumcision”. And a Rashi says that, שֵׁנִית זוֹ פְּרִיעַת מִילָה שֶׁלֹּא נִתְּנָה לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ that, is this the prick that you hear about?

Adam Mintz  26:58

 No, it’s the uncovering of the foreskin. They cut it, and then they uncover it.

Geoffrey Stern  27:05

So is it different than the circumcision?

Adam Mintz  27:08

No, they just pull the skin back so that the circumcision is visible. priya means to uncover.

Geoffrey Stern  27:17

So one of the things that came up in my research that I had not realized before, and I’m embarrassed to say that it was on Wikipedia, Is that we all heard about during the Hellenistic rule, the Maccabees….  Hanukkah is just around the corner, that the Greeks disdain and disgust with circumcision was so great, that there were Jews who wanted to assimilate who actually went through an operation to reverse their circumcision. And according to the sources, and actually I joke when I say it’s, it’s in Wikipedia, Wikipedia quotes, the Jewish Encyclopedia, which quotes Genesis Rabbah, and quotes the Tractate of Shabbat  were as a result of that the rabbi’s incense made circumcision more extreme than it had been before. Am I making any sense? Is there anything any basis to this that maybe circumcision before this whole Hellenism thing? was a little bit less?

Adam Mintz  28:32

It could be I’m not familiar with this. But that doesn’t mean so much.

Geoffrey Stern  28:36


Adam Mintz  28:37

I’m not familiar with that. But it fits in all those sources. And it’s right. Yeah, I’ll actually go down and dig out the sources. And for those of you listening, by the way, the sources are posted this week, right on our clubhouse, but it seems to me that circumcision is something that on the one hand is extremely, extremely basic. And that any, any movement like the one in this movie, I think, who questions the need to have circumcision as one of the Jews that are interviewed and says, look, if I wasn’t Jewish, I would question it too. But I have a religious commitment here. I think, then we’ll finish on this that one of the things that made circumcision even more important was that we were persecuted for it. And that once you get persecuted for fulfilling a mitzvah, then it becomes a line in the in the ground. So for instance, we all know that there were only certain commandments that you have to give your life for and they do not include circumcision. But the Rabbis say if you make a case of something in public if it becomes a litmus test, even changing the color of your shoelace, is something that is forbidden. And I think that in helping a next generation navigate this, we have to understand that today the issue of circumcision, thank God, is at least not one of a polemical nature or one of standing up against and standing for being Jewish. It’s a personal decision. And I think that studying the Torah and clergy and the community has to help a next generation understand it, grapple with it because if we can grapple with the Akedah, we can grapple with circumcision, they do seem to be linked. It’s spilling of blood.  I think that I think that’s great. This was a great topic tonight. Geoffrey, thank you so much. Chayea Sarah. Next week, Thanksgiving, everybody Toldot; you cannot beat it. Shabbat Shalom everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  30:58

Shabbat Shalom to everybody and thank you all very much. And be sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and if you like what you hear, share it with friends and family and give us a Star or a nice review. Thank you all so very much

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