Lech Lecha: Ancestors and Descendants

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Shalom from the Hudson Valley, where the leaves are starting to turn
and there’s a hint of fall in the air- and no more tomatoes at the
farmer’s market, alas. Well, we’ll survive, we’re a hardy bunch,
descendants of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, who left their home in
the east to travel to a land they’ve never seen, for adventures they
could not imagine. In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, not only
do they travel across many lands, but Avraham also receives a vision
of God in which he is given the sign of the covenant between God and
Avraham’s descendants:

“God further said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to
come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the
covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you
shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall
circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of
the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations,
every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 17:9-12)

From this paragraph we derive the mitzvah of circumcision- perhaps the
most controversial Jewish practice of all time. We will not, in the
space of a short email, be able to answer all critiques of this
covenantal practice, nor I can I, as a rabbi, adequately address the
all the technical and medical questions that readers may have. Nor is
it my intent to discuss, at this time, the implications of
circumcision in the context of our commitment to equality of the sexes
in a Conservative congregation. What I can do is point out a few basic
ideas about brit milah- the “covenant of circumcision”- which often
get left out of the discussion, along with my personal, idiosyncratic
interpretation of the mitzvah.

First, please note, the Torah mentions nothing about hygiene, health
or medical advisability. Brit milah is not a medical act; it is a
religious one, and to a certain extent, the medical justifications for
circumcision can obscure the more fundamental idea, which is that as a
religious practice, Jews see a transcendent value in bringing a
spiritual idea into profoundly physical manifestation.

Second, the Torah is highly specific that milah- circumcision- happens
on the eighth day (barring any medical reason to delay, of course.) A
purely medical circumcision which happens in the hospital before the
eighth day does not fulfill the criteria for brit milah- there is no
mitzvah in a purely medical procedure without the right timing and
blessings. (If that happened, and you want to learn more about next
steps, consult a local rabbi.)

Why the Torah specifies eight days- or afterwards, in the case of
necessity- is open to interpretation, but one can certainly note that
seven days signify creation, the making of the whole world- the eighth
day is when the world has been created and human agency begins. Seen
this way, milah reminds us that each life is a whole world.

Finally, please note that in the passage above, milah is a symbol with
two meanings: it’s a sign of being descended from Avraham and Sarah,
and it’s a sign of the covenant between Avraham and God. As I see it,
milah reminds us that we are a people, with earthly needs and a
physical existence, as well as individuals in relationship with God.
It’s never either/or, but always both/and: we are always cognizant of
the physical needs of ourselves and our people, for safety, for
material sustenance, for right livelihood and stable communities. Yet
we are also incomplete if our physical needs are met without striving
for transcendent purpose. We are in relationship with God and with
each other at all times- we have a body and a soul, we are of Earth
and of Heaven.

I’ve had the privilege of attending two gatherings for brit milah
recently, and in both cases I was struck, again, by the sheer
physicality of this mitzvah, as well as the incredibly profound
emotions felt by the family and guests. Those emotions ranged from
fear to joy to reverence to anxiety- all of which are a normative part
of the human experience. Perhaps brit milah, precisely because of its
emotional intensity, reifies the Jewish conception of covenant as no
other mitzvah does- it brings us down to earth, forces us to
experience the gamut of emotions, and connects us with our God, our
people, and our history, all at the same time.

Shabbat Shalom,


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