David Karpel, an Orthodox Chassidic Jew, on what circumcision means in his religion and family.
About 4,000 years ago, 99-year-old Abraham circumcised himself. Being different was his thing, opening his tent to feed strangers and travelers of all sorts, and teaching them about G-d. When asked to cut he complied without question. The sages ask, if Abraham had been taught the whole Torah already, why did he wait until being commanded to circumcise himself? Knowing Torah, Abraham knew that a mitzvah done without being commanded is commendable, but a mitzvah done because it is commanded is held to a higher esteem, as it brings one closer to G-d.
Have I lost you yet? Stay with me.
The weight of the handle of the scalpel-like blade, the mila knife, fit in my hand like a good pen. Our boy, our eight-day-old peanut of a child, lay upon a white silky pillow held on his Zayde’s lap. Rabbi Andron, the mohel, had already spoken to my wife and I about the rituals, traditions and procedures. Prayers had been said, tears of concern, of love, of transcendent connection, filled my eyes and spilled down my wife’s cheeks.
The room was full of family and friends squeezing together to pray together, to catch a glimpse of every moment. Sunlight gleamed sublime through painted glass. The mohel guided the blade I held and sliced away our son’s foreskin. This was done to me, to my father and my wife’s father, to my brother, to my Zayde and his, and to every male member of our families going back generations upon generations. Not that we knew then how deeply and forthrightly Noah – now his name was declared – would be the next generation to promulgate the faith and practice forward.
In 1999, my wife and I were not at all religiously observant Jews. We’d met nine years earlier in a Linguistics class at Florida International University. She had big, rockin’ platinum hair and was flipping through some metal magazine like Rip or Circus or maybe it was Metal Edge? I watched as she scanned pages. She stopped at Guns and Roses, which gave me hope. She turned to a story about Def Leppard. If she stopped that would have been the end of it before it began, the deal breaker before words were spoken. She continued. Stopped at Faith No More. I wrote her a note. She replied. I haven’t stopped thanking G-d since. True story.
We were married four years later right down the hall from where we were celebrating our son’s bris milah in 1999.
Circles. Everything circles. Like some arguments.
We were non-religious, ultra-secular Jews living in a one-bedroom apartment with walls of every room painted a different color – canary yellow kitchen, azure living room, winter green bedroom – on the 10th floor of a building on West Avenue in South Beach. Why would we choose to follow some ancient rite written about in a Torah we never read?
I take full responsibility. It’s my fault. Up to a point. As Camus says, “After a certain age, every man is responsible for his own face.”
Even though I was thrown out of practically every class while going to an after-school Hebrew School program at a Conservative synagogue in Miami Beach, one thing stuck with me very clearly, whether it was taught or just an understanding I came to on my own: No matter where we stand when it comes to level of belief or amount of observance, all Jews are the people of the Torah. So when my wife, whose extent of Judaism in her life before me was limited to the knowledge that she was Jewish, asked me in the days before the bris to remind her why we’re doing this to our son, my answer was simple. We’re Jews. This is what Jews do. All the men in her family, all the men in my family, all the Jewish men we’ve ever known or heard of – all circumcised. And for one reason: this is what Jews do since Abraham’s ultimate act of faith sealed the covenant with G-d in his flesh.
Years later, my wife and I brought observant Orthodox Chassidic Judaism into our home. Our son is now in yeshiva, our daughter in middle school. We hope and pray we are giving them a life and education that will lead to them continuing to carry this faith into the next generations. Since joining a community of Orthodox Chassidic Jews, we’ve been to many joyous bris milah ceremonies, oftentimes on multiple occasions for the same families. We’ve learned the deeper significance of the halacha, the law, and the rituals. When one takes place — every few months or so — the whole community celebrates and eats together.
And it all started 4,000 years ago when 99-year-old Abraham listened to G-d and circumcised himself and every male in his household on that same day. He was told then, too, that from that point on his progeny was to be circumcised on the 8th day of their lives so they too may be connected to G-d as Jews must.
This is Torah law. It is not something any Orthodox Jew or I would advocate for everyone, especially the way it’s done in hospitals, which is a very different procedure.
While doctors might use Gomco or Plastibel clamps that lead to more discomfort and often cause the baby to suffer 8-10 minutes of distress, the mohel’s traditional tools and procedures are much less stressful, according to research that measures changes in heart rate and other factors. The baby’s distress during a bris milah typically lasts 10-12 seconds. Noah stopped crying as soon as Rabbi Andron completed the procedure and picked him up off the pillow.
This is our human right, our moral obligation. Essentially, according to G-d Himself in the Torah, this is the first connection between a Jew and G-d, bringing the spiritual into the physical, which happens to be at the very root of the behavior Judaism teaches.
Bris milah, then, is the highest form of moral behavior that sets the tone for a Jewish life thereafter. For us, this is not a debate; it is life.
I have much more to say on the topic, but may this add to the conversation.