BRIT MILA - PART II
I. "THE SIGN SAYS YOU GOTTA HAVE A MEMBERSHIP CARD..."
There is an interesting debate among Rishonim concerning the reasoning behind the mitzva of Brit Mila. In order to appreciate what is at stake in this debate, it would do us well to first understand the full importance and centrality of Brit Mila in Judaism.
When Hashem commanded Avraham to perform a Brit Mila on himself and all the males of his household (Bereishit 17), He in turn promised to give Avraham many children and to give Avraham's children the Land of C'naan (later Israel). This two-pronged promise of children and land is a theme that runs throughout the entire Bereishit narrative and is thus a major foundation in the formation of the Jewish people. The act of circumcision is a sign of that covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people.
Brit Mila reaffirms its status as the major identifying feature of the Jew at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (Shemot 12). Both in Egypt and for all future generations, no male who was uncircumcised could partake of the Korban Pesach, and thus could not participate fully in the celebration of the birth of the Jewish people as a viable nation. This point is highlighted by the mass circumcisions performed by Yehoshua (Yehoshua 5) when the Jewish people entered to land of C'naan under his command.
Finally, we should note that Brit Mila is one of only two positive commandments (Korban Pesach is the other) for which one receives kareit (spiritual excision) if he fails to perform it (see Keritot 2a). As Rav Menachem Leibtag has explained, the explanation is simple. Kareit is effectively the cutting off of the offending individual from Hashem's holy and chosen nation. A person who fails to circumcise himself has essentially already cut himself off, and thus the formal punishment can be seen as nothing more than a divine seal of approval on the human inaction.
With all of this in mind, we turn to the Sefer HaChinuch. In discussing the second mitzva in the Torah, he writes that the reason for this commandment is rooted in the fact that Brit Mila serves as a badge to distinguish the Jews from the other nations of the world. It is done specifically to this part of the body since this is the part responsible for procreation, and thus each generation that is born is created literally by way of this sign of the chosenness of the Jewish people. However, he goes on to write that Hashem did not create the Jew with this sign, but rather wanted man to place the final touches on the body so as to show that just as it is within man's power to perfect his physical creation, so too is it within his power to perfect himself spiritually (this point is also made by Rav Sa'adia Gaon). It is not coincidental that one who hardens his heart and refuses to heed the word of Hashem is known as an "arel lev" - one whose heart is uncircumcised.
However, there seems to be a problem with this answer of the Sefer HaChinuch. In mitzva 244, the prohibition of breeding together two animals of different species, he writes that the reasoning for such a prohibition is that Hashem created the world whole and perfect. As such, He commanded each species to breed only within itself, since creating mixed breeds would ruin the perfect nature of creation. And thus the question arises - was everything created perfect and whole, or were there things that were left incomplete, waiting for man to come and finish?
It is exactly this conflict thatRambam takes issue with in his Moreh Nevuchim (3:49). He claims that it is inconceivable to claim that there is anything lacking in creation that man is needed to complete. Instead, he offers a completely different suggestion. In the midst of discussing several laws whose aim is the maintenance of sexual mores among the Jewish people, he claims that Brit Mila falls into this category. How so? By permanently weakening the male organ, Rambam feels that one becomes less inclined to immerse himself in the pleasures of physical intimacy. I would suggest that this could be connected to the idea that differences in sexual morality is one of the main areas that separates the Jews from the other nations. This is a point highlighted both by Ramban's comments to Vayikra 19;1, as well as by the fact that the laws of forbidden relations are found in Rambam's codex in the section known as "kedusha," a term that indicates being separate. The symbol of the Jew and the symbol of his relationship with Hashem is placed in the exact spot that symbolizes his separation from the other nations of the world.
Rambam goes one step further in his philosophical analysis of this mitzva. He works with the notion that a Brit Mila is a "membership card" for Jewish males. However, why was this particular surgery chosen? We know from various places in the Torah (as well as from history) that there were other nations who inflicted all sorts of wounds upon themselves in service of their own gods. Thus, what is so special about a Brit Mila? Rambam notes that it is precisely the location of the Brit Mila that is so crucial. It is far easier for a person to scratch himself on his leg or his arm than to give himself a circumcision. Thus, there is no fear that someone will try to falsely claim to be Jewish - it is simply not worth the pain and effort to circumcise oneself unless one is truly part of the chosen people.
It should be noted that what is involved in this debate is two of the major themes in Jewish thought, from the time of the Mishna through Medieval philosophy. The notion of the special nature of the Jewish people is an idea that dominates works such as the Kuzari, and it lies at the center of many areas of halacha. The idea that we can become, in some small way, a partner with Hashem in creation is connected to the larger issue of how close man can come to God. If we are, in fact, created in His image, then this may imply that we can arrogate to ourselves a role in the most divine of all tasks, the task of creation.
II. WHOSE MITZVA?
There is a bit of an issue as to whose obligation it is to give someone a Brit Mila. Is it the obligation of the person himself, or is it the obligation of his father? Obviously, a person cannot circumcise himself when he is a mere infant, yet a person who dies without receiving a circumcision receives kareit, a punishment which his father does not receive for this failure to perform the mitzva.
The gemara in Kiddushin 29a states that the father has a mitzva to circumcise his son, and the courts may not step in on his behalf against his will. While this seems to be fairly clear-cut, theMinchat Chinuch is unsure as to whether or not this obligation on the father remains once the child has grown up uncircumcised. There is no question that a Brit Mila still has to be done, but who has to do it at that point? Rambam, in his Peirush HaMishnayot in Shabbat claims that once the child grows up the father no longer has any obligation in this matter, a point that is confirmed by the Yerushalmi in Yevamot 8:1.
However, there seems to be evidence to the contrary as well. In listing the various obligations that a father has regarding his son, the gemara also mentions finding him a bride, something which is obviously done when the child has grown to be a man, and teaching him Torah, which also applies regardless of age. Nevertheless, it is possible to neutralize this evidence by realizing that each of these obligations is learned out from a particular verse, and the verse by Brit Mila is Bereishit 21:4, where Avraham circumcises his son Yitzchak. Since this was done when Yitzchak was a child, we can add this to the other evidence to reach the conclusion that a father's obligation to circumcise his son extends only as long as the son is a minor. After that time, the son is obligated to enter himself into the covenant of the Jewish people with Hashem.
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