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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Why has bris survived?

I have been taking an adult Jewish learning class this year, examining the key events (milestones, holy days, etc.) of Jewish life. This week was about birth and brit milah. One question was why brit milah is observed by substantial numbers of Jews when other mitvot--keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, observing the festival days, wearing tzitzit--are not practiced in nearly as great numbers by Jewish people assimilated into modern U.S. society. Of all the mitzvot to survive modernity and assimilation, why that one?

My theory: Circumcision become so prevalent among the general population (especially in the U.S.) after World War II that it ceased to be a practice that made Jews different or apart from the broader society into which they were trying to assimilate. Keeping Kosher made a person different from broader society, because most people do not keep Kosher. Not driving or participating in activities on Shabbat made a person different from broader society (and made it impossible for his kids to play sports and participate in other widespread secular activities). Wearing a yarmulke or tzitzit made a person look different from those in the broader society. Missing school or work for Sukkot made a person stand out from his co-workers or fellow students.

But most males (Jewish and non-Jewish) were circumcised, so a circumcised Jewish male did not look different from those around him. It was easier for Jews to continue circumcision because it did not interfere with assimilation the way other mitzvot, which non-Jews did not also adopt as secular practices, did.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 11, 2018 at 05:39 PM in Howard Wasserman, Religion | Permalink


Interestingly, there's actually a Talmudic passage that's relevant to this question. The Talmud in Tractate Sabbath 130a states that "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Every mitzva that the Jews initially accepted upon themselves with joy, such as circumcision ... they still perform it with joy."

Posted by: greg651 | Feb 14, 2018 3:49:51 PM

What about the Passover seder? I always thought that was also widely observed.

Posted by: Biff | Feb 12, 2018 9:03:50 PM

"Of all the mitzvot to survive modernity and assimilation, why that one?"

The continuing observance of Brit Milah is not unique. Rather, it is one of at least three life-cycle mitzvot to survive modernity. Jews in endogamous marriages nearly all take their vows under a chuppah, and Jewish funerals virtually always have someone saying Kaddish.

There are probably other events that are widely observed, but it makes sense that birth, marriage, and death connect us to traditions.

Posted by: Steven Lubet | Feb 12, 2018 12:45:03 PM

I quite sympathize with the argument within the Jewish community that, and I’m sure a brief description doesn’t do it justice, it is important not to define Jewish identity by or around the Holocaust. To be a Jew means much more than that, however central it is to modern Jewish history. The argument has special resonance around questions of what it means to be Jewish, whether one can truly be a “secular Jew” who has abandoned various practices, and so on. Nevertheless, and without taking a position on that debate, as a Jew it matters to me that I am “marked” by one of *the* fundamental traits that comprise the covenantal relationship between the Jewish God and the Jewish people, and that sense of its importance is surely related to the Holocaust, and to the sense that if there are those who hate and would single out for harm the Jewish people, I want to be identified as one of my people. It represents an act of continuity, identification, survival, and defiance. The same was and is true for my son. Again, I don’t mean to ignore the argument that Jewish identity, so understood by at least some religious Jews, embraces or even requires far more than that, or that this kind of negative definition or motivation is—forgive me—“problematic.” (Nor do I mean to ignore the fact that for largely secular Jews, no similar dress or other practices “single out” girls, as well as boys, as Jewish. I can only get around to so much acknowledging in a single comment.) I might well feel the same way regardless of the fact of the Holocaust, given the central covenantal status of circumcision. But it did happen, and for me at least it does add an extra sense of duty and solemnity to the practice. I may be alone in this, but I would be surprised if I am.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 12, 2018 11:53:14 AM

How does this theory explain why Jews would keep circumcising in Europe, Brazil, Argentina and many other places where gentiles are not circumcised to the extent they are in the USSA today?

Posted by: jimbino | Feb 12, 2018 10:59:41 AM

Random Person's explanation is very good, as is your theory, but another reason is that it's vastly harder to keep kosher or celebrate Shabbat every Friday night than to undergo a one-time cosmetic procedure, and another reason is that the people undergoing it are typically infants and have no say in it. So from the perspective of the people choosing whether or not to do this, it's pretty costless, apart from the money.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Feb 12, 2018 12:28:10 AM

I suspect part of the reason is also that a lot of nonreligious Jews feel the greatest pull of Judaism at those rare moments that are uniquely about the passing of generations. At birth, a bris; at death, a traditional burial and sitting shiva. (The same goes, to a lesser extent, with Yom Kippur.) Some might not think much of Judaism much on a day to day basis, but when it's a life/death event it can feel different.

Posted by: Random Person | Feb 11, 2018 11:47:38 PM

Interesting assumption , yet not so sure how strong it is . I would rather suggest that :
First , it is a one off act . you cut , and that's it for the rest of life of the baby . This religion , is putting huge burden upon the believer and follower . In modern life , very hard to keep up with so many commandments and rituals . So , simply put : one off .

Second , and in more substantial terms , this is a very significant symbolic act . As you know probably , the Jews are the chosen people , among all gentiles , they were the chosen one . From birth to earth , every Jew does carry such perception of his destination . As such , baby born , is getting that mark that sign , that token , in his body , for distinguishing himself in fact , from the rest ( by the way , what defines a Jew as such , if not converted to Judaism , is the fact , that he has been born , to a Jewish mother , that is the ultimate proof or evidence , as if from birth marked so ) .

By the way , you can read in the bible ( old testament ) very interesting , and astonishing story , about circumcision and its importance for distinguishing Jews or Israelites rather , from others , here :



Posted by: El roam | Feb 11, 2018 6:31:35 PM

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