Parashah Lekh Lekha (Bereishit/Genesis 12:1–17:27) is the story of Abram, his journey to Canaan, his nephew Lot, a war between kings, the first covenant between God and Abram, the issues with Sarai and Hagar, Abram being renamed Abraham, and the circumcision.
In this parashah, we learn about the first commandment of circumcision, which is a controversial topic among Jews and libertarians. Previously, I have discussed the topic and came to the conclusion that while it is concerning, it is a minor procedure with possible health benefits, and not an aggressive act. I will now make the opposite case and support that with this parashah.
Consent over actions against the body of another person is a major theme in liberty. One is not to harm in anyway the body of another. There are many who maintain that circumcision is of no medical benefit and despite religious reasons, does harm on a child who is just eight days old as we are commanded to do. Instead, they promote a concept of brit shalom (covenant of peace) or say that the child can decide when he is of age.
The brit shalom ceremony involves a formal naming of the baby, but the actual activities vary. It is almost exclusively confined to Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanist congregations, many of whom do not profess a belief in God or binding of the Torah. Some just have a ceremony, others have what is called a brit rechitza. The feet of the child are washed to welcome him into the world, as Abraham welcomed the three messengers of God by washing their feet. A concern arises from the fact that footwashing is a practice in some Christian denominations, but its existence in the Torah helps assuage this.
The commandment itself appears multiple times in the Torah. Here, it applies to all of Abrahams descendants and his household servants. Ishmael, his son with Hagar, the maid of Sarah, is also circumcised, as are to be his descendants: the Bedouin tribes that roam around the surroundings of Israel. He is not, as Muslims and some modern Jewish commentators claim, the progenitor of the Arabs of Arabia.
זֹאת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּ, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, אַחֲרֶיךָ: הִמּוֹל לָכֶם, כָּל-זָכָר.
וּנְמַלְתֶּם, אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם; וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם.
וּבֶן-שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים, יִמּוֹל לָכֶם כָּל-זָכָר–לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם: יְלִיד בָּיִת–וּמִקְנַת-כֶּסֶף מִכֹּל בֶּן-נֵכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזַּרְעֲךָ הוּא.
הִמּוֹל יִמּוֹל יְלִיד בֵּיתְךָ, וּמִקְנַת כַּסְפֶּךָ; וְהָיְתָה בְרִיתִי בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, לִבְרִית עוֹלָם.
וְעָרֵל זָכָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִמּוֹל אֶת-בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ–וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ: אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, הֵפַר.
This is my covenant which you are to keep, between me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, so that it may serve as a sign of the covenant between me and you. At eight days old, every male among you shall be circumcised, throughout your generations, whether house-born or bought with money from any foreigner, who is not your seed. Circumcised, yes, circumcised shall be your house-born and your money-bought (slaves), so that my covenant may be in your flesh as a covenant for the ages. But a foreskinned male, who does not have the foreskin of his flesh circumcised, that person shall be cut off from his kinspeople- he has violated my covenant!
The covenant which is spoken of is that God will make the descendants of Abraham plentiful, as plentiful as the stars in the sky and the dust on the earth. His children will make many nations and kings. And they will have all the land Abraham could see, the land of Canaan. To signify agreement to this covenant, Abraham, his male descendants, and the males of his household servants must be circumcised. So, he did that. Abraham circumcised himself (what a brave man!) at age 99. Ishmael was circumcised at age 13, as is common in most of the world except for Jews.
Circumcision as a practice is not opposed by anyone. The key concern is whether it is acceptable to do it to an infant. An infant who is not circumcised risks being cut off from his people! A grave concern indeed. But we see that it is acceptable to circumcise later if it was not done. A child cannot make the choice to be circumcised, so he cannot be cut off from his people when he has not made that choice. Indeed, Judaism allows one who was not circumcised to be later circumcised and accepted. Converts who are circumcised are generally required to spill a token of blood to represent the covenant.
If the child is not circumcised, there is no repercussion for the parents. Only the child, but only when he has the ability to make that choice, and does not. This yields a very convenient opening. Indeed, the Israelites born while wandering in Egypt were not circumcised. Some would be as old as 40, and Joshua had them all circumcised.
וְאֶת-בְּנֵיהֶם הֵקִים תַּחְתָּם, אֹתָם מָל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ: כִּי-עֲרֵלִים הָיוּ, כִּי לֹא-מָלוּ אוֹתָם בַּדָּרֶךְ.
And He raised up their children in their stead; them did Joshua circumcise; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised by the way.
This presents an interesting parallel to the Baptist denomination in Christianity. Christians replaced the ritual of circumcision with a ritual of baptism, or immersion in water. This was mainly to palate Greek and Roman converts who had no interest in circumcision if that was the entry fee. Immersion in water is a practice in Judaism, as we are constantly commanded to wash after becoming impure. Most Christian groups up until the Reformation would baptize children, just as Jews circumcise, shortly after birth. Baptists found that this was not right to do to the child and they need to choose to enter the faith of their own accord at adulthood. At that point, they are to be baptized. Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, etc) were known for rebaptizing themselves, considering infant baptism invalid.
A similar movement in Judaism would defer the circumcision until adulthood. The young man (13 may be proposed, or 20) can then make the choice whether to join with his kinspeople, the Nation of Israel. If he does, he is circumcised ritually. If he does not, he may risk being cut off. I consider cut off to be both spiritual (loneliness) and literal (shunning). Thus, it is reversible, when the man circumcises, he may be accepted.
This is bound to be controversial in Jewish legal theory, but is concretely grounded in Torah and the Book of Joshua. It would help resolve a huge discomforting dispute among Jews today and for libertarian Jews. Everything halakhically is still complied with, but it is done with consent of those involved.
Note: Again, my personal view is that infant circumcision is not aggression. However, the opposite case is structurally sound and worth making.