Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Bris

For most Jews, the decision to have a brit milah and a circumcision is simplicity itself. You do.

Living in San Francisco complicates things.

I felt strongly about it, and I wanted to write out why.

First, in bold print, circumcision was the prerequisite act for Abram to become Abraham, father of multitudes, the very first Jew. To have that very first Jewish interaction with the transformative power of the universe, that which allows what is to become what should be, the Jewish people determined that circumcision was required. So every -or nearly every- jewish man since then has been circumcised.

We wanted Asher to be a part of that lineage, both the spiritual attribute and experience of Abraham, but the physical marking of the same.

But why did the Jews ascribe so much importance to this act that they recorded it as a command from God?

I have to backtrack a little here. I believe that there is a transcendent power in the universe that is not indifferent between compassion and sin and that this power is beyond the bonds that control the physical aspect of the universe. I am (highly) doubtful that this power speaks explicitly to people. Instead, the stories in the Torah read to me like a record of the interaction between the Jews and what we call god. When I read the Torah and see some law or prediction ascribed to God, I feel like its a literary trick. Instead of saying, "This is something we have discovered and believe to be true, but could never prove it." They say, "God said..."

I personally don't mind if this makes some judge me to be an ignorant jew, a bad jew or not a jew at all. Reading the Torah this way has been my gateway to explore and honor the wisdom in these crazy stories.

So why did we Abram hear god saying, " Go circumcise yourself?" The oldest image of circumcision is 4,000 years old and lies in Egypt.

But if I had to guess, the Egyptians didn't invent circumcision the moment that image was drawn. Circumcision is practiced around the world by wildly divergent cultures. ost of the semitic people, including Muslims, practice circumcision to this day. Many Pacific Islanders do too, as well as Native Americans and a wide variety of African cultures east, south and west.

There is something about this act of body mutilation that is felt to be a profound key to the world beyond the physical one we live in, touch and feel everyday.

There are those who believe that circumcision is a left-over from the early matriarchal culture that preceded the rise of Jewish patriarchy some several thousand years ago. There are many cultural hypotheses to buttress this claim, but they all come down -as I see it- to the idea that no society controlled by men would choose to self-inflict damage on their "manhood". I've read other explanations suggesting circumcision was a way of protecting oneself from trophy seeking Greek, Phonenician and Egyptian warriors.

What makes sense to me is that any attempt to out a cultural context around circumcision is likely to start far along in the story. Australian aboriginal cultures that have been recording their history on the same set of rocks for 15,000 years practice circumcision. Is this central ritual a Johnny come lately? Whether you start with the Jewish matriarchy that preceded our era's patriarchy, you are leaving out the patriarchy that receded that Matriarchy, and on back into the darkness before the first record that has reached us.

Human beings have been in nearly our present physical makeup for nearly 2 million years and fully Homo Sapiens for more than 200,000 years. We have surviving written records for only the barest sliver of that, less than 3% of that time. What bubbled up out of that time that is now hidden from view? How many permutations of wisdom and culture did circumcision traverse before the cuneiform tablets that survive to our time appeared on the scene?

It seems likely to me that trying to find cultural context for circumcision is like trying to see your own eye or eat your teeth. You'd as soon find a cultural explanation of a mother's love. Sure you can show how present day culture influences that relationship but mother-child bonds arose alongside culture itself.

I know but cannot prove that circumcision traveled the same dim path, side by side with the development of culture itself. So i say, "God says..."

And that is why after the 8th day -it took god 7 days/epochs to make the universe so the first 7 days of a child's life are about instantiating as a physical being. No transcendant ritual can happen before the child is finished becoming first a physical being- our boy had the skin cap on his JJ snipped off in front of a singing and clapping crowd of friend and family.

To welcome him to the community of people who struggle with god's cll to be good and compassionate. To welcome him to the community of the People Israel whose radical belief is that the universe is not indifferent between good and evil, that we are in charge of our own moral destiny and the fate of the universe is in our hands.

Welcome to the struggle for Tikkun Olam Asher Wolfson Temchine.

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