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Covenant & Commitment: Two Perspectives on Bris Milah by Robin Hirsch and Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn
Covenant & Commitment: Two Perspectives on Bris Milah by Robin Hirsch and Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn
Volume 3 , Issue 4


By Robin Hirsch

Martha wants to know what to wear.

I don't know. Whatever you wear to a conventional bloodletting.

I am not uncivilized. My wife is a clinical psychologist. Our son was barely a week old. And here we were, new and excited parents, about to submit our beautiful, tender, sweethearted boy, whose journey into the world had been hard enough, to the sharp and terrifying instruments of a certified Mohel.

A Mohel, in the Jewish religion, is a ritual circumciser. Traditionally, on the eighth day after the birth of a male child, after sunrise and before sundown, in a ceremony that goes back to Abraham, the boy's foreskin is cut off. "This is the twentieth century," my mother-in-law protested. "They can do it in the hospital. It's barbaric. Why are you doing this?"

Why were we doing this? Neither of us is an observant Jew. We fast on Yom Kippur; we attend the occasional Seder; even more infrequently we hold one, but we don't keep kosher; we rarely worship; and we belong at the moment to no shul, mostly because two years ago we moved to Brooklyn and we have yet to find one here which answers to our peculiar, secular, vague, uneasy needs. And yet, one of the few things we had decided before the birth was that if we had a boy we would have a bris, a ritual circumcision. Now, as the hour approached, a flood of feelings, questions, memories, apprehensions overtakes me.

Had I had a bris? I didn't know. Certainly I had been circumcised, but had there been a ceremony? My father is dead; my mother is elderly and no longer remembers.

I was born in London during the war. My parents were refugees from Germany. How anxious, I wonder, would they have been for so conspicuously foreign an occasion. The family doctor was German Jewish. Perhaps he had done it. On the other hand, given how conspicuously foreign my parents seemed to me growing up, and given also my father's bullheadedness, perhaps I had doch (still), as they would have infuriatingly put it, had a bris. And did I not have a godfather, that spectral figure on my childhood's horizon, and is not a godfather in childhood legend the one who holds your penis during the act?

If there had been a bris, who would have been there? Certainly no immediate family beyond my parents. All my grandparents were dead -- both my grandfathers had died in Berlin, mercifully, long before Hitler; both my grandmothers had lived to die in concentration camps. My mother had a sister?but she had escaped with her two children to South America. My father had a brother, but he had fled with his wife to Amsterdam, where of course the Nazis followed; by the time I was born they were already in hiding. One widowed cousin of my father's had also ended up in London. Perhaps she would have come. The rest of what had been two large, vibrant families were either dead, about to die, or scattered across the earth.

Bris or no bris, I think of my parents choosing to have children in a foreign country, in middle age, during the Blitz, and I think of it as a decision of extraordinary, almost palpable, courage. In the face of the destruction of their families it seems such a life-affirming act that if I dwell on it, I weep. But I weep also for another, more complicated, reason. For the inevitable failure. For parents old enough to be grandparents, for the enormous emotional and psychological gulf that separated them from us, for the hated foreign language which they were too old to shed, for the rigid nineteenth-century German precepts by which they sought to bring us up in postwar England.

And yet here am I, more than forty years later, and some of the contours of my life have a familiar shape. I live in a foreign country. What remains of my family is scattered. My mother, my sister, and my sister's two daughters live in London. My mother's sister, whom I met once in my life, twenty-three years ago at my sister's wedding, is dead. Her two children, my only cousins, survive. One, Ellinor, lives in Be'er Sheva. We have seen each other half a dozen times over the years, each time in a different country. The other, Gert, lives in Buenos Aires. We have never met.

And here am I in New York, six months older than my father was when I was born, and here, miraculously, is Alexander. And now, suddenly, however briefly, we are nine. And complicated, turmoil-ridden, tenuous though my family history has been, it is still, willy-nilly, a Jewish history and there is still a tattered fabric to sew him into.

And so I look for a Mohel. And in the process some of the loftier thoughts evaporate. And certain inescapable realities begin to present themselves.

How, for example, do you audition a Mohel? We had avoided finding out the sex of our prospective child so that when Alexander emerged, tiny, misshapen, and covered in blood, we weren't exactly ready to roll. On day two, bleary eyed, exhausted, I called around, soliciting names. By day three, I had four possibilities. But day three was Friday and from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, these guys go into seclusion. So I had to move fast. I connected with two of them and the wife of a third.

Mohel Number 1 -- this was beginning to feel more and more like a TV show -- lived in New Jersey, had trained in Israel, and was also a cantor. I had in fact seen him in action -- an acquaintance whose son had been circumcised had the entire thing on video. He sang nicely, the baby didn't seem to cry unduly, the whole thing was over quickly, and the cameraperson had had the taste to fade out during the central act. But maybe the Mohel was just a little young...

Mohel Number 2 was an oldtimer, the most Orthodox, and probably the most experienced. What was my Hebrew name? That was easy?David. And after whom is the child named? Well, his middle name, Max, was my grandfather's name and my father's middle name. "And your father's Hebrew name was . . . ?" I didn't know.

"Well, Max would have been either Moshe or Meir."

"O.K." "And your wife's Hebrew name?"

"Darling, what is your Hebrew name?"

"Darling, I don't have a Hebrew name."

"Is she Jewish?"

"Of course she's Jewish."

"Well, thank Goodness for that."

The wife of Mohel Number 3 was a businesswoman. "Mazel tov. The bris will be next Wednesday. Between sunrise and sundown. End of the day is no good; he is booked. Telephone -- home and hospital.? Two hours later the Rabbi -- he is also a Rabbi -- calls us at the hospital. I explain that I am as interested in the social and historical context of the ceremony as I am in the religious, that my son is the offspring of two families that have both suffered losses in the Holocaust, but that as far as Orthodox religion goes, there isn't too much of that. I am being tactful -- my wife's family is highly acculturated, in most quarters anti-religious, and in some quarters hysterically so.

Mohel Number 4 didn't get back to me until Saturday night, by which time I had pretty much made up my mind. And the winner is . . . Mohel Number 3 had done the deed on the son of a friend of a friend. The grandfather, a surgeon, was impressed with his work. He had been recommended by a distinguished liberal rabbi. Also, Mohel Number 3 was the fifth generation of mohelim in his family; he had written a scholarly book on circumcision, which he promised to send me; and above all, he had a voice which sounded real on the phone.

Reading the Mohel's book the night before, I learned a number of things. For example, that the ritual of circumcision, according to the Talmud, is one that the Jewish people have always observed with ecstatic joy -- this was clearly one for my mother-in-law; that the removed foreskin was customarily buried in the desert -- what would he do, bury it in our garden? and that, contrary to my childhood legend, it is not the godfather who holds the boy's penis during bris, or even the boy. It is traditionally one of the grandfathers, and this is a single honor. When Leona's father arrives, I will ask him to be the sandak.

The ceremony was set for 1:30. I had called what little family there is, some friends, bought smoked salmon, champagne, one bottle of kosher wine, 30 3? gauze pads, Neosporin ointment, rubbing alcohol, flowers, candles. Behind closed doors, on a quiet city street, in the middle of an ordinary Wednesday, normal-looking men and women and even the occasional child would assemble and a man with, as the jacket of his book told me, one of the most comprehensive collections of circumcision instruments in the world, would, after a few Hebrew words, cut off my son's foreskin in our living-room. Why were we doing this?

?Why are you doing this?? It's half an hour before the ceremony and the question comes from Ingrid, a writer, a Jew, who lives most of the time on an island off the coast of Mine. There is no challenge, no criticism; it is a simple open question. But I don't have a simple answer.

"I don't know exactly," I say. "It's a mystery. It has something to do with family, something to do with community. Somehow I felt it was important."

"Are you nervous?"

"Of course, I'm nervous."

When Alexander was born -- at the moment he was born, after six hours of transitional labor and two and half hours of pushing -- I looked round the delivery room into which Leona and been wheeled two hours earlier. When we had come in, it had been spotless, sterile, gleaming. Now, with Alexander's painful arrival, it was covered in blood, instruments, rags. But mostly blood. Blood was everywhere -- on the walls, on trolleys, on equipment, on the gowns of the doctor and nurse, on the bed, ankle-deep, it seemed, on the floor. In a petrie dish, swimming in blood, lay the placenta. It was as though a terrorist had thrown a bomb. And in the midst of the wreckage, his head in a bandage, I held my new-born son and murmured, over and over again, as much for me as for him, "Everything's going to be all right. Everything's going to be all right."

Amazingly, almost everyone I called is here. We are, maybe, two dozen. I look around: writers, psychoanalysts, filmmakers, rock musicians, lawyers, business people, television producers, not exactly a crowd Abraham might have anticipated, not exactly a family. And yet doch a family -- a lateral family, a chosen family, the only kind of extended family a decimated family can have. And, mirabile dictu, there is even real family. In addition to Leona's relatives, there is one distant cousin of my father's, Herta, whom I discovered living in New York a dozen years ago. From Berlin in 1939, she had escaped to Shanghai. And from Shanghai after the war she had come to America. And here she is with her husband, Lacy, a Czech Jew who had spent the same ten-year-period in the Jewish quarter of Shanghai, but whom she had not met until New York, and here they both are with their American daughter and their son-in-law and their two-year-old granddaughter, the youngest of all present.

The Mohel arrives. We go upstairs. I have set out candles, the wine, the gauze, the alcohol, the ointment, on a table, and a chair for the Sandak. The Mohel takes off his jacket and puts on a white coat. He lays out his instruments. We discuss the matter of Alexander's Hebrew name. Alexander, it turns out?the Great, not the Little?was a benefactor and protector of the Jews and his name is thus acceptable as a Jewish name. Max we have decided will be Moshe. And, as a Jewish boy is named also after his father, he will in addition be ben (the son of) David.

Leona holds him, kisses him. I kiss him. She retreats with him to the landing. I stand with his godfather, his grandfather, and the Mohel, four Jewish males awaiting with varying degrees of anxiety the arrival of a fifth. His godmother brings him to his grandfather, who sits in the chair opposite the Mohel. And the Mohel says, "Boruch haba, Blessed be he who has come." And Alexander is placed on the table. I read from a poem written by an Irish friend who cannot be here. In the best Irish tradition it begins, "Shalom -- Alexander Max ?" and it continues,

"Journey well, Alexander Max And make with us this loose pact. You will laugh a lot, And always ask why.

The Mohel introduces himself, jokes about his instruments, places the ceremony in brief historical context, recites the traditional blessings, and asks me for permission to carry out the act. I read from a prayer by Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai:

I am prepared to fulfill the divine commandment of ritual circumcision. Presently, my son will be brought into the Covenant of Abraham as it is written in the Torah: "At eight days shall every male be circumcised unto you for your generations -- It shall be a token of the covenant between Me and you."

I appoint the Mohel, here present, to act in my behalf and perform this ritual. I pray to G-d that our son will be a pride to his mother and myself, that we may raise him to be learned and righteous and that we may share with him in the fulfillment of his life.

And the Mohel begins. My father-in-law holds down his grandson, gazing intently as the Mohel clips back the foreskin and cuts. And cuts. And Alexander cries. And I stand beside his grandfather and I squint my eyes and reel back so his grandfather's head comes between me and my son. And I hear the sound of cutting. And I hear the sound of crying. And after an age the Mohel looks up and presents the bloody stump for my inspection. And he says, "A nice Jewish boy." And I smile wanly. And he soaks a piece of gauze in Schapiro's Naturally Sweet Concord Grape Wine from Rivington Street and Alexander bites on it like a sailor in the British Navy and he stops crying. And the Mohel recites the blessing, "Elokenu velokay avosenu -- Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and may his name be called in Israel: Alexander Moshe ben David."

And the Mohel bandages the tiny wounded penis. And when he is done, he produces a miniature red, white, and blue knotted yarmulke with the legend "ILove NY" crocheted around the edge and he places it on Alexander's head and he holds him up and people laugh and there is applause.

And Alexander is returned to his mother.

And the Rabbi and I settle up.

And down in the kitchen, Leona's mother, who has stoically resisted the temptation to come up, knows that the barbaric ritual has come to an end.

And Lacy, my father's distant cousin's husband, who finds himself here in Brooklyn via Hungary, Rumania, Shanghai, and the Upper West Side, breaks the challah and says the blessings over the bread and the wine.

And we open the champagne and we dig into the bagels and cream cheese and salmon and slowly the terror and the mystery recede, and we are once again in a pleasant, light-filled house on a pleasant street in the borough of Brooklyn, New York City, and the year is 1988, if you count from the birth of Jesus, or 5748 if you count, as the Jewish calendar does, from the Creation. And no-one cries. And there is only the faintest memory of blood.

Robin Hirsch holds joint doctorates in literature and theatre from Oxford. He is the founder and artistic director of The New Works Project, an experimental theatre company, and co-owner of The Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.


Commitment: A Response

By Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn

Pain, pity, compassion. These are my emotions as I labor through the article on Bris Milah by Mr. Hirsch. How could any observant Jew not be pained and hurt when a fellow Jew, regardless of denomination, describes the first Mitzvah given to the first Jew (Abraham) as a "barbaric act"?

If God chose the act of Ritual Circumcision as the one symbolic act that physically and spiritually sets Jews apart from the nations of the world, could that possibly be a "barbaric act?" Can a ceremony performed on Jewish males for more than 3700 years by Jews of all degrees of commitment, at all levels of intelligence, under all situations of sacrifice, be a crude "bloodletting ceremony?" Can a procedure that simultaneously reaffirms God's relationship with His chosen people as it reaffirms our loyalty to Him be inhumane? When a surgeon cuts open a patient's head or stomach to remove a growth, is that a barbaric act? Is a surgeon? akin to a mugger because they both use knives? As I read the first part of the article, it is as though I and my observant brothers and sisters throughout the world had been slapped in the face. I am offended by the choice of expression.

But I read on. And once again I am pained, this time by the terrible suffering and separation that Mr. Hirsch's family has gone through: the scampering and scattering of family, the death by the monster that was Nazism, the emptiness that seems to have permeated the lives of children raised in societies where intellect and culture (but not religion) represented man's loftiest achievements, where perhaps the observant Jew, with his unwavering trust and faith in God was (silently) sneered and jeered at even by fellow Jews. And the pain ebbs from within me as it transforms to feelings of pity.

Pity for the childhood seemingly bereft of the thrill of fervent prayer in a shul of hundreds, pity for a child who never experienced the anticipation of a Passover seder of royalty even if observed in poverty. I feel a sadness for youths who probably were never thrilled by the brilliance and intellect of the Gemorrah (Talmud) as explained by a rebbe (teacher) who personified God's best on this earth. I feel sorry for the child who, most likely, was never proud to be the tenth man counted in a minyan, who for reasons beyond his control, was never uplifted by the songs, unity and warmth of a family shabbos table. I feel terrible for a lad who probably never placed his hand on a mezuza and never sensed a security that God is indeed the protector of His people. The pain is gone; instead I feel sad.

And I read on. As Mr. Hirsch describes his search for a Mohel, I smile as I recognize mannerisms of some of my unnamed professional colleagues. And then I am startled to realize that he has chosen me. I have won his Mohel's lottery but with reason. What convinces him, he writes (among other things), is that my voice is real. It makes me pause. I am truly touched and thankful. And I read on.

Yes, I did send him the book on Bris Milah, and it makes me proud that he and his wife ?did some homework? as they clear up misconceptions and learn new things (as I did when I wrote the book) about the significance of the Mitzvah we are all about to participate in.?


When the book was first published, I gave one to every family after I had performed their son's Bris. As my father who was a Mohel before me, I had always given the parents of the newborn a Bris certificate which indicated the child's Hebrew name and Hebrew birthday. (You would be surprised at how many people call when they are about to enter their son into Hebrew school and ask, "What Hebrew name did we give Scott/Justin/Max seven years ago at his Bris?") Now, I thought, that aside from the certificate, it would be a nice gesture to give a family something they could read which would make them more aware of the ceremony they had just participated in.

However, a few weeks after publication, I was to have a Bris on Shabbos. As I do not carry on Shabbos (there was no eiruv in this particular area), I had to leave my instruments in the family's home on Friday afternoon. Along with my instruments, I brought the book, and gave it to the newborn's mother suggesting that she read certain sections.

?On Shabbos when I walked into the home, the father of the infant greeted me warmly and exclaimed, ?I can't thank you enough.?

?For what?? I asked with surprise. I hadn't even taken off my coat.

?The book! I read it for three hours last night. Now I know why I'm doing what I'm doing.? He took me to the room where we were to have the Bris. He already had a chair for the Sandak and Elijah in place. His tallis (that he hadn't used in years) was ready, the wine in a beautiful decanter was on the table. He even had candles prepared (which are usually lit symbolizing that every child is a new spark of life), not realizing that one does not light them on Shabbos. "I now understand so much Rabbi, and it will make the Bris more meaningful. Last night Myra and I even recited the Shema at our child's cribside."

From that evening on, I changed my modus operandi and since then, send the book (via UPS - so that it gets there the next day) to every family that wishes to use me as their Mohel.


I read on. I recall that I had often wondered why a ceremony referred to as Bris (literally - covenant) symbolizing togetherness, is marked by an act of cutting. Cutting, it would seem, indicates separation, the division of two things from each other - certainly not a bonding or bringing together.

I found the answer in the noted HaKsav VeHaKabbalah, a commentary on Bible (Genesis 15:18). He writes that when two parties enter into a covenant or treaty, there are terms and obligations that they accept toward each other. These obligations are unique, for they are binding only for these participants alone and for no one else. The two parties involved have in essence "cut themselves off" from the rest of mankind with respect to the terms of their mutual agreement. The bond which was created for them is specifically geared for them alone.

The Bris (covenant) that God made with Abraham bound them together for eternity and, at the same time, separated Abraham and his descendants from the nations of the world. God made exclusive promises to Abraham: the Jewish nation would be plentiful; Abraham's descendants would be given the land of Israel as an eternal heritage; and that He, God, would be our God. In these respects we are uniquely different from all the other nations of the world. Hence the expression in one of the Bris prayers, Korais (literally - the cutting) HaBris (of the covenant).

The Midrash states that Adam was born circumcised. The original plan of God was that man would live a life within the parameters that he was given. However, Adam sinned and thus stepped out of those parameters. In characterizing Adam's sin, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) uses the expression, "Adam drew forth his Orlah," (Literally - foreskin). The term Orlah is significant because the Torah uses this term only when it refers to a barrier standing in the way of a beneficial thing. For example, a person's resistance to repentance is called Orlas HaLev (literally, the foreskin of the heart). Fruit of a tree (during it's first years of growth) that is forbidden to be eaten is called Orlah.

The Bris, the removal of the Orlah (foreskin), of Abraham and that of his descendants afterwards, thus symbolizes that man should indeed strive to live within the parameters of Jewish life as prescribed by God and for that exalted time of perfection in Adam before his first sin. Indeed, that is exactly how God commanded Abraham with the mitzvah of circumcision, "Become perfect." (Genesis 17:1) That ?perfect? referred to the way man was originally created, for the presence of the foreskin on every male from Adam's son downward symbolized the mark of decadence and rebellion.??

Being circumcised has, for thousands of years, been a sign of Jewish identity and commitment to an ideal. It may sound alien to a secularist, but it is an ideal of holiness. The sign of the covenant is placed on a part of the human anatomy that contains within it two diametrically opposed forces. On one hand there are desires for sensual gratification that have led to the breakdown of barriers of decency and the dissipation of standards of morality, and, on the other hand, it is through this part of the body that man has the ability to accomplish something that is beyond the power of any human function, to draw a soul down to this world and produce a human living being. God, therefore, commanded Abraham to place the holy mark of circumcision on the organ through which the perpetuation of life is accomplished because Abraham and his descendants, as God's people, would bring the holiest souls down to this earth.

Do we circumcise for health reasons? Undoubtedly, many have had their sons circumcised because of the scientific research showing the health value of circumcision, but not one Jewish source (Bible, Talmud, Midrash, commentary, etc.) has ever cited its health benefit as a reason for this mitzvah. If it is, indeed, beneficial, so be it; if not, we do it regardless. It is for these reasons that many have looked askance at doctors performing ritual circumcisions when capable mohelim are available. A bris is primarily a religious act not merely a medical one.?

The question has often been asked, "If God wanted us circumcised, why didn't he create us that way?"? The answer to that question is a basic premise in the observance of Bris Milah. When we circumcise, we are in essence continuing the process of creation. Just as bread and rolls do not grow in fields and sweaters and jackets do not grow on sheep, individuals (born after Adam) are not created "perfect." Everything that is created needs development. At the outset of a Jew's life, this development process begins. The message in Bris Milah is that man must strive, improve and refine. For Abraham, the act of Milah at the age of 99, was a conclusion - the attainment of perfection after his having lived a life devoted to God. For later generations it was an Os Bris, "a sign of the covenant" that God made with Abraham, that reminds us, as Abraham's descendants, to strive towards the perfection that Abraham achieved (Bereishis Rabbah, 11:6).

As I finish the article, I ask myself, why did the Hirsch's have their son circumcised? Was it guilt? Was it health? Was it so that their son would not look different from his future male classmates or gym partners? If these were their reasons, they could have easily opted to have a doctor circumcise their son medically.

I would like to think that for the Hirsch's (and for thousands of others like them) it was and is much more. There is a Yiddish expression, Der Pintele Yid. This refers to the spark of pride in Yiddishkeit that remains within the Jewish heart regardless of his present degree of religious commitment. As long as a Jew breathes, the spark of his Yiddishkeit flickers, even if its glow has been dimmed by years of neglect and disregard.

No one can fault a person for a lack of religious commitment if he wasn't brought up that way. And yet, the Hirsches were daring in a sense. In the presence of family and sophisticated acquaintances whose friendship and respect they value, they made a statement. And for that I admire them. Their spark of Jewish pride was ignited as they proceeded to attach themselves to the heritage of their past. The Bris, for them, was a statement of connection. It meant starting out their son's life with a ceremony of identity -- cutting, but connecting -- a Bris of bonding with Jewish identity of past, present, and future. It was why their child was also given a Hebrew name that day, for that, too, is a manifestation of Jewish identity.

The Bris marks the beginning of a child's allegiance to the practice of Judaism. It is the only mitzvah in the entire Torah which wass inaugurated with a celebration. (see, Talmud Shabbos 130a) It is a happy event, a significant event, an event heralding the child's entry into the world. I thank God that I had the opportunity to participate with their family that day.

It has been said that as the eighth note (doe) on the musical scale is actually the same as the first note except an octave higher, so, too, the behavior of Jews who superficially resemble all men, must be an octave higher. It is for this reason that the Bris is performed on the eighth day of a child's life - a symbol to his higher calling as a member of God's People. If there be those of our nation who do not see it that way, may we be instrumental with compassion and understanding in helping them recognize the lofty standards of our people.


The pain is gone; the pity has receded, and it has been replaced by pride. Pride in a modern day Jew who felt compelled to make a statement. That morning in Brooklyn, a couple spoke with heart, and didn't let their minds get in the way. To paraphrase the prophet Malachi, "May the hearts of parents inspire those of their children as the hearts of children inspire those of their parents."

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, fifth generation mohel, is the author of Bris Milah, The Maggid Speaks, and Around the Maggid's Table all published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd.



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