Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have a non-Jewish co-worker who is active in his church and teaches a Bible study class. They have reached the verses where Avraham receives the commandment to circumcise himself and his household. My co-worker gets that they are forming a covenant and this is a sign of acceptance — sealing the deal, if you will. But, he is mystified about why God chose this particular sign to seal this covenant. He asked me, “Why not an earring or a tattoo or something?” He even told me that he looked up “rabbinic sources” online, but did not find a satisfying explanation. I was surprised to find myself at a loss to answer this simple question. What should I tell him that would help him and his class see the meaning of bris milah?
The answer to this question goes to the essence of our mission as the Jewish people.
We have mentioned in past columns that in the early days of the Catholic church, there raged a debate if it is possible to reconcile the physical and spiritual worlds. Is it possible for one to really enjoy the sweet offerings of this world and be a spiritual person at the same time? After decades of debate it was decided in the negative — to be holy one needs to separate themselves from physical pleasures and live an ascetic life. Hence, Catholic priests as well as nuns take a vow of celibacy, to ensure their holy mission in life. The holiest of all are the monks who refrain from all pleasures of life, some even from speech.
The result, of course, is what we constantly see in the headlines: scandals in the Catholic church worldwide; priests and bishops accused of improprieties of every kind with nuns, little boys…the list goes on.
Torah thought is diametrically opposed to that of the Catholic church. Not only is celibacy not a virtue, it is considered a sin. The righteous King Hizkiyahu was on his deathbed when the prophet Isaiah visited him and told him he was going to die. He wept and repented and was spared, gaining another 15 years (2 Kings Chapter 20). The Talmud explains that Isaiah castigated him and told him prophetically that he was going to die in this world and the next, because he had not fulfilled the first mitzvah of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. He hadn’t married and had children.
Hizkiyahu answered him that he refrained from this mitzvah because he received a prophetic vision that he was destined to have offspring who would sin and be wicked kings. The prophet retorted, that which he was obligated to do, having children, he had forsaken. What will be in future generations wasn’t in his hands, that is in the hands of God; he must do as he was commanded. Hizkiyahu wept and repented, vowing to have children if he was allowed to live, which he was, and he did sire offspring (Talmud Berachos 10a).
Similarly, we find that a Nazirite, one who takes a vow of holiness including refraining from the consumption of wine, upon completion of that vow period must bring, among other offerings, a sin offering. The question is obvious, what sin did the Nazirite commit by taking a vow of holiness? The Talmud explains that it was the “sin” of refraining from wine; “It’s enough the Torah already forbade upon you and you are adding more forbidden things?!” (Talmud Nedarim 10a).
The Torah wanted us to enjoy the pleasures of this world, in a controlled way. Certainly, one of the greatest pleasures in life is that of intimacy. God not only desired but even commanded us in the mitzvah of marriage and all that goes with it; it is incorporated into the ketubah document. Of all names, the Jewish marriage is called kiddushin, meaning holiness. Marital intimacy is the epitome of sanctity, when performed in accordance with the ensuing laws of family purity which elevate the profane to the holy.
This, the elevation of the profane to the holy, is the essence of Judaism. In this way we, indeed, fuse together the physical and spiritual worlds.
The area of life which most lends itself to misuse and lack of control is that of sexual relations. This is evident in so many ways in our culture that constantly inundate us with the messages of immorality. In order to put the sign of control in this most holy — and at the same time most potentially immoral — area of life, we were commanded to put upon ourselves a sign of control, the bris milah. Man, who needs much more control in this area than woman, was commanded to put the sign of holiness in the place that will teach control in all areas of life.
This is the sign of the covenant, the bris milah, which was given to Abraham to be the sign of his people for all time. This is the constant reminder, literally 24/7, that we are to enjoy this world — in the way the Creator deemed appropriate — thereby elevating ourselves and the physical world with us.
(A rabbi and a Catholic priest were having breakfast; the rabbi had scrambled eggs and the priest, bacon and eggs. The priest said to the rabbi, “This bacon is so delicious, Rabbi. God gave us the pleasures of the world to enjoy, not to refrain from them. When are you going to finally break down and taste this bacon?” Answered the rabbi, “At your wedding, Father.”)
Dear Rabbi Fried,