My father, of blessed memory, was a radical social activist who was involved in the leftist and progressive movements of his generation. He had a warm love for people, and both he and my mother, of blessed memory, were involved in the mitzvah of tzedakah - sharing our resources with those in need.
When I began to write the book, “The Universal Jew - Letters to My Progressive Father” (which was published in 1995), I decided to do some research on the involvement of Jews in radical, leftist causes during my father's generation. This was the generation that experienced the Great Depression of the late 1920's and early 30's. When I read about the various radical groups that were attracting Jews like my father, I discovered that most of the communist leaders of my father's generation had a different attitude towards sexual behavior than most of the radical leaders of my generation - the 60's generation. While most of the radical leaders of the late 1960's and 70's tended to have a "laissez-faire" attitude towards sexual behavior, most of the communist leaders of the 1920's and 30's tended to have a more conservative view. Just as they opposed laissez-faire capitalism, so too, they opposed laissez-faire sexual expression. They considered sexual expression without restraints to be a form of “bourgeois decadence” which diverted human energies from the important struggle for social change. (This information appears in “Jews and the Left” by A. Leibman.)
As the stories in the Written Torah indicate, the communist leaders of my father’s generation had a valid point. The term “Written Torah” refers to the text of the Torah, and the term “Oral Torah” refers to the explanations and deeper meanings of the text which were orally transmitted by Moshe, our Teacher, to future generations, and which were later recorded in the Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar. When I began to analyze the stories about Avraham, our father, which appear in the Written Torah, I developed a better understanding of why our tradition opposes laissez-faire sexual expression. Avraham sought to create a new society where all human beings would serve the One Creator through serving each other. And he himself practiced what he preached. For example, within the Written Torah, we find stories about his hospitality to needy travelers. When I reviewed these stories, I noticed that these stories appear “after” the Torah's description of Bris Milah - the Covenant of Circumcision. In fact, the very first story appears right after Abraham's circumcision - the story about his warm hospitality to three travelers (Genesis 18:1-8). Before the story of his circumcision, there is no description or mention of these altruistic activities within the text of the Torah. Avraham was given the mitzvah of Bris Milah at age 99, and the Oral Torah teaches that he engaged in altruistic activities before he reached this advanced age. Why then does the Written Torah only mention his dedication to these good deeds “after” he became circumcised?
I would like to suggest the following answer: Bris Milah represents the consecration of the male sex drive to serving the loving and life-giving purpose of the Creator. The Talmud states that through Bris Milah, Avraham achieved control over all parts of his body, including the organ which expresses the male sex drive (Nedarim 32b). In this way all parts of his body were dedicated to one altruistic goal, and he was able to give to others with the totality of his being. The Bris Milah therefore enabled him to achieve an even higher level of giving, and this is why the story of Avraham's circumcision is immediately followed by a story of his warm hospitality to needy travelers. Through mentioning this story right after the description of his circumcision, the Torah is teaching us that we can accomplish more good in the world if all our energies, including our sexual energy, are serving the same spiritual goal. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
"Our mission is 'to keep the way of the Compassionate One, doing tzedakah and justice' (Genesis 18:19), and that requires the subordination of all of our faculties, especially physical energies and drives; in other words, it requires sanctification of the body." (Commentary to Genesis 15:14)
With this insight, we can gain a deeper understanding of why the Compassionate One precedes the Covenant of Circumcision with the call "Walk before Me and become whole" (Genesis 17:1). Through this covenant, the male can achieve a unity of body and soul, with both components striving towards the same loving goal of our Creator.
And this insight can help us understand why before giving Avraham the instructions for Bris Milah, the Compassionate One said to our father:
“Your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).
Through dedicating his entire being – body and soul – to serving the loving and life-giving Divine purpose, Avraham becomes the spiritual father of all the nations who will learn from his example.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following are some customs and traditions associated with Bris Milah:
1. The Bris Milah takes place during the day, usually in the morning. The night before the Bris Milah is known in Hebrew as "Leil Shemurim" or in Yiddish as "Vach Nacht." Both terms mean "Night of the Vigil." On this night children are brought to the crib of the infant, where they chant the proclamation of the Divine Unity: "Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!" (Deuteronomy 6:4)
In many communities a celebration is held on this night with a festive meal accompanied by singing and dancing. In some Sephardic communities, family and friends first go to the home of the "Sandek" - the man who is appointed to hold the baby during the Bris Milah. They then leave his home with torches, candles, and musical instruments and proceed to the home of the infant, where the evening celebration is to take place. During this evening celebration, the "chacham" (rabbi) delivers a Torah discourse.
2. On the day of the Bris Milah: In many Sephardic communities, the infant is brought to the synagogue where the "Brit Milah" (Sephardic pronounciation) will take place, accompanied by musical instruments. The women ululate in high staccato sounds that sound like "lelelelelelelele" - a chant of joy in many Middle Eastern countries. The baby is brought on a large pillow draped with colorful scarves and shawls of exquisite lace and embroidery.
3. Jews from Germany and their descendants have the following unique custom: The infant is brought into the room with a long rectangular cloth wrapped around his clothes or over the pillow on which he lays. This material is eventually made into a special cloth know as a "wimple." In the weeks and months following the bris, this cloth is painted or embroidered with ornate designs. These include the boy's name and numerous Judaic artifacts such as a succah, a marriage canopy, a Torah scroll, etc. It may even contain scriptural verses. When the boy is old enough, he is brought to the synagogue on a day when the Torah is read. The boy then presents the wimple to the "gollel" - the person who rolls together and binds the scroll. The gollel - usually his father or grandfather - wraps and ties the Torah scroll with the wimple. The boy is then brought to the rabbi for a blessing. All wimples are stored in the synagogue where they are used, in rotation, for tying the Torah scrolls. My own synagogue in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem uses wimples, since many members of the congregation have this tradition in their families.
4. It is customary to have candles burning at the bris ceremony. A special chair is designated as the "Throne of Elijah" - the prophet who is also called 'the Angel of the Covenant." There is a tradition that Elijah comes to each bris, and the book "Bris Milah" by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, cites a teaching from the Zohar (Lech Lecha) which gives the following reason: After King Solomon died, the kingdom was divided in two. The northern kingdom was known as "Ephraim," and the southern kingdom was known as "Judah." Elijah lived in the northern kingdom, where under the corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, many were abandoning the mitzvos of the Torah including Bris Milah. In frustration, Elijah cried out to the Compassionate One, "The Children of Israel have forsaken Your Covenant" (I Kings 19:10). Elijah spoke harshly about the "entire" People of Israel, and as a form of rebuke to Elijah, the Compassionate One decreed that he would be forced to attend every bris throughout the generations. In this way he would see that the People of Israel have remained loyal to the Covenant.
5. It is customary to name the baby at the bris, as when the Compassionate One first gave the mitzvah of Bris Milah to our forefather, He changed his name from Avram to Avraham.
6. Following the bris, a festive meal is held, accompanied by song, dancing, and words of Torah. The Talmud states that because Bris Milah is one of the mitzvos that the Jewish people accepted with great joy, it is celebrated throughout the generations with great joy (Shabbos 130a).
7. For further study about the laws and customs of Bris Milah, as well as the ethical and spiritual teachings which we learn from this mitzvah, I recommend the book "Bris Milah" by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who is also a "mohel" - one who is trained to do the circumcision. This book is published by ArtScroll: : http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/home . The customs listed above are mentioned in this book. Rabbi Krohn is a gifted writer and storyteller who has also written a fascinating article on the mystical significance of our Jewish names, and how each name relates to the soul's mission: You can find this article at: http://www.aish.com/literacy/lifecycle/Whats_In_A_Name$.asp . Rabbi Krohn lives in New York City, and he can be reached at (718) 846-6900 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .