The Strategy Preserving of Jewish Identity
Parshat Tazriya Metzora – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
Our Parsha opens with the mitzvah of circumcision. "Speak to Bnei Israel and say to them: a woman who gives birth to a male…on the eighth day his foreskin must be circumcised." (Vayikra 12:2)
Let us look into the ramifications of Brit Milah (circumcision) regarding the covenant between Am Israel and G-d. How did the mitzvah of circumcision have a decisive and strategic effect on the preservation of Jewish identity over thousands of years?
By way of Brit Milah, Am Israel enters into a covenant with G-d: "And G-d said to Avraham: and you shall keep my covenant, you and your children after you to your generations. This is the covenant that you will keep between Me and you and your generations after you: circumcise every one of your males. And you will circumcise the flesh of your foreskins and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and you." (Bereshith 17:9-11)
From our parsha we learned that Brit Milah, when performed on time, also supersedes the prohibitions of Shabbat and Yom Kippur: "On the eighth day his foreskin must be circumcised." The Talmud (Shabbat 132a) explains that this holds even when the eight day is Shabbat. Even preparations necessary for the circumcision are permitted.
There are many facets to Brit Milah, and more of them are concealed (meaning above immediate human understanding) than are revealed. It is written in Tehillim (25:14) "G-d's secret is (revealed) to those who fear Him, and He will make His covenant known to them."
One of the most powerful forces, both in the physical world and in society, is that of equilibrium and assimilation. The temperature of a hot or cold object, over time, will resemble that of its environment. Also, the pressure inside an object will equalize with outside pressure, and so on. Sociologically as well - over time a group of people with foreign customs and culture will assimilate, and their behavior will be like that of the surrounding society.
Am Israel differs from the nations around it in many ways: in its spirit, its faith, its culture, its lifestyle and its identity. Over the thousands of years of our existence, powerful, world-shaking revolutions have changed human culture. In certain places and during certain periods, these cultures succeeded, to a certain extent, to affect and mitigate Jewish identity. Nevertheless, Am Israel succeeded in keeping its unique identity and culture in a way unparalleled by any other nation.
The mitzvah of Brit Milah has been a strategic factor in preserving Jewish Identity over the generations. The circumcision is a mark stamped into our flesh, an identifying sign which sets us apart from all the nations. The difference which is stamped in our bodies as well as our souls influences our entire worldview and consciousness, and strengthens the awareness of our uniqueness.
"One of the roots of this mitzvah, is that G-d wanted to inscribe in the nation which He chose to be called on His name a permanent sign on their bodies, to set them apart from the rest of the nations in the (physical) form of their bodies just as they are different in their souls, that their source and their purpose are different." (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 2)
This Jewish "identity tag" serves as a focus for communal identity: "And in my opinion, there is another very important issue in Brit Milah, that all who hold this belief, namely, faith in one G-d, have one physical sign that unites them all. And an outsider, who is not of them, cannot claim that he is one of them. Since it is possible to do this (to adopt the sign of a another nation) in order to receive a benefit or to persecute the adherents of that religion…but no person would do this act (circumcision) to himself or his son without clear intention, because this is not a scratch on the thigh or a burn on the arm, but it is something that is exceedingly difficult." (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim)
And so circumcision is one of the mitzvot that allow a convert to join the Jewish Nation: "Israel entered the covenant by three things: circumcision, immersion and sacrifice." (Rambam, Issurei Biyah 13:1)
The mitzvah of Brit Milah is an exceptional positive commandment in that the punishment for violating it is karet (spiritual cutting-off): "And an uncircumcised male who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from his nation, he has violated My covenant." (Bereshith 17:14) So we can understand why not performing it in Egypt brought Am Israel to the brink of destruction: "But all abandoned circumcision in Egypt except for the tribe of Levi." (Shemot Rabbah 19:5) And we also see why someone who wanted to assimilate among the nations would "pull his foreskin."
When the nations of the world wanted to influence Israel's identity by force, they decreed specifically against Brit Milah. But the self-sacrifice of Am Israel for this mitzvah over all the generations served to strengthen that self-identity. "Rabbi Shimon Ben-Elazar says: Every mitzvah that Israel sacrificed their lives for at a time of decrees of (wicked) kings - like idol worship and circumcision - they still hold on to them." (Talmud Shabbat 130a)