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Welcoming Babies

The birth of a Jewish baby is more than the family's private joy: It is cause for communal celebration. Jewish history began with God's covenant with Abraham, whom He would make into "a great people," numerous as the stars of the heavens. And it is in the newborn Jewish infant – if it's a boy – that the covenant is physically incised through the rite of circumcision, or brit milah. (While God may have overlooked baby girls, the Jewish people have not; see old and new ways to welcome girls.)

Fear and trembling

In the abstract, circumcision is a frightful bloody ritual. In real life, when you hold your sleeping, swaddled infant in your arms, it's much worse.

The act of exposing your precious, vulnerable, naked infant to your worst fears – his uncomprehending pain, coupled with your awareness of the awful possibility of his mortality – is all but impossible to bear. If the mother is once removed from this communal pain-sharing (it is the men who reflexively cover their groins with their hands during the ceremony), her heart has been cut as surely as his flesh. The brit for the woman is surely the tears that spring anew with each diaper change, and each new redressing of the wound.

What is this gauntlet, redolent of Abraham's offering of his own son, Isaac? Why do we continue it in each generation?

Introduction: Bloodletting

Covenant for girls

Brit milah: A choreography

Naming babies


The facile answer is tied up with the concept of community: Jewish men are cut, as were their fathers before them. With his blood libation, the new baby gains admission to the religion of his forebears, and claims a birthright. A bloody rite of passage, it is an act of initiation. Life tied to life, blood mingled with blood, yours, with those who have preceded us and those who will follow. Who dares break the chain that began with Abraham?

But at the time, for the parents, with a new impossibly real baby, it seems an awful price to pay. The question wells up in our throats: How does anyone take upon themselves this decision on behalf of an innocent? The guilt can be overwhelming.

Lesson of the knife

And yet, perhaps the handing over of our child to the mohel is the first, hardest lesson we must learn as parents: Our children are indeed hostages to fortune. We promise ourselves, we pray to God, that we will be able to banish pain and trauma from our children's lives, but that promise, that prayer, is a crime of hubris. It is prideful and false to think we can raise our children without damaging them in ways we can't even begin to guess.

We will hurt our children. Sometimes it will be clear to us when we do so. Moving to a new city for a new job can be a wrenching displacement for a child. This we can see and rationalize. And there are also little daily harms we inflict without realizing. Not hearing. Not understanding. Deciding to do the dishes instead.

If we see our child as one whom we must protect and nurture, that is right and good. But we are guilty of self-deception if we don't realize that we and he are in the same slowly-leaking scow. Our own mortality is real and, as difficult as it is to face, our child's mortality is real, too. He will get hurt. He will have pain, as real and unmitigated as our own. We can "save" him no more than we can "save" ourselves.

What we can do is forgive ourselves for being the parents of one so young and perfect. We can forgive ourselves for decisions, and mistakes, we make. Our children need our clarity as well as our compassion, and we stunt their education if we give them one and not the other.

This is the greatest lesson of the brit for us. The child's parents are entering into a covenant of forgiveness with God. A pact is made, with blood, to symbolize the partnership.

We know the child we raise will grow having bled, will bear scars – some of which we will have inflicted. The ancient rabbis taught that not until the baby is circumcised is he "perfect" – that the ideal is not the unformed infant that God leaves with us, but the person we raise with time and experience.


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