The Sacred Rite of Circumcision
Germany’s challenge to Jewish tradition focuses on individual rights, but what about our bodies’ sanctity?
These may seem like extreme cases, but that is only because there is something that inhibits us—or should inhibit us—from crossing the line to take life. That is our sense of the sanctity of life. But it never occurred to any human society to attribute rights to individuals—let alone to infants—before ancient Israel. Excepting Israel, every ancient civilization killed infants as a matter of routine, including the enlightened Greeks. Aristotle wrote in Politics (VII.16): “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed.” Individual rights had no place in the pagan order, nor in the neo-pagan order the Nazis sought to construct.
Inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence insists, derive from an eternal God. The absolute right to live—for the retarded and senile and the newborn as well as the strong and healthy—rests on the mortal human’s share in something eternal. That is the premise of the sacred: The human body whose “physical integrity” so concerns the German court is flawed from the outset, because it will die.
To say that life is sacred means in plain English that our lives belong not to us, but to God, so that it is not within our purview to stifle newborns or expose our senile grandmothers. We make something sacred by giving it to God and receiving it back from him, as Abraham gave and received his son Isaac. Circumcision of Jewish infants reenacts Abraham’s sacrifice: The infant boy is given to God and enters into covenant with God, by which we affirm the sanctity of his life.
That is the origin of the sanctity of life in human history. The Jewish people have upheld it for nearly 4,000 years. Christianity emulates circumcision through baptism, which the early church instituted in opposition to infanticide. In this case, Jesus’ blood substitutes for the blood of the circumcised infant. As noted, Germans who believe in the covenant of Jesus’ blood stand together with Jews who practice brit milah, against the neo-pagans of the Cologne court.
God’s love for Abraham extends to his descendants, and circumcision denotes the transformation of Jewish flesh to a holy vessel for God’s presence in the world. As theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote in The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel:
The God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos. … There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. Israel’s symbol of the covenant is circumcision, a searing of the covenant into the flesh of Israel and not only, or perhaps not even primarily, into its spirit. And that is why God’s election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.
It is sad and empty to think of a human being simply as a lump of flesh seeking pleasure (“sexual self-determination”) and avoiding pain (e.g., through euthanasia) at the behest of its owner. Erase the line between what is sacred and what is merely utilitarian, and there is nothing in principle to prevent us from subjecting low-value (minderwertig) life to the cost-benefit analysis of the killers. That German physicians and attorneys campaign with such bitter determination to uproot the source of the sacred—the Jewish concept of covenant—from German society is downright chilling. Don’t they remember?
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At Sunday school, I learned about the Israelites and end-times. Then bar mitzvah season began.