Zekher Milah, a different tack on Brit milah & Brit banot by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Elijah's Chair (from the Jewish Encyclopedia 1906, vol. 5)

Elijah’s Chair (from the Jewish Encyclopedia 1906, vol. 5)

For a number of reasons, some medical, some psychological, some spiritual, some communal-traditional, I support and urge male circumcision.

When couples have come to me and despite my advice are adamant in refusing to do it with a boy-child, AND/OR if they ask my advice about a brit/ covenant ceremony for a girl — I urge them to follow what I’ve proposed below.

Parts of my proposal owe a good deal to what my son David Waskow and his wife Ketura Persellin did to enrich the covenanting ceremony for their children, which is described in Phyllis’ and my book on the Jewish life-cycle, A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (pp. 28-31), along with our own comments. But there are also some important differences between what they did and our/my own suggestions in the book and since then — suggestions for which they are not responsible.

Shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, peace! — Arthur


Covenanting/naming/welcoming ceremony on the 8th day of the child’s life (whether a girl or boy)

Place a ceremonial knife on the table where the baby is brought;
Lift the knife and say: Zekher Milah, in memory of circumcision of the body and in honoring the tradition that goes back for hundreds of generations to Abraham and Sarah, and then through Yitsḥaḳ into the Jewish people, and goes back for hundreds of generations to Avraham and Hagar, and then through Yishmael into our cousins the Arab and Muslim peoples, I lift this knife to touch —
As you speak each passage, DO touch the child where indicated, gently: Your ears: May you always be open to hearing the pains and joys and truths of others (and quote Jeremiah 6:10):


עַל מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה וְיִשְׁמָעוּ הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב הִנֵּה דְבַר ה׳ הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ בוֹ.‏
To whom shall I speak and give warning, That they may hear? Behold, their ear is dull, And they cannot attend; Behold, the word of haShem is become unto them a reproach, They have no delight in it.
Your mouth: May you always be of unimpeded, truthful, and profound speech as Moshe came to be (and quote Exodus 6:12, 30 in which Moshe tells God he is of uncircumcised & foreskinned tongue):


וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה׳ לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם.
And Moshe spoke before haShem, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Yisrael have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה׳ הֵן אֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה.
And Moshe said before haShem: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’
Your genitals: May you take deep pleasure in your body from this moment forward as you grow into adulthood, and may you give rise to future generations; (and quote the passages on Avraham’s circumcisions of himself and his sons, Genesis 17:9-13, 23-27, and 21:2-4):


וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקִים אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן וְקָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִצְחָק וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו.
וּלְיִשְׁמָעֵאל שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ הִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתִּי אֹתוֹ וְהִפְרֵיתִי אֹתוֹ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֹתוֹ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם יוֹלִיד וּנְתַתִּיו לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
וְאֶת בְּרִיתִי אָקִים אֶת יִצְחָק אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד לְךָ שָׂרָה לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה בַּשָּׁנָה הָאַחֶרֶת.
And Elohim said: `Rather, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son; and you shall call his name Yitsḥaḳ; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.
And as for Yishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
But My covenant will I establish with Yitsḥaḳ, whom Sarah shall bear unto you at this set time in the next year.’

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנוֹ וְאֵת כָּל יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ וְאֵת כָּל מִקְנַת כַּסְפּוֹ כָּל זָכָר בְּאַנְשֵׁי בֵּית אַבְרָהָם וַיָּמָל אֶת בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתָם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹקִים.
וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים וָתֵשַׁע שָׁנָה בְּהִמֹּלוֹ בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ.
וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנוֹ בֶּן שְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בְּהִמֹּלוֹ אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ.
בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִמּוֹל אַבְרָהָם וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנוֹ.
וְכָל אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ יְלִיד בָּיִת וּמִקְנַת כֶּסֶף מֵאֵת בֶּן נֵכָר נִמֹּלוּ אִתּוֹ.
And Avraham took Yishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Avraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as Elohim had said unto him.
And Avraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
And Yishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן לִזְקֻנָיו לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹקִים.
וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם אֶת שֶׁם בְּנוֹ הַנּוֹלַד לוֹ אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ שָׂרָה יִצְחָק.
וַיָּמָל אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בֶּן שְׁמֹנַת יָמִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹקִים.
And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac.
And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.
Your heart: May you open your heart to all humanity and all beings who live upon our planet (and quote Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6):


וְאָנֹכִי עָמַדְתִּי בָהָר כַּיָּמִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לָיְלָה וַיִּשְׁמַע ה׳ אֵלַי גַּם בַּפַּעַם הַהִוא לֹא אָבָה ה׳ הַשְׁחִיתֶךָ.
Now I stayed in the mount, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights; and haShem hearkened unto me that time also; haShem would not destroy you.

וּמָל ה׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.
And haShem your G!d will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love haShem your G!d with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.

and may we take on together the task of Eliyah the Prophet, to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents lest the Earth be utterly destroyed (and quote Malakhi 3:23-24):


הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם ה׳ הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא.
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם פֶּן אָבוֹא וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.
Behold, I will send you Eliyah the prophet Before the coming of the great and terrible day of haShem.
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, And the heart of the children to their fathers; Lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction. Behold, I will send you Eliyah the prophet Before the coming of the great and terrible day of haShem.

2 comments to Zekher Milah, a different tack on Brit milah & Brit banot by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

  • A comment thread has begun on this post in the Open Siddur Project discussion group on Facebook (link).

  • Over on the comment thread in our Open Siddur discussion group on Facebook, Arthur Waskow replied:

    Dear chevra,

    I think there are three different, though linked, issues here:

    What is a mitzvah?

    In my view, the mitzvot change in accord with God’s Will in different situations and through profound changes in human history — and may also be different for the different Faces of God emblazoned on diverse human faces. (Said the Rabbis, “When Caesar stamps his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical; when the Holy One places the Divine Image on a coin [i.e. a human being] all the coins come out unique.”)

    For example, it used to be understood by practically all Jews and still is by some, that it is a mitzvah to separate women and men at prayer. For me, and now for a strong majority of the Jewish people, that is an aveirah — not a mitzvah.

    For me, it remains a mitzvah to carry out circumcision as brit for a baby boy. But when someone has sought my advice and is adamant — note, adamant! — about refusing to do it, not for the sake of the child’s passing as not Jewish (if that were it, they would not be talking with me at all) but for the sake of not causing pain to a child who cannot decide for himself — then I accept that for this parent, milah is no longer a mitzvah but is trumped by the mitzvah not to cause pain to an innocent and defenseless person — so that actual milah becomes an aveirah in that person’s eyes.

    What shall I do? Throw the parent out the door, and sever an important thread of connection to the Jewish people and Torah?

    No, I try to devise a covenanting ceremony that will affirm and strengthen the connection — the covenant.

    2. Why the knife?

    The words of the ceremony I suggested can be done without the knife’s being present. It has considerable power that way. And the words about foreskinned ear, mouth, and heart can be quoted from Tanakh without the knife, even if a boy-baby is being physically circumcised. (That is what the parental couple I originally cited actually did.)

    I introduced the notion of the knife precisely to cause a shiver of awe, even of fear, and to echo — zecher — milah itself for people who won’t do it physically. That honors and accepts the brit and the connection with Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak — and Avraham, Hagar, Yishmael! — for people who are open to renewing the brit without the blood. You might think about how the Prophet Micah — despite Torah, despite living in a time when the Temple still stood and bull-offerings were quite possible — says it is OK— even necessary — to substitute the offering of our lips for the offering of bulls, and the way in which Rambam asserts that the animal offerings were at one point necessary to educate us but now we have grown up enough to go beyond them — and the way in which our liturgy indeed asserts that davvening is l’zecher korbanot.

    It seems to me that the knife makes the “memory” far more real than the words alone. I want the shiver. But for anyone for whom this is TOO real, OK: words about ear, mouth, heart with no knife. For those who say the knife means “discomfort” with no “benefit” — that is, no fulfillment of the mitzvah — I say, having no knife present greatly lessens or eliminates the discomfort but still with — in the eyes for whom the mitzvah requires actual cutting — no benefit. I want the “discomfort,” and I believe that for the adamant no-cut parents, the ceremony does fulfill the mitzvah. (The boy can always choose differently when he grows up.)

    3. The knife and girl-babies. Here one of the critics becomes almost hysterical — “appalled” — about gently touching the knife to a girl’s genitals, evidently (so he says) for fear this will legitimate the genital mutilation of girls in some societies. But he ignores the point that genital mutilation actually is anti-sexual, actually uses the knife, actually closes or almost closes the genitals — whereas the symbolism I suggest invoking is exactly the opposite. This whole thing is based around the REFUSAL to do physical circumcision, uses the symbolism of opening the genitals as well mouth, ears, & heart, and uses words that are explicitly PRO-sexual, pro-pleasure. The notion that anyone who is living in a society where genital mutilation of girls is widespread but who has doubts about it would be persuaded by this ceremony that it is OK seems to me a fantasy.

    It might conceivably be more realistic to fear that the use of this ceremony, even among the tiny minority of Jews who might prefer it, could strengthen the arguments of those non-Jewish authorities who want to ban circumcision as cruelty to children. It is the conviction of some Jews that it IS cruelty to children that might strengthen such authorities. Would having no ceremony strengthen this current among officialdom less than having the ceremony I describe? Would having the ceremony bind the parents more fully to the Jewish community and to keeping circumcision legal for the sake of Jews who wanted it, more than having no ceremony? I don’t know.

    (Historical fact: In Poland after World War I, when the atheist, anti-religious Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund was strong in the Jewish community, when its members did not turn a hair about eating cheese and ham on rye during Yom Kippur, the Bund fought against laws forbidding shechita (ritual slaughter). Their solidarity with other Jews and their right to choose naarishkeit (foolishness) trumped their hostility to God and kashrut.)

    I think our differences come down to the degree of respect we differently accord to individual choice spoken by the diverse faces of God, and to whether we sense that the mitzvot are in flux, the will of the Holy One Whose name is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will be Who I Will Be, is in flux. If it may be, we should circumcise our ears, open our hearts, to hear those among us who cry out for a new path of Judaism.

    Shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, peace! — Arthur

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