And on the eighth day the foreskin of his flesh shall be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3)
This verse comes from the opening lines of this week's Parshah and, as they say, the rest is history.
A Bris is a covenant and through the millennia, Jews have kept this mitzvah like no other and have thereby maintained their eternal covenant with G‑d. There were times when giving one's son a bris was punishable by death. Jewish parents still kept the covenant. My wife's grandfather, Reb Elchonon Shagalov, dared to practice as a mohel circumcising Jewish children in the town of Homil in Stalin's Russia. One day he was taken by the KGB and never seen again. His wife and children struggled valiantly and eventually made it to the free world where they raised dedicated families of faithful Jews.
Today, so many young—and not so young—Jews throughout the Former Soviet Union are embracing the covenant knowing full well that it would have been far easier at eight days old. And though we now hear voices from so-called "enlightened" quarters suggesting that circumcision is barbaric and an invasion of an infant's human rights, it still remains the most widely practiced mitzvah in the world. And, please G‑d, it will retain that distinction forever.
I have no intention of getting into the health debate. I am a rabbi, not a doctor. There are enough medical experts who can prove the physiological benefits and certainly justify it even were there no compelling religious motivation. Nor do I intend waxing philosophical here on the underlying symbolisms of circumcision. Simply speaking, from a traditional Jewish point of view this is the way we connect to G‑d. It is an indelible, eternal connection between the Jew and his Creator. The fact that it is performed on a newborn child who wasn't asked for his opinion only emphasizes the idea that the covenant is not limited by our finite rationale but transcends the boundaries of human understanding. Our bond with G‑d is not something that can be explained rationally. Were that the case we would have long ago ceased to be. The continuing saga of Jewish survival defies logic. Logically we shouldn't exist. The bris represents that transcendence, and the Jewish people's never-wavering commitment to the covenant has always been reciprocated by the G‑dly miracles that have delivered us time and again.
Some years ago, my wife and I were leading a discussion group with young couples. At one point in the evening a young man poured cold water on my arguments by declaring himself an agnostic. I asked him if he had any children. He said yes. I asked did he have a son. Again, he answered affirmatively. "Did you give your son a Bris?" I asked. At which point he looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet. "What kind of ridiculous question is that?" he demanded. I explained that if you're really not sure that there is a G‑d out there, then why subject your child to unnecessary surgery? Without religious motivation it might very well be considered barbaric. Through his son's Bris he realized he wasn't such an agnostic after all.
As a rabbi, have attended hundreds of circumcision ceremonies. Personally, I find it very moving to see parents, including those who are not at all religiously observant, cry with emotion as they experience the continuing link of Jewish peoplehood being manifested in their very own family dynasty.
I guess most fathers would probably have trouble explaining why they gave their son a Bris. But I imagine they'd have much more difficulty if they had to explain why they didn't.