Making the Cut

It was the very beginning of 1942 and the group of ten young men and their yeshiva dean, exiles in frigid Siberia, couldn’t believe their eyes. Betzalel Orlanski had somehow gained release from the Siberian labor-camp where he had been sent, somehow found out where they – and his wife – were located, somehow secured a sled and driver, and somehow crossed the large frozen lake – the only way to reach Nizhna Machavaya, the exiles’ home, in the winter.

The exiles – my dear father among them – had been part of the Novardhok Yeshiva in Vilna, Lithuania. When the Soviets occupied the country, they offered the yeshiva boys and faculty – most of whom were Polish nationals who had fled to Lithuania – a stark choice: accept Soviet citizenship (and be conscripted into the Red army) or be banished to the wasteland of Siberia as foreign nationals deemed a threat to the Soviet Union. They opted for Siberia, a choice that would test them sorely but likely saved their lives.

When the cattle cars had been loaded with their human cargo in Lithuania for the long trip east, sent along with the Novardhok group were several families, and Betzalel Orlanski’s wife – but not her husband; he was sent to a different destination, far from where his wife and “the Novardhokers” were taken.

The Orlanskis had been married for about a decade, but were childless. Mrs. Orlanski, however, confided to the others a recent discovery: she was expecting.

It was about seven months later that her husband unexpectedly walked off the frozen lake at Nizhneh Machavaya. Shortly after his arrival, amid a joy that can only be imagined, their son was born.

The story was recounted recently by my father, at the festive meal celebrating the circumcision of his newest great grandchild. Betzalel Orlanski, he continued, had been so overwhelmed with happiness at the arrival of his firstborn that he announced his intention to circumcise his son himself eight days later, the preferred time according to Jewish law. The problem was that neither he nor any of those present at Nizhneh had any experience or qualifications for performing the surgery. Convincing him to postpone the circumcision hadn’t been easy, my father recalled, but the yeshiva boys and their dean prevailed on the new father to wait for a more propitious time and skilled hand. When that time finally came, after war’s end, the boy was almost four. A precocious child, he asked to undergo the procedure, wanting to enter the Abrahamic covenant and become a completed member of the Jewish people.

My father told the story to demonstrate the innate Jewish desire to enter Abraham’s covenant of circumcision, or brit mila, a most fundamental Jewish obligation. He speculated that, no doubt, an 8-day-old Jewish infant, in some inchoate way, likely also senses the depth of the commandment’s import, and that his soul, pure and new, pines to undergo the procedure. And so, my father suggested, perhaps that idea informs the blessing traditionally called out by those present at a circumcision ceremony – “Just as he has entered the covenant, so may he enter Torah, marriage and good deeds.” The blessing may bespeak a hope that the same deep and pure desire to be holy that inheres in a new soul should later motivate him, when grown, to study Torah, become a husband and perform righteous acts.

That circumcision remains practiced among Jews who have allowed other Jewish observances to lapse – or who have outright jettisoned them – has always been remarkable. If any commandment could be expected to be shunned by Jews who view the Torah as mere “inspired” words of mortals and not as G-d’s sacred commandments, one would imagine that cutting the body of a baby would be it.

And yet that is not the case. Reform Magazine recently (Fall, 2008) published an article “Why Reform Never Abandoned Circumcision,” whose author, Reform Rabbi Mark Washofsky, makes his movement’s case for brit mila. While the article’s title was somewhat inaccurate – circumcision was indeed rejected by Reform leaders in the early 1800’s – it is certainly true that the contemporary Reform movement encourages brit mila. The article tries to express why, even though Reform “has done away with a number of ritual observances that conflict with our contemporary cultural and aesthetic sensibilities… this practice remains.”

Rabbi Washofsky’s explanation is that… it is “a tribal rite” and that “that’s why we do it…” Which rather begs the question, of course. But if it satisfies his intellect, who am I to quibble?

What occurs to me, though, is that the resolve of Jews otherwise disconnected from Jewish beliefs and practices to circumcise their newborn boys transcends intellectualization. Those Jews’ determination, I think, emanates not from the intellect at all but from a place far, far more deep.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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5 Responses

  1. barry says:

    One notes, as well, that the single most widely observed ritual on the Jewish calendar is the Passover seder. According to every survey taken, it is observed more faithfully than Chanukah, even more than Yom Kippur, even among those who remain far from Judaism. To be sure, this “tribal rite”, as observed, may not be the seder of the Chacham [more often it’s that of the Sh’eino Yodea] but one is struck by the fact that not participating in the eating of the korban Pesach (which the seder commemorates) is one of only two mitzvot whose violation carries with it the penalty of karet/excision. The other? Brit Milah.

  2. Ori says:

    Circumcision isn’t all that remarkable in the US, since so many gentiles do it. Do assimilated Jews in other parts of the world still circumcise their children?

  3. SL says:

    Several years ago, one of the major academic bodies for pediatricians came out, yet again, against bris milah (circumcision), suggesting its own medical benefits were not important and that were potential dangers to bris milah. At the time, I wrote an article, as a physician, pointing out that Jews and Moslems and all those who believe in the spiritual necessity of circumcision will continue to circumcise their children–as the decision to do so is much more than a medical decision.

    I personally doubt that more a miniscule percentage of Jews will ever refrain from bris milah. Rabbi Shafran helps us understand why.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Assimilated Jews from the former Soviet Union do not overwhelmingly practice brit milah. The arrival of a Russian Jew in either Israel or America is often the catalyst for that Jew to do a brit.

  5. reality check says:

    Our sages (Shabbat 130a) already wondered why brit milah is observed more universally than other mitzvot and propose an intriguing and quite telling answer: because it was accepted and observed with simchah (Rashi: accompanied by celebratory meal). By analogy we can relate the same to the seder. Much to be learned (and applied) from this!

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