The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, detail the instructions to the Israelites about postpartum impurity, which lasts for seven days after the birth of a male child, and double that for a female child. What interests me most about this sequence of verses is not, perhaps surprisingly, the gender disparity; rather, it is the interruption of: ‘On the eight day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised’ (Leviticus 12:3).
Birth is, historically, in the female domain; the Torah is not, and neither is circumcision. Reading chronologically through the Bible, circumcision is first introduced to us in Genesis 17, where it is commanded to Abraham as a sign of the covenant with God. A traditional reading of the Torah would, therefore, take this as our earliest source for the ritual, and an explicitly patriarchal one too: as Shaye J. D. Cohen argues in the book Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism, ‘by investing circumcision with covenantal value, both the Bible and the Talmudic sages declare that Judaism, or at least Jewishness, is in the first instance synonymous with maleness’ (Cohen, p. 135).
When Abraham continues – or starts – the tradition with his son Isaac, in Genesis 21:4, there is no mention of Sarah’s involvement. This notably continues in the following chapter: Sarah plays no role in the Akeidah. The connection between the Akeidah and circumcision, both acts of sacrifice, is, as Cohen points out, ‘explicit in some versions of the brit milah ceremony, when the mohel prays that his service will be accepted by God “as if I sacrificed an offering on your altar; and like the binding of Isaac.”’ (Cohen, p. 1). In this week’s Torah portion too, the sacrifice of circumcision is followed by that of the burnt and sin offerings required to restore the birthing person to their ritual purity (Leviticus 12:6-8).
There is another significant circumcision in the Bible: that of Moses’ son. Here, it is not the father who performs the act, despite his prophetic status, but the mother. It may come later chronologically, but Hyam Maccoby in his book The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt offers a translation of this passage – Exodus 4:24-26 – which, he argues, would offer an earlier occurrence and explanation for the practice:
‘And it came to pass on the way at the lodging place, that the Lord afflicted him (with divine madness), and he (Moses) sought to kill him (the child). And Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his (Moses’) feet’. (Maccoby, p. 89)
Circumcision is enacted not as a covenantal sign, but as a substitute for the act of child sacrifice which Moses is about to perform. Zipporah is not merely present; she is the one inspired to instigate the ritual and, in doing so, saves the life of her son. Maccoby suggests that this comes at a cost: rather than the original manifestation of circumcision as a matriarchal custom, Zipporah’s act ‘transfer[s] her own circumcision rite, the symbol of female dominance, to another setting, in which it serves a patriarchal purpose as a substitute for the sacrifice of the male child that would normally be required’ (Maccoby, p. 94). Circumcision thus becomes doubly representative of the exclusion of women: whether it is a sign of the covenant or a substitutional sacrifice, it becomes an explicitly patriarchal act, delineating maleness as Jewishness.
Despite circumcision being a biblical mandate, and being of great significance to the rabbis of the Talmud, much of what we now see as fundamental to the ritual and its liturgy arose in medieval and early modern times. Only three texts make up the liturgy handed down in the Talmud: the two blessings said by the circumciser and the father, and the communal response from others present at the time. These leave the mother of the baby conspicuously absent from the process. The later additions, which highlight the theology of the act and emphasise its importance, fail to bring the mother back into proceedings; in fact, the medieval additions, in many ways, codifies her absence.
In the parasha, the first period of impurity ends before the circumcision happens – the mother is welcomed back into the community in time for the brit; yet still our tradition makes it clear that they are surplus to requirements at the actual ceremony. I was not in the room when my son was circumcised, choosing instead to stay in the company of women. While a mother should be able to be an active part of the ceremony if she wishes, speaking from my own experiences, there is something powerful about her waiting aside. The placing of this verse instructing circumcision reminds us that the status of the son is intrinsically linked to, but also separate from, that of the mother. By choosing to remain absent a mother can take time to acknowledge that this marks the detachment of her from the baby she grew and carried inside her, and what that might mean for her as well as for the baby’s transition into separate personhood.
Daisy Bogod LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.