The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Bris Miloh: the painful truth

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  1. Parashas Vayeiro opens with Avrohom Ovinu recovering from his bris miloh at a place belonging to Mamrei.  The rabbis want to know why Mamrei deserves this express and apparently unnecessary mention in the Torah. Rashi answers from Bereishis Rabboh that “Mamrei gave Avrohom advice about the bris miloh and therefore Hashem revealed himself to Avrohom on Mamrei’s property”.
  2. So what advice did Mamrei gave Avrohom that merited such a reward? The Midrash Tanchumo records that Avrohom had three friends whom he consulted about bris miloh. The first friend warned him that it would weaken him to such an extent that he would be vulnerable to reprisals from allies of the kings whom he had recently conquered. The second warned him that the loss of blood would be fatal. The third, Mamrei, expressed surprise that Avrohom should ask for advice and suggested that someone who had already experienced miracles, including being saved from being thrown into a furnace, should have sufficient confidence in Divine protection simply to fulfil the direct command of Hashem.
  3. So Mamrei’s advice consisted in refusing to give advice!
  4. Bris Miloh is a surgical procedure.  So it can be tempting to think that medical science will have advice to offer about it.  But, then as now, the most frequent form of advice will be simply “don’t do it”; and if the medical community are treated by us as having a special standing in relation to bris miloh, they will not hesitate to take reasonable advantage of that to expound upon the physical or psychological harm that their scientific knowledge leads them to expect to result from it.
  5. Mamrei’s message to Avrohom Ovinu was to disclaim on the part of the scientific community any right to advise about the methodology or effects of bris miloh, any more than in relation to any of the other mitzvos which we have in direct command from Hashem.
  6. I have occasionally heard arguments, on the radio or elsewhere, between rabbis and doctors about bris miloh.  The doctors have won every time.  While the rabbis assert repeatedly that bris miloh causes no significant pain and does no lasting harm, the doctors not only deny it but adduce evidence (as to the quality of which I am ignorant) of occasional physical harm; and they regularly assert the possibility of long-term trauma.
  7. Bris miloh is not something we would ever have invented for ourselves: it is counter-intuitive for us, not only as Jews commanded to love others but even simply as sensitive human beings.  But the Ksav Sofer on Devorim 22:6 (discussing the connection made by Devorim Rabboh 6:1 between bris miloh and kan tzipor) explains that the essence of performing bris miloh is that a person should feel the apparent cruelty of harming his defenceless child, and should nevertheless perform the bris in recognition that human understanding of cruelty or kindness is imperfect, and fades into irrelevance when faced with a clear and direct Divine command.  So we conquer our instincts and perform bris miloh with the same obedience (although not necessarily unquestioning obedience) to the tradition handed down from Abraham Ovinu to the present day as that which underpins our entire commitment to Torah.
  8. Anyone who performs bris miloh cheerfully and asserts that it causes no significant pain, not only misses this message but contradicts the ruling of the rabbis that at the seudas mitzvah for a bris miloh we omit in birchas hamozon the celebratory introduction that we include at a sheva brochos, on account of our consciousness of and sensitivity for the baby’s suffering.
  9. Much of what we do as Jews must seem extraordinary to others, and bris miloh must seem not just extraordinary but barbaric.  If we meet charges of barbaric cruelty with scientific argument or merely with unfounded protestations, we cannot expect other than the most hostile and contemptuous opposition.  If we admit the apparent cruelty but present our commitment to this practice as based on devotion to, and trust in, a revealed Divine tradition transmitted to us throughout the generations, we can at least hope that our honesty will be regarded with an uncomprehending respect.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

November 17, 2005 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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