I recently had the incredible joy of ushering my new son into the covenant of the Jewish people through the rite of brit milah. According to Jewish law, a Jewish father must circumcise his son at eight days old. Most fathers, quite understandably, transfer this obligation to a mohel, someone specially trained in the performance of a brit milah, and the mohel acts as the father's agent in carrying out the ritual. The Jewish legal tradition considers this perfectly acceptable since "an individual's messenger is like the individual." The mohel is the father's duly appointed messenger, and any act he performs is considered as if the father had performed it himself.
But when it came time to circumcise my own son, I opted not to rely upon this perfectly legitimate legal fiction. I performed the circumcision myself, albeit with the help of an expert mohel (who also happened to be a skilled and experienced physician) who ensured everything was being done in a safe, healthy and proper way. I circumcised my son despite being untrained in the sacred arts of milah and, frankly, despite the squeamishness and indescribable fear that engulfed me moments beforehand. My unusual participation in a ritual that – even when performed in its usual way – tends to make people uncomfortable calls for an explanation. Why did I insist on doing it this way?
Judaism is a DIY spiritual path. Since the destruction of the Second Temple and the abolition of the sacrificial system, Judaism has never relied on a clerical class to officiate and perform religious rites for the common people that those people could not, with the proper education, otherwise do themselves. As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer puts it in his book "Empowered Judaism," rabbis, rather than being the gatekeepers of rituals that clerics are in other faiths, are simply "critical teachers who inspire and give people the tools to learn more on their own." The rabbi has no special power, no elite status. He or she just has more-than-average learning. The only barrier to any Jew's ability to take full ownership over his religious life is education, not title or status. And the primary barrier to education and empowerment is fear.
Many of us Jews, uncertain about what we believe, embarrassed that we don't know what we're doing, and fearful that we'll get it wrong, outsource our religious lives to the "professionals." In his book "Man's Quest for God," Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel termed this phenomenon "praying by proxy," and it's as prevalent today as it was in his time, maybe more so. As a rabbi, I see Jews pray by proxy all the time. Often, I myself am the proxy. I empathize with the anxieties in which this reality is rooted. But I also know how it hinders personal growth, spiritual maturity, and a deeper relationship with one's self, community, tradition and God.
In the days and moments leading up to my son's brit milah, those same anxieties assaulted me, too, especially given the severity of the act I was considering undertaking. I was anxious that I did not know what I was doing, ashamed that as a rabbi I did not have this sacred skill in my repertoire, and afraid that I would mess up.
But then I considered: What growth, what spiritual maturity, what deeper relationship is the tradition inviting me to by commanding me, and not a proxy, to circumcise my son? Upon reflection, I began to see the brit milah as the undertaking of a sacred act for a loved one who is himself unable. In this sense, a brit milah is a lot like kivurah, the burial of a deceased love one. Kivurah is an intimate, loving, and embracing act performed for someone who is incapable of doing it himself and, as such, is supposed to be done by immediate family. It is also, to my mind, the most powerful, spiritual and psychologically useful moment in a traditional Jewish funeral service.
Like kivurah, brit milah is an act of hesed, of love. Thinking of it that way, I could not shake the intimacy of the act, and it seemed more appropriate for me to perform such a personal and loving deed for my son than a surrogate.
Additionally, I began to see that brit milah is about the linear transmission of the covenant from one generation to the next, of a son being inscribed into a drama that includes his parents and ancestors. If so, how could I hire an agent to do it for me? My son's place in the Jewish drama is through me, my wife and our families. A messenger didn't bring him into that story; so, how could a messenger seal him into that story through brit milah?
I increasingly came to find the tradition's reasons for considering the brit milah to be my responsibility compelling, that there was extraordinary spiritual, psychological and relational potential in performing the commandment myself. Yet I was still conflicted. My fear was holding me back.
And then it occurred to me: perhaps confronting and overcoming the fear was at least partially the point. Every new father is understandably afraid of harm befalling his child. Maybe the tradition is urging new fathers like me – at precisely this most terrifying moment – to learn to refuse to let fear dictate our direction in life, to not let fear inhibit our personal, spiritual and relational growth. And, by extension, maybe it is empowering us to pass on this piece of wisdom to our children. My son will grow up to know that his entry into the covenant required his father to take on and transcend his fear. Maybe that will inspire him, too, to not be enslaved to his fears.
At the very least, maybe he will feel empowered enough not to have to pray by proxy. And maybe some of my congregants, witnessing the moment from the pews, felt a similar inspiration.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.
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