Considering all the drama surrounding recent public circumcision debate, it was rather fortuitous—at least for me—that my future nephew’s brit milah was held just this morning. The last time I attended a brit milah in time for the actual moment of slicing was when I was in middle school, and I remember little more than the discomfort of being surrounded by adults who expected me to remember who they were. The baby’s cries made it through the fog of my self-involved adolescent brain, but only barely.
Today, though, I paid special attention to the goings-on. Throughout the raging debates, with arguments posed from every angle of child safety, health, religious freedom, and medical malpractice, I’ve maintained that yes, this ceremony might be uncomfortable to the point of painful, but it’s a pretty blatant commandment. It’s hard to justify skipping the snipping. So I was happy to get the opportunity to be right there, in the moment, seeing what the critics were seeing, even if it meant waking up hours before my alarm usually goes off.
I spent the hour immediately preceding the procedure helping the baby’s mother and occupying his older brother. The baby himself was peaceful, sleeping, completely unaware of his adorable tuxedo onesie and what was about to take place to his body, let alone the international controversy surrounding that very moment.
He was carried in on the ceremonial pillow, to the accompanying songs of the gathered men. As the men went on with the various prayers and figured out who was in charge of which responsibility, the women congregated on our side to discuss how good his mother looked post-pregnancy. Then the mohel went in for the brit.
The baby was wailing before anything happened; surrounded by more people than he’s ever seen, in an unusual place, and suddenly undressed, the baby at this point is crying already, not very comforting to those anticipating the big moment. From my vantage point, I saw it all: the mohel gave the baby an alcohol-soaked rag to suck on, and then he did his work. As soon as he began, the baby’s cries got louder, and more desperate. I physically cringed, crossing my legs and covering my mouth in horror. His mother was crying. Her sister was crying. The women all looked at one another sympathetically. The men stoically continued, perhaps thinking, “I’ve been there.” I left the room after I noticed the towel spotted with blood, unable to stand the pain of that tiny being.
“We’re not having boys,” I told my fiancé with finality, as if the decision were up to us. He, inured to my frequent irrationality, simply pointed out that the baby wouldn’t remember the pain. I countered that I would remember the pain of watching it and hearing my baby’s cries. Yet, when the moment presents itself, I know I won’t hesitate before placing my son on that fluffy white pillow (although I might not approve of the white, frilly dress this baby wore).
When it comes down to it, this is more than a momentary pang of pain for an innocent infant. Putting aside the various anesthetic deliberations, the health pros and cons, the scientific studies, and the individual rights activists’ claims, this is truly a momentous occasion for a Jewish child.
“This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10) It’s in the first book of the Bible. This is the moment a child becomes part of a larger nation, of centuries of tradition, and what his father’s father’s father’s father did. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not fun, even if we do get to celebrate with bagels and shmear after the baby has stopped crying. But it is a direct link between ourselves, our ancestors, and whatever form of God you happen to believe in.