The Strange Case of the Circumcision at Night ~ Shemot ~ 29 December 2018 / 21 Tevet 5779
Jan 7th 2019

Bizarre. Strange. Perplexing. Enigmatic. That’s how Bible scholars describe the three verse narrative from our Torah portion about Tzipporah, Moshe and their new-born son.

Here is the story-line:

Moshe has fled Egypt after killing a man for abusing a Hebrew slave.  He meets the daughters of Yitro near a well and chases away the shepherds who are harassing the women. Yitro arranges for his daughter, Tzipporah to marry Moshe. They have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. God speaks to the shepherd, Moshe, at a burning bush. Moshe is commissioned to return to Egypt to liberate the people of Israel from slavery. On the way, Moshe, Tzipporah and their sons stop for the night.  Something strange happens that raises all sorts of questions.

ויהי בדרך במלון ויפגשהו ה’ ויבקש המיתו. ותקח צפרה צר ותכרת את־ערלת בנה

ותגע לרגליו ותאמר כי חתן־דמים אתה לי. וירף ממנו אז אמרה חתן דמים למולת׃

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Eternal One met him, and sought to kill him. Then Tzipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, "Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.” So he let him go: then she said, You are a bloody husband, because of the circumcision. (Exodus 4)

The New Revised Standard Version offers this translation:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”

Robert Alter, who has been celebrated for his new translation of the Bible, describes these three verses as among the most mysterious, haunting and bewildering lines of the entire Bible.

And it happened on the way at the night camp that the Lord encountered him and sought to put him to death. And Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to his feet, and she said, “Yes, a bridegroom of blood you are to me. And He let him go. Then did she say, “A bridegroom of blood by the circumcising.”

My friend, Everett Fox, following the Buber-Rosenzweig method of translation, proposes the following:

Now it was on the journey, at the night-camp,
that YHWH encountered him and sought to make him die.
Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her sons’ foreskin,
she touched it to his legs and said:
Indeed, a bridegroom of blood are you to me!
Thereupon he released him.
Then she said, “a bridegroom of blood” upon the circumcision-cuttings.

It seems as if God wanted to kill Moshe for neglecting the circumcision of his son. Tzipporah reacted and averted disaster by quickly performing the milah, deflecting God's anger. But why choose Moshe and cajole him to accept this mission, only to attack him on the way? What is the significance of the circumcision? How does Tzipporah know that this ritual must be performed now to resolve and heal the situation?

The references are enigmatic. The text uses the Hebrew pronoun “hu” multiple times, without ever identifying which “he” (God, Moshe, or Tzipporah's son) is referred to in each part of the event. It is unclear at whose feet (God's, Moses' or her son's) Tzipporah throws or touches the foreskin. And the meaning of ẖatan damim, ”bloody bridegroom”, is uncertain.

A few things are clear. Tzipporah is the hero; she acts with confidence to save the situation. She was not part of the Hebrew people, but chose the path of Abraham and Sarah’s family and affirmed the covenant that Moshe would be called upon to defend.

It is also evident that God is not benign. Just as when the angel wrestles with Yaakov, an encounter with God may be dangerous. Third, we can definitely say that brit milah should not be delayed. Moshe may have thought that while on a mission from God, he could defer the circumcision, but the message is clear: this mitzvah is really important. Similar to the commandment to build the Wilderness Sanctuary, but not at the expense of stopping work for Shabbat, we learn the importance of keeping priorities straight. Determining how to balance two mitzvot is an important message.

The circumcision of boys on the 8th day has been a core mitzvah since initially commanded for Avraham’s son, Yitzhak. Our Torah tradition identifies circumcision as a sign the covenant of our people and the continuity of the Jewish family. It is more than a tradition. Jews have sacrificed to maintain this mitzvah.

But infant male circumcision had its detractors. It was attacked by Greco-Roman culture as defacing the beauty of the body. It was opposed by Christianity as a carnal, physical act no longer desired by God. It was prohibited by Nazi legislation and faced Soviet opposition. Robin Judd has detailed the 100 year debate in Germany—prior to the Nazis—about circumcision and kosher slaughter. Beginning in mid-19th century Germany, circumcision was attacked as a ritual that divided Jews from other citizens. Contemporary criticism maligns circumcision as violating the bodily integrity and human rights of male children.

In his thoughtful study, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, my colleague and friend, Shaye Cohen of Harvard, examines the history of Jewish male circumcision, from the Bible to modern days, analyzing changes in meaning, ritual, and surgical practice.

He notes that brit milah is usually done in private homes, in the most convenient and lightest room in the infant's house. Cohen shares a detailed account by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne who says that the ritual, involving  men and women, is accompanied by prayers, wine, and fragrance. A female intermediary (the godmother) takes the baby from the mother and brings him to the man (the godfather) upon whose lap the circumcision takes place.

We know that when baby boys died, the women of a community often would gather with the mother to circumcise the deceased baby and, occasionally, just as with Tzipporah, a woman served as the mohelet to perform the surgery.

Cohen emphatically states that what some term female circumcision was unknown in the ancient Near East in general and unknown to ancient Israel in particular. While some cultures of the world practice female genital cutting, there is no evidence anywhere that any Jewish community has ever practiced female circumcision. In fact, beginning in the second century, Christians used the non-circumcision of Jewish women as an anti-Jewish argument.

Because of the attacks on this core ritual, Jews felt compelled to defend the significance of brit milah. In addition to the articulation of covenantal significance, two 12th century responses are interesting because they emphasize a more universal rationale. Maimonides of Spain says that the purpose of circumcision is to reduce male desire and to domesticate men. R. Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orleans explained circumcision and childbirth as parallel to each other. Through circumcision Abraham achieves potency, while  childbirth demonstrates Sarah's newfound fertility.

A later scholar, Rabbi Lipman Muhlhausen, suggests that circumcision is simply one of the mitzvot allocated to men, just as other mitzvot are given to women. Nowadays, this argument is used by Jews who do not want to maintain the mitzvah.

In 2012, some governments in Europe were considering anti-circumcision legislation. I was asked by Canadian Jewish Congress, to speak on the news hour of CHCH television, to defend brit milah. I was placed against an anti-circumcision advocate. My entire commentary was about infant male circumcision for Jews, its sanctity, safety and significance. At one point, while referring to lower rates of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in men who have been circumcised, I said that there might even be medical reason for all parents, not just Jews, to circumcise their children.

Later, my opponent’s organization posted the video clip with this headline:

Canadian Jewish Rabbi Stated on TV Show That All Parents Should Choose to Have Their Newborn Daughters and Sons Circumcised (Ritual Genital Mutilation of Male / Female Children - Genital Cutting). Organizations from around the world were stunned to hear Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of the largest conservative Jewish congregation in North America state on TV that ‘all parents should have their children circumcised’.

This was and is a distortion of my remarks. Unfortunately, it still comes up when someone Googles my name. So, let me be clear: I have never advocated for female genital cutting and the full weight of the Jewish tradition is against this procedure.

Those who oppose male circumcision go out of their way to identify the it with female genital mutilation. But organizations involved in combating female genital mutilation have emphasized their difference.  A UNICEF document explains: "When the practice first came to be known beyond the societies in which it was traditionally carried out, it was generally referred to as 'female circumcision'. This term, however, draws a direct parallel with male circumcision and, as a result, creates confusion between these two distinct practices.” Other Western medical and political authorities have sought to distinguish between the two and have respected the rights of Jews, Muslims and others to circumcise their boys.

Actually, brit milah is so powerful a ritual and tradition, that there have been efforts to enhance the naming ceremonies of Jewish girls so that they will be comparable to brit milah. Taking some elements from the historic tradition and adding new practices, these rituals are not intended to take away from the circumcision of boys, but to provide a non-surgical way to celebrate the birth of a girl. In our congregation, I have often encouraged family to use a ritual that we call brit ẖabat.

Today’s Torah reading highlights a strange case of circumcision in the night, but from it we learn that brit milah was extremely important to our people and to God. It should not be delayed. We also learn that Tzipporah, as Jewish women did through the ages, ensured that her son was circumcised, thus continuing the tradition that she courageously chose to follow.

Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, Shaye J. D. Cohen. University of California Press, 2005.

Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843–1933,  Robin Judd. Cornell University Press, 2007., p.1