By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 11, 2017
On May 29 I flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to Ben Gurion Airport, Israel, via London, to attend the bris ceremony of my niece’s son. The flight to Israel was delayed for 15 hours because of a computer problem which stranded 75,000 British Airways passengers worldwide. But for the timely intervention of one of BA’s attendants, I would have missed this important religious ceremony: the circumcision and naming ceremony of my niece’s son.
The ceremony took place on June 2. This marking of the boy child (analogous in many ways with the Christian christening) had its origins in the covenant that Abraham made with his God when he circumcised his son Isaac at the age of eight days as God had commanded. In the words of Ezekiel: “I said to you, ‘Because of your blood you shall live!'” This claim, the promise of life “for a thousand generations,” separates Jews from other religions.
The ceremony was held in a small synagogue in Rishon Litvyion, a town outside of Tel Aviv. The Efrayim, the boy’s family, originally from Iran, is the epitome of kindness and love. They embraced our family even though this was the first meeting in person with my other niece and myself. We had seen them on Skype before. They wanted to be sure we understood the significance of the event.
Bedecked in my African apparel (my family was dressed in African threads), I put on my yamaka and participated in this life-giving ceremony. I was brought up to respect the practices of all faiths: if the occasion calls for your taking off your hat, you do that. If it calls for your taking off your shoes, you do that.
I have participated in religious ceremonies in mosques in Morocco, Egypt and Pakistan. In Karachi, Pakistan, after the ritual washing and donning of my white apparel, I participated in the Islamic Friday prayers after which I shared a meal with the presiding Iman. In Nigeria, I shared in Yoruba prayers, drank palm wine with my brothers and duly accepted my African name. A similar thing happened in the Fiji Island when I visited there about thirty years ago.
The bris ceremony holds enormous religious significance. Rabbi Paysach Kroh notes: “It is the ritual that, more than any other, symbolizes Jewish identity” (Bris Milah). It allows the newborn to become an heir to the treasures that Abraham’s covenant bestows on people of the Jewish faith. During the ceremony I was given some hadas leaves to crush and then asked to inhale the scent. Devotees believe that the scent of hadas leaves purifies the body thereby making one ready to participate in and accept the blessings of the ceremony. One participant noted: “The scent is the only way that the significance/impact of the ceremony can reach your soul.”
In this way of looking, the body is seen as a temple of God. A religious guide noted that if one wants to keep one’s body holy and spiritually pure, one has to follow certain rules. Everything one eats; how one treats one’s wife and children; the rituals one observes when one has sexual intercourse are important elements in maintaining the strength and purity of the group. “These rules,” he said proudly, “are over three thousand years old.”
Yossi, the child’s father, was also his godfather. The next day Yossi confessed that his greatest goal in life is to be a good father. Nothing else was more important. He had learned that lesson from his father’s example. His father, he said, would sacrifice everything he has for his children. Dining at home that evening at the Shabbat dinner I saw why he wanted to emulate his father: his father is the embodiment of care and concern. Family mattered to him. It was the only thing that mattered.
That ceremony taught me many things. However, the main lesson I gathered was the importance of family. In Israel, life radiates around the family at the center of which stand the children. There is little room for anyone else within the nexus of those family relationships. Most of the family members live within walking or driving distance from one another. Their greatest joy is to be among one another although the family is patriarchal in nature.
The assembled guests recited the following prayer at the end of the bris ceremony:
May the blood of the circumcised one be [considered] in the community of the faithful, as a pleasing offering to HASHEM [GOD].
And in Jerusalem, Throne of HASHEM, may we offer sacrifices and complete burnt offerings to HASHEM.
Sealed in our flesh as a wondrous sign and testimony, for us and our children for all eternity.
Those who see us will recognize, and our oppressors will know, that we are the children, blessed by HASHEM.
When I left Boston, I wanted to be in Israel for my niece. I found out it was more important that I be there for myself. There is no telling how much we enrich ourselves when we share in the religious lives of others. It’s an ancient Biblical imperative, which remains true in our lives today.
Professor Cudjoe’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.