A bris (more properly called brit milah) is the ritual circumcision of an eight-day-old boy. In Jewish tradition, circumcision is referred to as "a sign of the covenant." As we state in the blessing that follows circumcision, the relationship between God and Israel is marked in our flesh:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, who sanctified the people of Israel, Your beloved, from the womb, placing Your law on our flesh, and placing the seal of Your holy covenant on our children. Therefore, may You—God of life, our Portion, our Rock—keep our beloved safe from harm for the sake of Your covenant which is set in our flesh. Blessed are You, Adonai, who establishes the covenant.
No matter how many I attend, the brit milah ceremony always seems the same. There is the father bursting with pride, the mother wondering how she is going to get through the ceremony in which her perfect newborn will be scarred for life (literally). There are the nervous guests cracking inappropriate jokes ("He only took tips"). There is the mohel (the person who does the surgery) who tries unsuccessfully to calm everyone's anxieties about the baby's cries. There are the women who smile reassuringly for the mother; the men who stand pale-faced with their hands folded in front of their genitals. It makes for quite a tableau.
But there is something else that always is present at a bris that is harder to explain. There is this feeling of being part of a huge, unfolding story that includes us all and that never can be fully told. We are performing a ritual that is stunningly serious—putting a knife to the most vulnerable part of the most vulnerable of all human beings—in order to make a stunningly serious statement. Each of us is part of the Infinite and Eternal. Each of us is present at the beginning of the world—for the birth of every child is a recapitulation of the moment of Creation—and each of us is present in the eventual, final redemption—for the birth of every child carries with it the possibility of the world's fulfillment.
At each brit milah, we stand in a timeless time, when past and future collide into one endless moment. We recall our future and hope for our past. How does the ritual do this? In part, it is a paradox: An intense moment in the present allows the past and future become vividly alive within it.
I cannot ignore all the obvious and difficult aspects of brit milah. Well into the second century of feminism, we still have not figured out a single, authoritative way to enter our baby girls into the covenant of God and the Jewish people. There is still some controversy about the ethics of performing elective surgery on an eight-day-old child. But history seems to be on the side of Jewish tradition. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that circumcision is harmful and there is some evidence of benefits.
In many ways, the fact that circumcision raises these problems and concerns is part of why the ritual is still so powerful for us. It takes us out of our comfort zone and into a world of stark realities where blood, love, pain, longing and eternity commingle.
Officiating at a brit milah is one of the best parts of being a rabbi. Holding the child, feeling the power of the primal ritual, experiencing a palpable connection to past and future, and falling in love again with Jews of all times and places—all make a bris a moment beyond imagining.