This post continues this series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.
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Question: Even though circumcision is to enter into the covenant of Abraham, what about aesthetics, health, hygiene, and sanitation? Isn't circumcision for those things, too?
What exactly is your question? If circumcision indeed has many other benefits, what is the problem? What is your issue with saying that “circumcision is to enter into the covenant of Abraham” but it may also have benefits touching upon “aesthetics, health, hygiene and sanitation” and thus may be “for those things, too”?
What you may be addressing, though, is the question of: bottom line, why are we to be doing this? The issue is not the many benefits that may also flow from circumcision and the various reasons why individuals may wish to choose this procedure for their sons but why we, as Jews, are to undertake this commitment. It is in this regard that we are to say that THE reason why we adopt this behaviour is because it is God’s commandment to thereby enter into the covenant of Abraham. There may be other motivations and outcomes but, bottom line, we to commit to this behaviour solely because of this reason.
The issue really is tied to a powerful Talmudic discussion (see, for example, T.B. Rosh Hashanah 28b) of whether mitzvot, commandments, need proper intent (kavana) or not. If we say that mitzvot do not need proper intent, then all that is necessary to fulfill a commandment is the performance of the act, regardless of the reason one is undertaking this action. If that were the case, one who circumcises his son for any reason, without even any recognition of its religious value, would be considered to be fulfilling the Divine command.
The actual dominant conclusion, though, is that commandments do need proper intent in order to be deemed fulfilled. Proper intent means undertaking the action because it is so commanded by God. As such, pursuant to this perspective, for a circumcision to be deemed as having religious value, it must be performed because it is a Divine commandment. One may still recognize other benefits but the necessary motivation must be God’s command. (The issue of what one is then to do if a circumcision was not undertaken with proper intent and the responsible person now wishes the correct religious value of circumcision is actually a most pertinent one. I do not want to get into details in this regard but suffice it to say that there is actually a simple solution to the problem and one with this issue need only to consult a local Orthodox rabbi in this regard.)
So what about these other reasons? While we must always recognize our limitations in achieving a full understanding of why God gave us a specific command, such reasons can serve to some extent as partial explanations for the command. They can also be used to make our fulfilment of the command a bit easier; it is easier to do what we are being told to do when we can also see a benefit. There is nothing wrong in seeing the benefit(s) of a Divine command. It can even, as stated, make it easier and nothing wrong in that. There is a challenge, however, in that we still cannot thereby allow these other reasons to cause us to lose sight of the real reason we are doing this: to fulfill the Will of God. The point is that we must never to lose sight of the fact that circumcision is a Divine command and that it is the sign from Abraham of our covenant with God – and this is bottom line reason for this act.