When most of us hear the word Brit (or in the Yiddish vernacular, Bris), one or two words come to mind. Most frequently, we think of the ritual circumcision of an eight-day old baby boy. Alternately, some of us associate the word Brit with an international Jewish organization called B’nai Brith, literally “Members of the Brit”.
Of course, the two words that come to mind when we hear the word Brit are related. We become members of the Brit, because our parents made certain that their sons were circumcised at eight days. Circumcision, called Meelah in Hebrew, is the ritual that enters baby boys into the Brit. Once we have entered the Brit through circumcision, we become B’nai Brit, members of the Brit. Remember that B’nai Brith was originally exclusively a male-membership organization. Women only became members in their own right in the late 1980’s, nearly 150 years after B’nai Brith was established in 1843 (although B’nai Brith Women was founded nearly a century ago).
But what does the word Brit actually mean? The most frequent translation is “covenant,” a bi-lateral agreement between two parties. Historically, we know that such a bi-lateral agreement originated with God promising Noah that God would never again destroy the world with a flood. Such a covenant is universal; it applies to all humanity, not just to us, the Jewish people.
In a far more parochial sense, the covenant with our people began when Abraham voluntarily entered into an agreement that he would worship no other deity, except God. Abraham ratified the covenant by making a mark in his flesh, circumcision, and committed himself to circumcise every male born into his household at the age of eight days.
It was not, however, until our ancestors left Egypt that they made a conscious choice to reaffirm the covenant with God at the foot of Mount Sinai. The story of the origin of our people portrays our ancestors hearing God’s thunderous voice and responding in unison, “All that God has commanded, we will do.” Even before they heard all the details of God’s expectations, the Israelites entered the covenant willingly, voluntarily, accepting the responsibility to live by God’s laws and commandments, even if they did not fully understand their rationale.
Whatever the historical veracity of the covenant ceremony at the foot of Mount Sinai, what is clear is that the Torah portrays our ancestors as accepting the responsibility to live by God’s laws and commandments without so much as a question. What is portrayed biblically as voluntary commitment to the covenant by the generation of the Exodus seems to have been imposed on all future generations, without even a thought that some future generation might object.
Ever since the Enlightenment, we, who live in the Western world, have based our social contract on informed consent. Anything less than that reflects authoritarian dictatorship. We do not necessarily wish to be bound by agreements made for us by our parents, let alone by ancestors who lived as much as three thousand years ago. We wish to negotiate any agreement we make on our own terms. Indeed, we wish to be free to opt out of any agreement made on our behalf by our parents and our ancestors.
How then do we make this covenant compelling in an age that not only promotes the sovereign self, but questions more than ever the existence of God, let alone, a God who has a commanding presence, whose very existence makes demands on us, demands that very often seem irrational, and place restrictions and limits on our precious time and our choice of action? Why should I observe Shabbat, keep Kosher, fast on Yom Kippur, eat Matzah throughout Pesah? Why should I even choose to be part of the B’nai Brit, a member of a covenanted people, let alone impose that Brit on my children?
There is no such thing as a single answer to such a complex network of questions. We might start by looking at the paradox that at the same time as individuals are becoming more isolated in a society that promotes the sovereign self, the world is becoming more interconnected through the Internet and social media. At a human level, covenant plays well to the idea of connecting individuals around a common set of shared values, shared goals and shared practices. That some of the shared practices seem irrational and antiquated should not impede us from incorporating them into our lives, if they help promote a sense of a shared community.
In the modern world, we have a host of overlapping shared values and practices that can and do create shared communities. Nor is there anything to say that one set of shared values and practices trumps all others. We build shared communities around sports, around social service work, around volunteerism, around politics, music and the arts. Is there any rational reason that we could not or should not build another layer of shared community around a covenant that incorporates both ritual and ethics, both intellectual growth and social consciousness? Is there any rational reason not to promote our own national identity as Jews, by engaging in practices that promote social cohesion among our fellow members of the B’nai Brit, provided that membership in the Brit is open to anyone who sincerely wishes to adopt these practices and does not engender bias or prejudice against those who follow a different path?
Re-engaging with the covenant of Israel will remain one of the challenges our people will continue to face. For some who re-engage, the covenant will be exclusively about creating shared practices and promoting shared values with people. God will be unmistakably absent. For others, God will enter or re-enter the covenant-making process as the embodiment of the purest ideals to which we Jews will attempt to reach. In either case, re-engagement will be voluntary. We will not likely answer with one voice, “Whatever you have commanded, we will willingly do.” For that type of unanimity, we will undoubtedly have to wait for the Messiah. In the meantime, each of us will have to struggle with making sense of the covenant and choosing whether or not to re-engage with it in his or her own way.
Rabbi Lionel E. Moses