A week-old baby was the center of attention Thursday at Congregation Etz Chayim, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue on Woodley Road in Toledo. Sarah Bienenfeld, the wife of Rabbi Jonathan Bienenfeld, gave birth to a son Nov. 1 — and, following Jewish tradition, the boy was circumcised in a religious ritual on his eighth day of life.
“The baby boy has now entered into the covenant that Abraham and God made together,” Rabbi Bienenfeld said later, a covenant depicted in Genesis 17, where Abraham is told he will be the “father of many nations.”
“God commanded Abraham to become circumcised and that was going to seal the deal, so to speak,” Rabbi Bienenfeld said. “All Jewish baby boys, assuming all is healthy at eight days old, do the same and he becomes part of the nation.”
The brith milah, or bris, as the ceremony for the covenant of circumcision is called, often takes place in the family’s home, but this being the rabbi’s baby, a mohel, or a man who is authorized to perform the medical procedure of cutting the foreskin off of a baby’s penis while following the religious rite, came from the Detroit area and performed the bris in the Etz Chayim sanctuary.
“I made an announcement prior to the celebration that this was my obligation, the father’s mitzvah [or commandment] to perform the circumcision,” Rabbi Bienenfeld said. “Most fathers are not adept enough to do it, so we appoint an agent. That agent also needs to be somebody of religious standing who understands the religious and ritualistic aspects of it, not just the surgical aspects of it.”
Rabbi Avraham Cohen was Rabbi Bienenfeld’s agent. Rabbi Cohen said that he has been a mohel for 30 years and performs 75 to 100 brisses a year, so the Bienenfelds' first son received care, including a speedy procedure, from a veteran of about 2,500 circumcisions. Rabbi Cohen loves “being with family at their time of joy,” he said. Later he will bury the skin that was removed.
On the platform where the cantor and rabbi normally lead worship, the baby’s paternal grandfather, Jeffrey Bienenfeld, sat in a chair ready to receive the not-then-named boy, who was on a pillow. As grandfather sat holding the baby, traditional words were said in Hebrew and the mohel performed his duty while the baby cried. The baby stopped crying when his diaper went on.
“I was more scared than he was,” Mrs. Bienenfeld said about her son. “I thought it would be a big knife, but it was a little scalpel.”
After the cutting and bandaging was completed, the synagogue’s cantor, Evan Rubin, sang and the men of the synagogue followed along with their responses. This was the part of the ceremony where the baby’s name is announced. The words “Yosef Yitzchak” were spoken, and baby Joseph Isaac Bienenfeld, as spelled in English, had his name. His father says he’ll be called Yosef.
When the ceremony was complete, the congregation moved into the social hall to share a breakfast and hear a brief talk by the rabbi, who said, “Every good bris deserves a great sermon.” He spoke about the names Joseph and Isaac and made sure to thank his wife.
In a conversation after the bris, Rabbi Bienenfeld spoke about the religious recognition of all three of his children, without a bodily reminder for Yosef’s older sisters, Aliza, 4, and Devorah, 2½. “For some reason, God decided girls didn’t need to go through that … Girls are naturally more connected to the spiritual, to the divine. For all of our kids, it’s the notion that you’re taking time to think about ‘I’m dedicating my family’s life to serve God.’ It’s a very meaningful thing, obviously.”
Rabbi Bienenfeld answered a question about moves in Germany to make circumcision illegal. “The notion of religious freedom is something that Jews have always appreciated here and all religions have appreciated,” he said. “It’s one of the [hallmarks] of America and something we’d like to see globally.”
And he was asked about the Christian interpretation of Paul that circumcision was no longer necessary. “Our belief is that the Torah, as it was given to the Jewish people, was never revoked, was never changed, never could be changed. The Old Testament attests to the fact God says it will never be changed. I appreciate everybody’s right to have their own belief, but if God says this mitzvah’s forever, I’m going to trust him, going to assume he’s not going to change his mind later on.”
What comes next for Yosef’s religious recognition? “The next big one’s the bar mitzvah, Rabbi Bienenfeld said, “when he’s 13.”
Contact TK Barger at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6278.