The Beginning of Wisdom p.313

Male circumcision was, of course, a custom already widely practiced in the ancient world. In pagan societies, circumcision, performed at the time of puberty, was part of a male rite of passage (it may also have served symbolically as an act of human sacrifice to the gods). A mark on his maleness, circumcision was a sign not only of the youth’s new sexual potency but also of his initiation into the male role and male society (putting an end to his primary attachment to his mother and the household, to the society of women and children). But in the new way of ancient Israel, the special obligation of the covenant gives the practice of circumcision a new and nearly opposite meaning. An initiation rite of passage of young males into adult masculinity is transformed into a paternal duty regarding the male newborn. Israel’s covenant with God begins by transforming the meaning of male sexuality and of manliness altogether.

Covenantal circumcision emphasizes and sanctifies man’s natural generative power, even as it also restricts and transcends it. To be performed on children only eight days old, it celebrates not sexual potency but procreation and (especially) perpetuation. Though it is the child who bears the mark, the obligation falls rather on the parents; it is a perfect symbol of the relation between the generations, for the deeds of parents are always inscribed, often heritably, into the lives of their children.

The obligation of circumcision calls father to the paternal task. Performed soon after birth, it circumcises their pride in siring male heirs, reminding them that children are a gift for which they are not themselves creatively responsible. More important, they are called from the start to assume the obligation of transmission. They are summoned to ratify the meaning of their own circumcision (and, therewith, of the community’s view of manhood), each new father vindicating the promise made by his own father to keep him within the covenant. They are compelled to remember, now when it counts, that they belong to a long line of descent, beginning with Abraham, who was called and who sought to walk before God and to be wholehearted, they are reminded that bearing the child is the easy part, that rearing him well is the real vocation. They are summoned to continue the chain by rearing their children looking up to the sacred and the divine, by initiating them into God’s chosen ways. They are required to give their children a spiritual rebirth, right from the start, in memory of God’s covenant and His special charge to Abraham and his seed. They must symbolically demonstrate their dedication of their present deeds to their future hopes and of their future hopes to the Eternal. And made mindful that the deeds of the father are always visited upon their sons, they are made aware of the consequences for their children – now and hereafter – of their failure to hearken the call: “And the uncircumcised male… that soul shall be cut off from his people: he hath broken My covenant” (17:14). With circumcision, the child and all his potential future generations are symbolically offered to the way of God.


Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.313


The Beginning of Wisdom p.214

Shem had managed to see – however dimly – in the authoritative relation of father and son an image of the relation of God and man, and therewith a pathway to the holy. In the experience of awe and reverence before paternal authority is the germ of awe and reverence for the divine. As the stance of Ham points downward to Canaanite paganism and depravity, so the stance of Shem points upward to the sacred and the holy.


Leon R. Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.214

The Beginning of Wisdom p.199

Until only yesterday, Father was a figure of authority to every young boy. To be sure, authority may have been shared with Mother, but Father was the imposing figure. His superior size and strength promised safety; his voice of authority laid down the rules and established reliable order; his patient instruction encouraged growth. At the same time – and on the other hand – Father’s power often inspired fear and awe; his moral authority, shame and guilt; and his superior competence, a sense of inadequacy that could sometimes lead to envy. And then there was his pride of place with Mother, and all that that entailed – the so-called Oedipal problem, made notorious by Freud.

The highly complex aggregate of mixed feelings and attitudes made son-to-father relationships very unusual. They certainly made difficult, if not impossible, any easygoing friendship, which usually requires and fosters equality; one cannot simply be friends with someone one holds in awe. Yet these sentiments – even the uncomfortable ones like awe, fear, and shame – were (and are) perfectly suited, on the one side, to the parental task of rearing and, on the other side, to the possibility of inheriting not just life but a decent way of life from those responsible for our proper cultivation and moral development. Precisely because he is capable of inspiring awe as well as security, shame as well as orderliness, distance as well as nearness, emulation as well as confidence, and fear as well as hope, the father is able to do the fatherly work of preparing boys for moral manhood, including, eventually, their own father hood.

To be sure, the power can be abused: fathers can be bullies and tyrants, they can abuse both their authority and their sons. And even where paternal intentions are purely benevolent, it is often difficult to achieve a finely tuned mixture of encouragement and restraint. More important, errant paternal conduct can easily betray the very teaching paternal authority aims to impart; a philandering father, once exposed, has trouble teaching fidelity. Trust betrayed is hard to recover, and hypocrisy is often unforgiven, especially by one’s children. Still, that – and how – Father exercises paternal authority, and equally, how boys come to terms with Father, may make all the difference for the future life of sons – and the grandsons, great-grandsons, and so on and on.


Leon Kass – The Beginning of Wisdom p.199