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