What a lovely baby… seems almost human.

All the bright young Jews have abandoned the traditional professions of law and medicine and instead flock to the financial industry. It’s a pity, because I can no longer use the old joke about different religions defining the onset of life according to different formulae. (You know it…some believe life begins at conception, others opt for the moment of birth, while Jews believe a child is still a fetus until it receives it’s medical degree).

Jokes aside, we actually do believe in a staged process of birth. The first phase of life begins at conception, which is why Judaism does not permit abortion unless continuing the pregnancy would pose a clear danger to the mother.

The next stage in development occurs some forty days later, when according to the Talmud the fetus has progressed from ‘fluid’ to ‘bones.’ This is confirmed by modern science as the approximate day when the embryo has differentiated enough for individual limbs to be observed.

A new stage of existence is reached at birth, after which the child is considered a legally sentient human being and causing harm or killing the newborn is equivalent in law to damaging or murdering an adult.

The final stage is at the bris, where “the soul enters the body’.

Body and Soul

Many philosophical systems would have it that the spiritual and physical are natural enemies. From their perspective one can either be of this world, or of the next; mundane or holy, body or soul. Their best and brightest abstain from life, preaching asceticism and celibacy. Judaism rejects this artificial existence. We are enjoined to live full physical lives, to eat, drink, marry and have children. True we don’t encourage over-indulgence or unnecessary hedonism, but we do definitely believe that Hashem created the world as a tool for our Divine service, not an impediment.

A baby in utero has no independence, nurtured by its mother it exists purely as a function of her being. Even once born it has yet to be recognisably affected by reality. Only at the bris, when we brand a physical imprint into its flesh have we demonstrated our dual reality. Our bodies must be a vehicle for G‑dliness, and the soul can only truly shine when attached to the flesh.

Ladies are “born circumcised.” Though I don’t fully understand how, they manage to integrate this synthesis of body and soul immediately at birth, without the need to wait eight days. Nor do they require a permanent reminder in their flesh of the primacy of the soul. Perhaps they are innately more spiritual, or maybe their natural ability to produce and nurture future life is demonstration enough of the immortality of existence.

Live the future

Jews are often accused of being the most optimistic people on earth; we’re confident enough to chop pieces off ourselves at such a young age. I’d suggest that our confidence is not misplaced. Children are educated to envisage themselves as a tiny link in the generational-chain spanning millennia. At the bris we bless the child to grow to torah, service of G‑d and good deeds. Already from the outset of our existence we understand our responsibility to live up to our past and change the future. By demonstrating in the most physical way possible that body and soul together are subservient to Hashem, we guarantee that we shall grow intellectually - to torah, emotionally – through service of G‑d, and physically – our good deeds, and continue the generations.