Circumcision and the 7 Year Old

Shawn Shafner
May 13, 2013
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How do you teach a 1st grade class about the brit of circumcision?

The very idea fills one with panic. There are penises involved, and they go from being one way to being another. Do you show diagrams, or snip the tip off a banana? And the snipping itself. How does one engage children on the subject of ritual cutting? Or explain that God, the ever-loving, ever-lasting, asks for a contract in flesh? Why would you want to open that Pandora’s box of no-no’s?

These were my first thoughts upon reading Genesis, Chapter 17. Since September, I’ve been facilitating a dramatic Torah study class for six 1st graders. From the first week, I challenged myself to give these kids a brave, authentic taste of Torah. Starting with the alef before B’reishit, we’ve been journeying through Moses’ first book for 25 weeks now, and are only beginning the epic of Jacob.

I’ve studied many different parshyot in depth, but this class, or “chug,” has marked my first time reading through every word of the narrative in order. If there’s one thing it’s shown me, it’s that Torah is full of awesome stories, fascinating characters, and important lessons. If there’s another, it’s that Torah is a gritty, challenging text, especially for kids. People die, sometimes en masse. Men have multiple wives, and sometimes mistresses. Animals are sacrificed and burned to please God.

So what’s one tiny bit of foreskin?

More importantly, how do we reconcile and relate often outdated cultural values, practices, or plot details to a 21st century seven year old?

The first question to ask is “why?” Why tell this story; what’s the point, or the big take-away for this audience? My years as a Storahtelling Maven and as a classroom educator have trained me to find that developmentally-appropriate “bullseye,” and then translate and interpret the text in order to craft a story that will hit that mark. But it’s not always easy to find. Sometimes I have to take that story and blow it up, pare it down, shake it, wriggle around with it, and ask trusted colleagues for help in finding the nugget. Once I’ve found it, there are many tools to help me dress it up.

First on the costume list? Historical context and cultural relativity. The characters are living “way, way back, many centuries ago,” as Tim Rice wrote for a famous biblical musical. Once my students can imagine the world these characters live in, the outer, historically specific details fall away and the underlying human desires and needs reveal themselves.

 “Back when the Torah was first created, most people were farmers and shepherds. The things they grew and the animals they cared for were their most important thing. They needed them to survive. So to show God they cared for and appreciated God, they would share their wheat or one of their animals with God by burning it on an altar. That way the smoke could travel to wherever God was.”

When Gabriel asked me why they burned it, I explained it was because they thought God liked the way it smelled. Because that’s Torah!

Classical or modern midrashim helps to fill in the gaps and create living, breathing characters the children (or adults) can relate to. While planning lessons, I pull from Torah, Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, and my own ideas. I taught the kids about midrash so I can point out when we use it. Opportunities for them to ‘drash are built into the lesson, and on occasion they will stop me and ask if they can make one. This example was adapted directly from Ginzberg’s collection:

“A tricky angel reminded God that, since Isaac had been born, Abraham hardly ever prayed or made sacrifices to God. It was like Abraham forgot all about God’s help! God was sure that Abraham still cared, and suggested they test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice something important. What might it be? Maybe his best sheep, a big bag of corn, or his nicest clothes. But the angel was unimpressed. What’s a bag of corn to Abraham? Then the angel had an idea. The angel dared God to ask Abraham if he would sacrifice the one thing he loved more than anything else in the world—his son, Isaac. The Creator was sure that Abraham could pass the test, and spoke to Abraham that very morning.”

Does this solve the problem of teaching the akedah? Not completely. Maybe not at all. The midrash justifies God’s request in a way the kids can relate to. I like the lesson, that God only gives us tests we can pass. But whether you’re 7 or 70, I don’t think anything can remove the disquiet and discomfort brought on by the idea of a father sacrificing his son, especially when it’s to satisfy the Divine.

Stories, and dramatic play especially, can feel very real to the participants. I wrestled over whether to teach the akedah at all–and it’s a keystone of the Jewish narrative. Deciding to forge ahead, I worked extra hard to create a safe environment that week. While we normally enter right into the world of the Torah, I told them the entire story beforehand so they would know that it has a happy ending, and understand the lesson. I reassured them that no one has ever been tested in such an extreme way before, and no one ever will be again. We talked about tests in our own lives, and in our families. We agreed that, if at an any point the story became too scary, we would stop. We shared our feelings about the story after it was over, and agreed it was intense. I kept parents in the loop via email, so they could know what had happened and address any fears, feelings or thoughts that surfaced afterward.

We don’t have these problems when we teach Dr. Seuss.

Jewish chick rocker Naomi Less, a great friend and mentor, has impressed on me not to teach anything that has to be untaught. And I don’t. But I do sometimes edit. Isaac and Rebecca getting into trouble with Abimelech? Bo-ring. Been there, done that, just a generation ago. Noah getting drunk and disorderly post-ark? I don’t even know what that’s about. Next! The destruction of Sodom? I got it! Spend most of your time on Abraham’s bargaining with God, skip over the parts about virgin daughters and Sodomites demanding sex with angels, and enjoy a thrilling action adventure tale that ends in a pillar of salt! I don’t love that it’s violent, but destroying one city seems at least a step down from destroying the entire world, and we teach Noah’s ark without question. Why back away from an otherwise awesome story?

So what about the bris?

Jewish kiddie rocker Shira Kline, another great friend and mentor, reminds me to pull out a quote by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. “Torah isn’t true because it happened. Torah is true because it happens.” As my kids explained to me last week, it means that sometimes there’s a truth that’s deeper than the details. To that end, sometimes I sacrifice the letter of the Torah in order to teach her spirit.

Here’s how it went, as described in my weekly letter home to parents:

We remembered that Avram was very, very old. In fact, he was 99! In this story, like in some of the ones we’ve heard before, God came to Avram and told him that he would have many children. How many? The kids remembered; “More than the stars in the sky!” “More than the sand in the desert!” “More than the hairs on your head!” “Or in your beard!”

God assured Avram that his children would not just be numerous, they would be Melcheem and Malkot (Kings and Queens)! They would rule over entire countries. This was God’s promise. But in return…Avram would have to do something. For this to be a real brit/agreement, Avram would have to show that he was serious.

The first step was to change their names. No longer would they be Avram and Sarai, but Avraham and Sarah. What else would God need?

In Orli’s midrash, Avram would have to build a gym! And, Isaiah added, then tear it down. Zohar wanted Avram to promise that he would take good care of all those sons and daughters and grandchildren. God liked these ideas, but added that Avram and Sarai had to promise that Adonai would be their only God, and they would teach their children and grandchildren to have faith.

God wanted one thing more: it was important that anybody who saw Avram and Sarai would know that they had made this agreement. We thought about how we, in the present day, can tell that someone is Jewish. They might wear a keepah or tzitzit. They might speak Hebrew. In the Torah, I said, God asks Avram and Sarai to mark the outside of their bodies, to show that the words and laws were written in their hearts.

I asked if they had ever heard of tefillin, or seen someone wrapping a box around their head or arm. Isaiah and Zohar had seen their abbas doing it before. We talked about how the words of the Torah are inside the box, like in a mezuzah, and how people wrap them so tightly that it leaves a mark on their skin for a little while. This was one way of showing to everybody that we had made this agreement with God.

In the end, a bris is not about circumcision. It’s about an embodied covenant with God, one we express with our very selves. It’s not evasion, but a bite-sized message for a seven year old to chew. You can talk about penises and circumcision with 1st graders, but I wouldn’t do it unless the child brought it up, and then only one-on-one. And at that point, sure, why not pull out diagrams or pictures? The “why” behind it is a great entry into conversations about tradition, and about health practices throughout time. When those questions come up, the most important thing we can do is to address them bravely and honestly, and to wrestle alongside our children. Because we’re still figuring it out, too.

If you have thoughts about how to teach any of these or other challenging Torah stories to kids, or any other questions or complaints about what I’ve written here, please do post them below. It’s very much a learning in process, and I’d love to continue it as an open conversation. Happy educating!

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Shawn Shafner is a theatre-maker, educator, and creator of The People's Own Organic Power Project (www.thePOOPproject.org), an arts and education organization that promotes critical conversations about sustainable sanitation for the person, planet and world community. He is the recipient of a 2005 Spielberg Fellowship, and has been creating original ritual theater and educational programs with Storahtelling ever since. Shawn has created and facilitated educational programs for all ages, from early childhood audiences to elderly populations. He is currently artist-in-residence at the JCC Manhattan Preschool, works with underprivileged NYC school students as a teaching artist with Arts for All, and writes curriculum for Think-Build-Live Success, a self-empowerment, life skills and employment preparation program in career colleges. Shawn holds a BFA in Drama from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and has trained as an actor in Russia at the St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy, the Institute for Contemporary Art in London, and the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Italy. He spent most of 2008 touring nationally as Pablo in Nickelodeon's The Backyardigans Live!, and his NYC acting credits include performances at Madison Square Garden, Theater Row, Joe's Pub, The Club at La Mama, and Classic Stage Company.

1 Comment

  1. This is really so well thought out! You are a wonderful teacher, of this I am certain! I’m a friend of Naomi’s that’s how I found your post, and also a Jewish educator, though my experience has mostly been with teens and now adults. Anyway, beautifully done! Yasher koach!

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