by R. Gidon Rothstein
‘Akedat Yitzchak , Eighteenth Sha’ar
People as the Purpose of Creation
R. Arama says this sha’ar will explain the purpose of creation, then adds asher navochu bo rabim, which has confused many. He will also explain how milah, circumcision, completes man’s perfection. In support of the point, he opens with Nedarim 31b-32a, where a string oftannaim speak of the greatness of circumcision.
A Mishnah there quotes R. Elazar b. Azaryah, who pointed out Yirmiyahu 9;25 denigrates evildoers as ‘arelim, uncircumcised. It told him the ‘orlah, the foreskin cut off during milah, is me’usah,disgusting.
Skipping a few ideas, Rebbe [R. Arama’s text had R. Meir] commented on circumcision’s greatness, the act for which Avraham is called tamim, whole or perfect. The Mishnah offered a davar acher, another claim along these lines, Hashem only created the world because people would become circumcised.
The last pro-milah statement in the series was a davar acher on 32a [R. Arama credits it to R. Shim’on], who saw milah as the equal of all the other mitzvot, because Shemot 24;8 refers to the blood which underlay the covenant.
Purpose and Rambam’s Refusal to See It
As is his way, he will leave the Talmudic passage for later; I cited some of it to show us his overall direction. For now, he turns to a question philosophers discussed often, the purpose of creation [as always, I believe he refers to their interest in the topic as a way to convince his audience of its importance; if I am right, it reminds us he is addressing people happy to listen to him, at length, but for whom philosophy tells more truth than Torah].
He sees it as an obviously important question, which leads him to wonder why Rambam refused to entertain it, in contrast to philosophers (who thought everything had to have a purpose) and traditional Jews (who believed the world was created from nothing, a choice which implies purpose).
More surprising, Rambam rejected the idea the world was created to enable people to serve Hashem, as many verses imply. R. Arama thinks Rambam could not accept the verses at face value because he thought humans too lowly to be the focus of creation.
The Universe as Background for Humanity
Rambam’s objections surprise him on practical and Scriptural grounds. He concedes Hashem could have created human beings without a whole universe, but thinks it obvious only this universe supports the best version of human development. More, too many verses—throughout Scripture– make the point to avoid, in his view.
Hashem finishes creation with humanity, their spot in last telling R. Arama they were its purpose, as we have seen before. From there, the Torah follows the generations through Noach to Avraham, his descendants going to Egypt, Hashem overseeing their history directly and intimately until taking them out, bringing them to Sinai, then to Israel, which Yechezkel 20;6 describes as tzevi hi le-chol ha-aratzot, the glory (or best, or most beautiful, depending on translation) of all lands.
When the Jews incurred the Babylonian exile with their sins, Hashem returned them to Israel, defended them against various attacks, until again exiled by the Romans, the Beit Ha-Mikdash again destroyed. With all that, Hashem always promises not to rest (as it were) until we are returned and our oppressors are punished.
Scripture’s focus convinces R. Arama the world was created for people, specifically for the Jewish nation, the focus of the prophecies in Scripture, either by directly addressing the Jews, or addressing other nations about the Jews (and what they did to them). Added support comes from Chazal’s point (Baba Metzi’a 114b), the Torah refers to Jews as adam more than other human beings, making them in particular the focus of the world.[This venue does not require us to defend Rambam. Still, R. Arama seems to ignore too obvious a response to let it go unarticulated. Rambam, I think, would have said R. Arama confused a focus of creation with the focus, and would have seen the error as precisely the overvaluing of humanity against which he was arguing.
Obviously, the drama of human history, and the Jewish people’s role in it, matters enough for Hashem to make it the focus of Scripture’s presentation, although those are writings and prophecies with the clear purpose of guiding us how to act; to jump to making it the whole point of creating the universe was overweening, in Rambam’s view.]
What Do Humans Provide Hashem?
R. Arama does recognize he has only shown that humans matter, not how or why. Belief in Hashem’s perfection generally also assumes Hashem’s self-sufficiency, limiting the value Hashem could see in humans. He says (a common answer, I believe) Hashem did it out of great kindness and generosity, to create beings who would be educated and perfected through their awareness of Hashem, their gratitude towards Him.
Avraham played a special role in this plan, because he taught the world about Hashem, most importantly his descendants, who in turn spread recognition of Hashem in the world. The Beit HaMikdash functioned similarly (R. Arama points to Avot 6;10, which says Hashem acquired five parts of the world, Avraham and the Beit HaMikdash being two. I have skipped the rest of his exposition, keeping only his claim kinyan, acquisition, refers to what will help foster awareness of Hashem.)
All to help people and the world, not to address any “needs” of Hashem’s, Gd forbid. For R. Arama, these are divine acts of pure generosity.
A Covenant of Perfection
Avraham’s teaching saved the world from the destruction they deserved, where Noach only earned got himself and his family onto the Ark (as he infers from Avot5;2, which says the ten generations from Adam to Noach acted provokingly, until Gd brought the Flood; the ten generations from Noach to Avraham acted equally provokingly, until Avraham came and received the reward for all of them. Something Avraham did brought a different result than Noach’s).
Noach received a covenant for his role, Avraham needed/deserved one as well. Noach’s covenant promised the preservation of humanity, the role Noach had played, which suggests Avraham’s covenant should maintain the perfection he achieved, for himself and his family.
As background to why circumcision was the appropriate covenant, R. Arama lists three prerequisites of human perfection: first, the urge to self-improvement, the desire to learn how to become better, seeking the counsel of the wise. He quotes Aristotle’s Ethics, the person unready to listen to teachers will never amount to much.
Second, basic intelligence, which he defines as the ability to accept the advice s/he is seeking and put it into action. Third, the person must develop a discerning intellect, the ability to understand matters more deeply (to take lessons of character and ethics to their next steps, I think he means). The three are each indispensable, the kind of three-fold strand Kohelet 4;12 noted would not quickly be severed.
Three Problems, One Solution
People tend to misstep in all three areas, as human nature and the complaints of the prophets show (R. Arama here says zil karei, go and read; the Talmudic phrase is zil karei bei rav, words of Scripture are known to schoolchildren. He is saying, I don’t have to provide verses for this, you all should know it already from your knowledge of Tanach).
Hashem did us the great kindness of commanding circumcision, which addresses all three. He first comments on where milah occurs. Had circumcision involved cutting off a piece of the ear, it would tell us something about how to use our power of hearing. Placed where reproduction occurs (which he says collects material from all over the body), it tells us to take the point being made as a lesson to learn for our body as a whole.
As another way of making the point, he looks at Bereshit Rabbah 48, which says Avraham sits at the opening to Gehinnom (roughly: hell), preventing any circumcised Jew from being thrown in. To R. Arama, the Midrash means the combination of milah and accepting the Torah save from Gehinnom.
Non-Jews, who have neither, will not have this avenue to avoiding Gehinnom, which is why R. Elazar b. Azaryah spoke of the ‘orlah as disgusting. [R. Arama’s bringing non-Jews into the conversation, saying it would be harder for them to avoid Gehinnom for their lack of circumcision suggests to me it was an issue of his time, Jews feeling mocked for their circumcision, and he wanted to make its advantages clear to them.]
David refers to Golyat as an ‘arel to highlight his failure along all three lines. Golyat misused his power of speech to abuse ma’archot Elokim, the arrayed people of Gd, which shows he had also failed to use his intellect to understand the Jewish people’s role in the world. After the Plishtim kill Shaul and Yonatan, part of David’s lament in II Shemuel 1;20 worried pen ta’aloznah benot ‘arelim, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice, which R. Arama takes to indicate the third problem, the ability to reject any calls to a greater truth. David defeating Golyat forced awareness of a certain truth, and Shaul and Yonatan’s defeat and death would provide cover to deny it.
The Physical Element in Spiritual Perfection
The lessons of milah mean a person cannot reach prophecy while uncircumcised; we refer to Hashem’s having formed man with wisdom (in the blessing we say after relieving ourselves in the bathroom) to stress the delicacy of the project, how any one factor being off means the overall purpose will be missed [he again seems to me to have a larger agenda in mind; I would think he wanted to deny the prophecy of Jesus, except Jesus likely was circumcised].
Expanding his claim, he applies the idea to the disqualification of ba’alei mum, kohanim with any physical differences, from service in the Beit HaMikdash. Physical blemishes imply or indicate spiritual ones [he says, not me], and such people are therefore unworthy (an interesting choice of word, instead of unable, as he has said elsewhere) of being the vehicle of positive divine influence on the nation.
Next time, we will see where milah takes people, particularly Avraham.