Why People Circumcise Themselves, and the Benefits They Gain

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzchak, Eighteenth Sha’ar, Second Part

Humans Should Take the World to Its Next Level

Tanchuma Tazria records a conversation between Turnus Rufus (a Roman officer) and R. Akiva. However they get there, R. Akiva ends up telling Turnus Rufus the foreskin cut off during circumcision is excess (R. Arama compared it to hair or fingernails, body parts people need to cut away), put there by Hashem to let us be involved in removing it.

The physical act points to a psychological parallel, we need to remember we are born with character defects as well, part of the nature of human beings, which we also need to cut away (or improve). R. Arama seems to also accept the idea, Guide III;49, circumcision weakens ( I think they meant tells us to de-emphasize) our sexuality.

Hashem wanted us to be the ones to change ourselves in these ways because we will then better learn the lessons. A Jew born circumcised needs a ceremonial hattafat dam berit, for the act to inculcate the ideas [it’s a remarkable claim, because the baby will not consciously know whether he was born that way or had it done to him; I think R. Arama thinks the act imprints itself on the body and therefore on the person’s consciousness, although he may mean the more prosaic idea of social/cultural transmission.]

The Fellowship of the Circumcised

Beyond the physical benefits, R. Arama thinks the bond of circumcision fosters love and connection among those who adhere to it [which I think has been true historically]. In his somewhat utopian view, the wealthy will happily help the poor, the strong will protect the weak, elders will guide the young away from the errors of inexperience, the young will help the old with their infirmities.

The Jews need to be well-bonded, because—as the last Mishnah in Makkot tells us—Hashem wanted to create a system with much Torah and mitzvot, doable only if our social network functions well. The people who bear and share the mark of milah will feel their inherent unity, strive to help their fellow Jews whenever they encounter them.

R. Arama sees the idea as what R. Yishmael meant (Nedarim 31b) when he pointed to the thirteen times the Torah uses the word berit, covenant, regarding milah. It’s a covenant of cohesion, uniting Jews before they meet.

More Values of Circumcision

R. Arama lists many benefits of milah [to me, it is a hint the people of his time chafed under the obligation, perhaps because of social pressure from non-Jews around them], the fifth of which points to the timing of the command. By having Avraham circumcise before Yitzchak was born, the second Patriarch’s conception came from a circumcised father, meaning he and all the generations of the Jewish people were always embedded with its holiness. The eighth day is the earliest time to circumcise (safely, I assume), placing the sanctity of circumcision in each Jewish baby for as much of his life as possible (as well as the baby feeling it less, he says).

His sixth advantage emphasizes the obedience of the act, with no obvious human benefit [although he has himself said it fosters a sense of fellowship among all Jews, he likely means no other people has chosen such an extreme path to unity. Also, if he is right, any attempts to show an ordinary physical benefit—such as protection from disease—miss this very point, the greatness of circumcision lies partially in its not having an ordinary human side, to serve as an act of complete obedience to Hashem].

He relates the idea to another statement in Nedarim, without milah, Hashem would not have created heaven and earth. Human beings’ submission to Hashem justifies creation, and milah offers a good example. This one early mitzvah lays the groundwork for a life of observance, starting the baby off with an example of proper obedience.

Answering Critics

R. Arama closes his list of values of circumcision with a programmatic statement which I think also shows the topic was more than theoretical. He says his exposition answers “those who bring up to us the intent of those Sages with their statements.” He’s had people complain about this passage in Nedarim before in other words.

He adds, “since it is a correct and worthy view, it is worthwhile for us to attach it to them, all the more so when it is believable they intended this.” He sounds like he’s making a radical statement, he would have said the rabbis in Nedarim were advancing a good idea he had regardless of whether they did. In this instance, he has the good fortune of thinking they did mean it, but that’s not crucial.

To me, it raises all sorts of questions about truth and interpretation; to R. Arama, it’s a throwaway line we have to leave for another time.

On Beyond Understanding

Circumcision was a good next stop in Avraham’s slow move to perfection because it took him a step further from complete reliance on human understanding. Until Hashem taught him the limitations of astrology (in a previous sha’ar, where Avraham thought himself doomed to childlessness), Avraham spent close to a hundred years taking his winding path to Hashem, not yet realizing people would never figure out some aspects of Hashem [and, therefore, of the world] on their own.

Milah takes him one more step (and the ‘Akedah a final step, a complete negation of what human instinct would have a person do, says R. Arama. It hints at another reason he might have named the book ‘Akedat Yitzchak, his desire to show his audience the necessity/ importance of surrendering our absolute reliance on our intellects). People do not come up with the idea of cutting off a foreskin on their own.

[Or of sacrificing their children, I think he means. Unfortunately for the theory, some people do arrive at such practices, as R. Arama himself should have known from Molech worship. Regardless of how he would answer, his overall point slides smoothly into any contemporary religious discussion, when many people still insist on following only claims they understand themselves. He is saying Hashem gave Avraham nonintuitive commands precisely to teach him the humility of the distance between us and Hashem.]

It goes hand in hand with a belief in creation ex nihilo. Having created the world from absolute nothingness. Hashem makes all the rules of the universe, including deciding the value of its parts and actions, and rewards those who obey Hashem wholly, submissively, knowing their limitations of understanding. To him, it’s why Hashem uses the name Kel Shakkai here. Shakkai is traditionally read along the lines of Iyov 37;23, Shakkai lo metzanuhu sagi koach, Hashem, Whose ways we have not fully comprehended, is full of power. The power to change Nature, to bring compassion on those who need it (such as in Bereshit 43;14, where Ya’akov invokes Kel Shakkai when wishing his sons well as they leave to confront Yosef again, in the hopes of restoring Shimon to the family).

It’s the Name by which Hashem appeared to the Patriarchs, Hashem later tells Moshe (Shemot 6;3), an idea Ramban took to mean Hashem had only intervened in hidden or natural-seeming ways (called nisim nistarim, hidden miracles).

The Wholeness of Foregoing Intellect

Hashem tells Avraham to be tamim as he undergoes milah, a word I have been translating as whole, complete, or perfect. R. Arama picks up on another connotation, simple (like the tam of Seder night). Relinquishing intellectual control will yield the greater advantages of prophecy, of being able to stand in the Divine Presence.

Previously, Avraham always fell on his face when Hashem appeared, unable to bear the Presence in his uncircumcised state. Circumcision also brings a name change to distance him from his uncircumcised self, to earn him the promise of a multitude of descendants, to reaffirm the earlier Berit ben Ha-Betarim.

R. Arama reminds us of the technical prohibition against calling Avraham by his original name, per R. Eliezer in Berachot 13a, whereas the Torah itself occasionally calls the third of the Avot Ya’akov even after Hashem changed his name to Yisrael.  Both those names were Jewish ones, the higher level of the second name not negating the person of the first one; Avraham’s original name was to be abandoned, a past to leave behind forever.

Running Out of Room

There’s a bit more, which I cannot cover briefly enough to fit here, nor does it make points I find indispensable. For a few interesting points, he thinks Avraham disbelieved the news about Yitzchak the same as Sarah (other commentators differentiated the two laughters, to make Avraham’s less problematic than hers).

Hashem let it slide here because it was otherwise a day of great celebration, the day Avraham had received and accepted the obligation of milah, equivalent to all the mitzvot. Hashem chose not to mar it with a deserved rebuke (a reminder of the complicated calculus of how and when to react to wrongs).

The idea of Hashem sometimes ignoring a wrong is familiar to many of us from Vayikra Rabbah 20 (quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah), which said the same about the nobles of the Jewish people. They misbehaved in the Divine Presence (Shemot 24;11), and Hashem did not react, to avoid bringing sadness on the day of the Giving of the Torah. Hashem delayed it instead, knowing Sarah would react the same way (because the two were a true pair), and Hashem could then admonish them both (only her explicitly, though, a difference R. Arama does not address; in the nineteenth sha’ar, he is also going to claim the whole incident with the angels was a prophetic vision, which means Sarah, the physical human being, never reacted with laughter, it was all a way of Hashem making a point to Avraham ).

The Final Step of Creation

The last point I feel the need to share is his claim berit milah was the final step in the creation of the world. We had the seven days of Creation, then Hashem’s covenant with Noach guaranteed the world’s physical survival, foreswore any world-ending cataclysm (he takes the promise of no flood to mean a promise to refrain from any way of wiping out the whole world).

Now, with milah, Hashem has shown human beings the way to their fullest physical form, which fosters and supports spiritual development, enhances their ability to interact with Hashem, have prophecy, and see their way forward. It does not guarantee they will not sin, he concedes, but it is the final physical step. The rest is up to us.

The many rabbis in Nedarim who praised circumcision were telling us the giant leap for mankind it gave, the physical imprint in Avraham and all his descendants, reading them for the higher existence they could not achieve by their intellects alone. One of them being prophecy, R. Arama’s topic in the next sha’ar.

About Gidon Rothstein

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