Submitting to a Higher Ideal

Vayera By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 30, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

Circumcision is the oldest of Jewish rituals and still going strong. In his 90th year Abraham was instructed by God to “circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days (Gen. 17:11-12).” Accordingly, when Isaac was born ten years later, Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day (Gen. 21:4).

The rite has not been without its detractors or dangers. In the Maccabean era, Jews eager to make it in the Hellenistic world tried to have the operation reversed. The Romans regarded circumcision as a form of castration, which they found abhorrent, and denied Jews the right to circumcise converts, thereby restricting Jewish efforts to proselytize. Among the Conversos in Spain and Portugal ferreted out by the inquisition for preserving fragments of Judaism in secret were many who dared to circumcise their sons or themselves as adults. And in our day the Nazis checked for circumcision to identify Jews, a nightmare chillingly evoked by the recent French film Europa, Europa.

Sadly, in the nineteenth century many educated Jews came to agree with the critics of Judaism that circumcision was a primitive and debilitating rite that marked Judaism as unworthy of admission into enlightened society. In protest they refused to subject their children to it and gave rise to a heated debate whether uncircumcised Jews are in fact Jews, an interesting analogue to our own debate over who is a Jew. Despite the widespread revulsion, Reform Judaism never proposed discarding the rite. Though not a sacrament that made one Jewish, it was too central to Jewish consciousness and too hallowed by Jewish blood to be eliminated. On the contrary, in America, at least, Jews have persuaded much of gentile society to adopt circumcision for prophylactic reasons.

The biblical injunction to circumcise every male child surprisingly extended beyond one’s natural offspring to “His homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they (too) must be circumcised, homeborn and purchased alike (Gen. 17:12-13).” The law bespeaks a domestic economy that rested on slave labor and a household ideal that frowned on the presence of non-Israelites. Hence, gentile slaves were to be converted, even without conviction. Later Jewish law preserved the requirement; slave owners were given twelve months to circumcise their slaves or set them free, unless the slave’s previous owner had specifically stipulated that the slave was not to be converted. In other words, at a time when Jews still played a prominent role in the international slave trade, as they apparently did in the early Middle Ages, bringing pagan slaves out of eastern Europe to the Muslim Caliphate and Christian west, Jewish law accepted conversion to Judaism for ulterior motives.

The relevance of this halakhic precedent to the problem of intermarriage in our own day is striking. To my mind it makes a mockery of the extreme argument by many Orthodox leaders that conversion to Judaism is halakhicly admissible only when inspired by faith and a readiness to comply to the totality of Jewish law. The insistence on converting slaves to protect the formal unity of the Jewish household suggests otherwise. In this instance Jewish law exhibited a remarkable degree of flexibility to accommodate economic reality.

The gravity of the American Jewish predicament calls for nothing less. Ulterior motives do not halakhicly disqualify the desire to convert. Where possible, the formal unity of the Jewish home should be preserved by a conversion that will admit the non-Jewish spouse to the possibility of an ever deepening experience of the power and beauty of Judaism. If done with patience and sensitivity, a rite of passage that begins as a formality may well end up as a matter of faith.

For Abraham and his descendants, circumcision became the sign of the covenant between God and Israel. But to what does it point? The rite itself was not new. The Egyptians and many other nations of the ancient Near East practiced it, probably at puberty. The Torah adopted it, but shifted it to just after birth.

Circumcision is a statement about the incompleteness, indeed, the imperfection, of God’s creation. Humanity had already once before driven God to destroy what had been wrought in a fit of exasperation. But not again. This time God chooses the pedagogic road, a nation of teachers and exemplars. The commandment to circumcise follows immediately after the blessing of Hagar that her son Ishmael “shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him (Gen. 16:22).”

The offspring of Isaac, to my mind, are to offer a more noble and god-like alternative with passions in harness. In the state of nature, man is a creature of excess passions. Circumcision is an act of submission to a higher ideal than mere survival, an act of self-discipline and instinct renunciation. At birth we enter a partnership whose ultimate goal is to circumcise the heart. Only then will the process of creation be complete. No wonder the ceremony of circumcision has prevailed; it signifies the very essence of Judaism.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va’yera are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.