The Cutting Edge

June 24, 2009

14 min read


Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )

On the eighth day you shall circumcise the foreskin. (Leviticus 12:3)

Until very recently the practice of circumcision was faithfully carried out by all Jewish people, regardless of their general level of commitment to the observance of the remaining commandments. But in the last few decades even this sacrosanct Jewish custom, which began with the circumcision of the very first Jew, Abraham, has come under attack as being nothing more than a barbaric ritual.

What possible spiritual significance can there be in the removal of a fold of skin from the human body?


"There is nothing new under the sun," said King Solomon. And it turns out that the practice of circumcision has already been subjected to attack in ancient times on very similar grounds.

Turnusruphus - the Roman governor who ruled Judea shortly after the destruction of the second Temple and who executed Rabbi Akiva, one of the Ten Martyrs - asked Rabbi Akiva, "Whose actions have greater beauty, God's or man's?"

Rabbi Akiva answered, "Human actions are more beautiful and complete." Turnusruphus responded, "Regarding the heavens and the earth, can any human accomplishment conceivably match them?" Rabbi Akiva responded, "You cannot point to phenomena that are beyond human capacity, I was referring to matters that lie within the human province."

Turnusruphus then asked, "Why do you Jews circumcise yourselves?" Rabbi Akiva told him, "I understood immediately that this question was the one you were really asking, and I therefore preempted you by stating that the actions of human beings are more complete than the actions of God. Bring me sheaves of wheat and baked rolls ... [when they were duly brought, Rabbi Akiva pointed out] these are the produce of God and these are the products of human beings, and yet aren't the rolls more complete? Bring me stalks of flax and linen fabric produced in Beth Shan ... [when these were duly brought, Rabbi Akiva pointed to them once again] this is God's produce and this is produced by human industry, and yet isn't the linen cloth more beautiful and perfect?"

Then Turnusruphus asked, "If God prefers circumcised human beings, why don't they emerge from their mother's womb already circumcised?" Rabbi Akiva then asked, "Why does the umbilical cord emerge with the baby so that it needs to be cut by the mother? As to why God did not create the human being circumcised, God gave the commandments to the Jews so that they could perfect themselves through their observance ... (Tanchuma, Tazria 7)

Rabbi Akiva's point could surely have been stated a lot more simply without the illustration of the sheaves of wheat or the stalks of flax. If these were convincing in themselves, why didn't Turnusruphus concede the point? Indeed, why didn't God create the universe so that it could grow rolls and rolled flax cloth? What is this discussion really about?

It is important to keep in mind that this discussion is taking place between:

  1. Turnusruphus on the one hand, who speaks as the representative of the conquering Roman culture that embraced the ancient world, and stands for the forces of progress and modern civilization of those times, and
  2. Rabbi Akiva, the representative par excellence of Rabbinic Orthodox Judaism which is always regarded as the very antithesis of "progressive" ideas.

And that the point under discussion is fundamental to the very idea of all commandments.


From a superficial perspective, commandments are a mixed bag. Some of them are clearly character enhancing, such as those that deal with loving one's neighbor or honoring one's parents. Others are aimed at fostering correct ideology such as those whose purpose is to commemorate the events of the Exodus or the Sabbath whose observance is a constant reminder that God is the author of creation.

Still others are related to ritual observance such as the laws of purity and those involving Temple sacrifices, aimed at making the service of God central to one's life. There are clearly other laws that are directed at the maintenance of family purity and act as a barrier against the possible descent into licentious behavior.

Circumcision is one of the few commandments that cannot be conveniently pigeon-holed.

Circumcision is one of the few that cannot be conveniently pigeon-holed. To circumcise a child on the eighth day of its life seems to serve no spiritual purpose. At that age anything that happens to the child is obviously not only involuntary, but pretty near unconscious. It is difficult to see how such an experience could affect the human character. As a lasting brand that serves to identify the one circumcised as being God's servant, it has the disadvantage of being impressed on a body part that is always concealed. It seems to have no other purpose than the correction of some built in physical blemish.

That precisely was Turnusruphus' problem with it. Why would God create man with a physical blemish that must be repaired when affecting such a repair seems to serve no real purpose? This then is the underlying significance of the question.

Rabbi Akiva's thesis amounts to a statement that God created man deliberately defective but repair worthy, and left man to apply the finishing touches to himself.


The Maharal traces the roots of this idea to the very name Adam - which means "earth" - that the Torah assigns to the first man. The Torah provides the rationale that as man was created out of dust, it is only fitting that he should be named after the earth from which he was taken, but in fact this concept could just as well be applied to any other living creature. According to the Genesis story, they were all fashioned by God out of the primeval dust.

The Maharal explains that the true background to man's name is the fact that he needs to labor in order to bring forth his hidden potential. Out of all life forms he was the only one created by God in a state of imperfection. Other life forms are named b'hema, meaning "what it is, is already inside," or chaya, meaning simply "life form." They may derive from the earth but their natures do not resemble it.

However man is precisely like the soil. The soil will produce nothing without intensive labor, but careful husbandry can elicit a positive cornucopia of vegetation that sustains all other life. Similarly man is capable of great things despite his innate defects.


What is the nature of these inherent defects that the need for circumcision symbolizes?

Rami Bar Aba said: "[According to Jewish tradition, a human male has 248 parts to his bone structure, corresponding to the 248 positive commandments of the Torah.] Abraham was first known as Abram, which adds up to 243, signifying the number of limbs that God placed under man's control when he created him. The addition of the Hebrew letter heh [with the numerical value of 5) involved in the name change from Abram to Abraham, raises this number to 248. The five additional limbs represent the assertion of human control over the two ears, the two eyes, and the part of the body involved in intercourse. [The name change and this additional control were brought about by circumcision.]" (Nedarim 32b)

Man has two aspects. On the one hand he is a creature of the nether world the same as all species. He may possess greater intelligence, but he has the same drives and the same life force as other living creatures. On the other hand man is also the link between this world and the higher world of the spirit. When God wants to provide an input into the physical world it always comes through the soul of human beings. Even the miracles of Egypt and the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai required Moses to act as God's intermediary.

The eyes and ears are normally only passive recipients of the information that is already to be found in nature.

This added dimension of human beings, their ability to see beyond the physical and to hear the message of the Infinite, requires a special control over the eyes and ears that is not innately programmed into man. The eyes and ears are normally only passive recipients of the information that is already to be found in nature. Man hears and sees only what other lower life forms hear and see. His capacity to interpret is greater, but he only has access to the same information.

To be able to see and hear beyond nature, man must somehow teach his eyes and ears to be more than passive recipients. He must be able to use these organs of perception to access information from the world of spirituality, take the information thus obtained and make it part of the natural world. In the process, he transforms his world into a place where the spirit of God can safely reside.


New intelligence is brought to the world by new life, which arrives through the process of human reproduction. As long as man's eyes and ears are attuned only to this world, there can be no new intelligence that is not already a part of nature. As long as his eyes and ears are ordinary eyes and ears and he is not himself open to seeing and hearing the Divine message that comes from beyond, the new life that man brings into the world will also amount to nothing more than a recycling of the information that is already there.

In Jewish thought God is seen as running the world by making use of primarily two Divine traits: Divine strength and Divine goodness. When the world is run by the attribute of strength, the Divine energy that flows into it is only sufficient to maintain what is already in existence; it does not allow expansion and growth. Such periods are marked in the world by eras of economic depression and war. The lack of expansion of world resources causes severe competition over what already exists, leading to inflation, depression and war.

In periods where the Divine attribute of goodness predominates, there is overabundance in the world. These eras are marked by peace and prosperity. The Divine energy flows through the human soul. If the human soul is open to the beyond, man's eyes and ears are attuned to God, the life force he brings into the world through the new life that he creates will be a source of expansion and new energy.

Not that Abraham was the first human being to speak to God. But even speaking with God has no effect on removing the inherent defects built into man. Until these defects are removed and completeness is reached, the world doesn't progress. Abraham was the first to reach human completeness, and thus the first to be circumcised.

Rebi said: "Great is the merit of circumcision. Despite all the great acts of devotion performed by our Patriarch Abraham, he was not referred to as complete until he became circumcised, as it is written ... walk before me and be complete (Genesis 17:1)."

Another way of expressing the idea: great is the merit of circumcision. If not for circumcision God would not have created his world, as is written, if not for my covenant, which is present constantly by day and by night, [taken as a reference to circumcision, the only commandment whose performance is constant for the rest of one's life] I would never have established the laws of heaven and earth. (Jeremiah 33) (Mishna, Nedarim 3:11)


The point of being in the world is only to provide the possibility of man's opening himself to perfection. As long as the eyes and ears of man are closed to what is beyond physical existence, as long as he pours out his entire life force into the maintenance and enhancement of the physical world, he is on the very outer rim or shell of existence. Such a state is referred to in Jewish thought as the klipa, literally "shell" or "peel." Any goodness of God that would be poured into a world set up by people who have not gained control over their eyes and ears, would be energy expended on the enhancement of the peel.

The peel exists only to shelter the core that is inside. God wants to pour His goodness into the core. The peel must be cut away to start the flow of goodness. The shearing of the foreskin represents the separation of the nourishing "fruit" from the surrounding human "peel" represented by living for physicality and pursuing it.


The main topic addressed by this week's Torah portion is the subject of tzaraat, a disease of the skin that has no clear English translation. It seems to be a type of spiritual leprosy. Its appearance according to Jewish tradition is caused by lashon hara, or evil speech, and its cure is offering of spiritual penance and sacrifice. It infects the human skin, or clothing, or the walls of an inhabited house - the interface between man's inner and outer world.

Lashon hara aims at separation and judgment.

The Sefer Yetzirah, the "Book of Formation," one of the oldest works in the Jewish library, makes a connection between the bris hamoar, classic circumcision, and the brit halashon, the circumcision of the tongue. The place of circumcision is the medium through which man pours his physical life force into the universe, while the tongue is the medium through which man pours his thoughts and ideas into the world.

Lashon hara aims at separation and judgment. The eyes and ears are directed at finding fault and weakness and the tongue is employed to expose the defects discovered by the intelligence.

Man's intelligence is the power of goodness that he has to shower on the world. The focus of his power on the negative corresponds to God's regarding the world from the standpoint of strength rather than goodness. It represents a focus on the surface (the shell) rather than on the depth (the fruit).

The outward appearance of this misapplied human power manifests itself in the physical appearance of defects on the interface between man's inner and outer world, the peel of his existence. His skin or his clothing or the walls of his house become diseased.


The life force in man is focused in three places, his intelligence, his organs of reproduction, and his heart. Two of these he has the obligation to circumcise. On the eighth day his parents circumcise his organ of reproduction. It is up to them to turn their child into a channel for God's goodness to enter the world through proper training and education. If they do their job well, parents can correct this defect.

It is up to the individual himself to circumcise his tongue, to employ his adult intelligence to open his eyes and ears to the positive in other people and in the world.

The circumcision of the heart is more complex and awaits the end of days.

The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut. 30:6)

This ultimate circumcision has the affect of removing the evil inclination entirely and shuts down the present era of human history by bringing free will to an end.

The commandment of circumcision – brit in Hebrew – has the numerical value of 612, which is just one short of the number 613 the number of commandments in the Torah. The word brit also means "covenant," and derives from the word briah meaning "creation" according to Nachmanides.

The point of the other 612 commandments is only made apparent through the final commandment of circumcision. The object of human existence and the observance of commandments in general is the removal of the human defect of living in the klipa, the peel of existence, and perfecting man by teaching him how to live in the core. Such a life is the point of creation and only it can release God's goodness.

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