I recently read a fascinating set of essays by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the subject of circumcision that is mentioned as a commandment in this week's portion of Tazria. Rabbi Sacks examines in this set of essays the question of why was circumcision of all possible symbols the one selected by God as the symbol of a covenant between God and his people?
While I’m not going to rewrite all of Rabbi Sack’s essays here, I wanted to bring some of the amazing insights that he highlights in these essays. If you wish to read the complete set of essays, they can be found in his book; Covenant and Conversation - Leviticus, starting from page 165.
Right at the beginning of Parshat Tazria we have the command that is the distinguishing mark of Jewish identity - at least for males:
“On the eighth day, the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Lev. 12:3)
It is important to mention that the commandment to circumcise all male children at eight days had already been given to Abraham in Genesis chapter 17. In that chapter God outlines his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. He finishes the verses with the following commandment:
“Every male among you shall be circumcised….For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.”
As to why this commandment is repeated in Parashat Tazria, Maimonides gives the following explanation; Although Abraham was given the command of circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with him, the covenant that God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai superseded all previous commands. Therefore the fact that we perform circumcision today is not because of the command to Abraham, it is because it was repeated at Sinai. The command is historically linked to Abraham but legislatively linked with the revelation to Moses.
There is nothing else that compares to brit milah - circumcision as a unique sign of Jewish identity - it is a permanent mark of difference that is imprinted on the flesh. The question though is why did circumcision become the sign of the covenant and the symbol of Jewish Identity?
There have been many commentators who have explained this question in many ways. The Torah itself gives no explicit statement as to why circumcision was chosen as the method to identify Jews as being different.
In order to find the answer to this question we need to look at the wider context of the Torah as a whole. What is it that Abraham brings to the world that was not there before? what is it that differentiates the patriarchs?
Genesis is the book of beginnings, it tells us about God’s disappointment with human beings. Having given them free will, they abuse this gift by turning towards violence and murder until the world is “filled with violence”.
God brings a flood and starts again with Noah and his family. God gives Noah several basic commandments, chief among them is the prohibition against murder. For the first time humans are allowed to kill animals for food as long as they don’t do so with excess cruelty. Many commentators to the Torah have commented that God allowed humans to kill animals in order to reduce their evil desire to kill each other - it is better that they kill animals than kill each other.
Once again humanity disappoints in trying to blur the boundaries between earth and heaven by building the Tower of Babel. God devices humanity into many languages and cultures and spreads them across the world. He then starts again with Abraham. But what was special about Abraham? Abraham had no defined religion, he didn’t convert anyone to believe in One God, he didn’t denounce idol worshipers, so what was unique about Abraham?
The book of Genesis gives us one clue to this question: Whenever the family of Abraham and his descendants enter another society or group, they find themselves in danger - this danger is always rooted in an absence of sexual ethics. There are six such episodes.
Twice Abraham and Sarah are forced to relocate because of famine; Once to Egypt and once to Gerar. Isaac and Rebecca are also forced to relocate to Gerar because of famine. On all three occasions the men fear for their lives and fear that the women will be taken in to the royal harem. On all three occasions, Abraham and Isaac are forced to pass off their wives as their sisters, something that they would only do if they had a very real fear for their lives.
The fourth episode takes place when the two visitors come to Lot in Sodom. The local population surround Lot’s house and demand that he brings the strangers out so that they can have sex with them - this was intended homosexual rape.
The fifth episode involved Dinah when she “went out to visit the women of the land”. She was abducted and raped by the local prince, Shekhem.
The sixth occurs when Joseph is left alone with his master Potophar’s wife. She attempts to seduce him and when she fails she levels false accusations of rape against Joseph.
So, we have six episodes, five of which there is actual or potential violence and the sixth where there is a miscarriage of justice - all are about sexual desire. What makes the patriarchs and the matriarchs of Genesis so different from their neighbors is less about religious beliefs and more about sexual ethics. Why is this so significant?
The answer lies in violence, not sexuality itself. Judaism is not critical of the sexual urge. It did not intend to give a sexual reading of the sin of Adam and Eve. There is nothing puritanical or ascetic about Judaism’s approach to sexual desire.
What is it that leads humans to murder - the answer could be sexual desire.
In primate societies, alpha males, those who are the strongest, have the greatest freedom of choice of mates. It is sexual desire that causes them to seek dominance, and this in turn leads them to acts of violence against other males in their group.
William Tucker in his book; Marriage and Civilization: How monogamy made us human, sums up his argument in these words:
In almost all species, males spend most of their time fighting amongst themselves for access to females. The unique social contract of monogamy - a male for every female, a female for every male - lowers the temperature of sexual competition and frees its members to work together in co-operation. It is at this junction that human societies - even human civilizations - are born.
The Torah suggests that in the earliest (hunter-gatherer) societies, pair bonding was the norm. In Genesis 2:24 it states: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
However with the development of agriculture, cities, economic surplus and excess wealth some humans became richer and more powerful than others. We then find a regression to more primitive, even prehuman, forms of behavior. Kings, rulers and Pharaohs - human alpha males - could command an almost open-ended gratification of sexual desire.Polygamy became possible. Harems made their appearance. Well into medieval Europe, the phenomenon of a feudal overlord having the right to deflower a bride on her wedding night persisted.
The Torah describes this phenomenon as follows:
Man began to increase on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them. The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. The Lord said, “My spirit will not continue to judge man forever, since he is nothing but flesh. His days shall be 120 years.” The titans were on the earth in those days and also later. The sons of God had come to the daughters of man and had fathered them. [The titans] were the mighty ones of old men of renown. The Lord saw that man's wickedness on earth was increasing. Every impulse of his innermost thought was only for evil, all day long. God regretted that He had made man on earth, and He was pained to His very core. (Gen. 6:1 - 6)
Who were the “sons of God” and the titans (nefilim)? Most commentators translate the first phrase as “sons of rulers, judges.” They were people in positions of power. Daughters of man is understood to mean, girls or women of the lower classes, serfs, commoners or slaves. The word “Titans” is as graphic a word as we could possibly use to describe alpha males. In short, the Torah is telling us what we know from other sources, that in the evolution from hunter-gatherer to settled populations and the growth of civilization, there was a break-down in sexual ethics.
According to the Torah, this was a prelude to the statement:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. (Gen. 9: 11)
The central message of Genesis is that the unfettered play of Darwinian forces and alpha males leads to a society marked by widespread violence. Such behavior privileges some people against others. It turns women into instruments of male desire. It places power, not love at the heart of human relationships. It treats women as objects instead of as subjects with equal dignity and integrity. It divorces sex from compassion and concern. It dishonors the most intimate human bond, the one in which we are most like God Himself: the love that brings new life into the world.
Above all, it leads to violence and the Torah regards violence as the cause of the flood. It is the single greatest threat to humanity. Murder is not merely a crime, it is a sin since humans were created in the image of God, to kill one is therefore sacrilege.
For this reason, circumcision is the mark of the covenant. Where females place a premium on fidelity, males do so on adultery and promiscuity - it therefore becomes obvious why this should be a constraint of male rather than female desire. For it is males who overwhelmingly throughout history have committed crimes of violence. Eighty seven percent of murders are committed by men. And the primary driver of violence is sexual desire.
The birt milah comes to counteract the drivers to which the human male is prone, which are socially dysfunctional and often dangerous. Violence and sexual desire being the first. The second is a male's tendency to promiscuity, adultery, multiple and serial relationships and relative lack of male interest in continuing responsibilities of parenthood.
Covenant is about faithfulness in human relations, especially in the bond between a male and a female. That bond must be consecrated. It should be exclusive. Though the Torah does not legislate monogamy, it is clearly implied in Genesis 2 and also in the tensions between Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Rachel.
According to Sigmund Freud, civilization depended on the ability to defer instinctual gratification. This is the key to understanding brit milah. It is the consecration of sexual desire. Juduasm takes a balanced view of the human personality. Our instincts are not evil in themselves. The religious life is not a matter of self-denial and renunciation. But neither is it the inverse - the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. Instinct has its darker side which culminates in violence. The good life involves education of the passions and the acquisition of habits of self-restraint. The holy life involves the sanctification of instinct. Only in this way can we create a gracious society in which love, not power, rules the affairs of humankind.