Abraham as the Great (Un)Circumciser
Judaism has a long tradition of linking the practice of circumcision with Abraham the patriarch. Indeed, the ancient liturgy recited at a Jewish circumcision ceremony climaxes with the blessing of the mohel, the circumciser, who recites, “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham, our forefather.” Abraham’s role as witness to every infant boy’s entrance into the covenantal community seems natural; after all, he is the first individual mentioned in the Bible to have circumcised himself (Gen. 17:24), and does so as a sign of his unconditional commitment to God.
In a rather shocking maneuver, however, Genesis Rabbah (“Vayera” 45:8), compiled in the fifth-sixth cent.) derails this image of Abraham: In one midrashic passage, Abraham appears as an uncircumciser. It reads,
אמר ר’ לוי: “לעתיד לבוא אברהם יושב על פתח גיהינם ואינו מניח אדם מהול מישראל לירד בתוכה, ואותם שחטאו יותר מדיי מהו עושה להם, מעביר את הערלה מעל גבי תינוקות שמתו עד שלא מלו ונותנה עליהם ומורידם לגיהינם, הה”ד: ‘שלח ידיו בשלומיו חלל בריתו’ (תהלים נה כא).”
Said R Levi, ‘In the age to come Abraham will sit at the gate of Gehenna [hell], and he will not permit a circumcised Israelite to go down there. Then what will he do for those who sinned too much? He will remove the foreskin from infants who died before they were circumcised and will place it over [Israelite sinners] and then lower them into Gehenna.
According to this passage, Abraham keeps vigil over the entrance to hell in order to prevent “real Jews,” that is, circumcised Jews, from entering hell.
This midrash seems closely related to a passage in the Talmud (b. Eruvin 19a). In this passage, the Talmud challenges Resh Lakish’s assertion that Jews never go to Gehenna by referencing a midrashic understanding of Psalms 84:7, which seems to imply that some Jews do go to Gehenna. The Talmud answers the contradiction with the following explanation:
…ההוא דמחייבי ההיא שעתא בגיהנם, ואתי אברהם אבינו ומסיק להו ומקבל להו, בר מישראל שבא על הגויה דמשכה ערלתו ולא מבשקר ליה
…[The wicked Jews] are at that time under sentence to suffer in Gehenna, but our father Abraham comes, brings them up, and receives them, except such an Israelite as had immoral intercourse with the daughter of an idolater, since his foreskin is drawn and so he cannot be discovered (Sonc. Trans.).
According to this answer, the reason Jews—Jewish men at any rate—don’t go to Gehenna is because Abraham goes down to Gehenna periodically and removes them. However, Jews who try and become gentiles and sleep with gentile women are their own worst enemies. Since these men remove all signs of their Jewishness by uncircumcising themselves (a process called epispasm), father Abraham doesn’t know they are Jewish and, therefore, ends up leaving them to their fate.
Although related in content, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah is more extreme. Abraham does not just accidentally leave certain sinners to their fates, but he himself actively removes the marker of their Jewish identity, thereby essentially expelling them from the covenantal community and condemning them to Gehenna. Abraham achieves this removal by taking the foreskin of uncircumcised infant boys and grafting them onto these Jews, thereby killing two birds with one stone: all those who Abraham refuses to save are no longer circumcised, and the infant boys now are circumcised.
To me, this depiction of our great forefather in zealous, and almost violent, terms, is one of the most astonishing images in midrashic literature. In midrash, Abraham is more typically considered the great missionary, who could reach across the aisle and gently bring gentiles into the loving folds of Jewish faith. In the Bible, he is concerned for all humankind, beseeching God to save the sinful people of Sodom. Here, however, Abraham forcibly throws Jews out of the covenantal community.
We do not know the origin of this midrash and the historical context in which it was written. Yet various ancient sources note traditions where Jews did uncircumcize themselves. This practice is known as epispasm, and is attested to in both Jewish and non-Jewish ancient sources. The first chapter of 1 Maccabees, a Jewish book that became part of the Catholic cannon, notes:
11 In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” 12 This proposal pleased them, 13 and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. 14 So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, 15 and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (NRSV)
As late as the fourth century, the Christian historian Epiphanus mentions epispasm. Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:18 tells converted Christians not to “remove the marks of circumcision” (NRSV). It is possible, although far from certain, that this midrash in Genesis Rabbah is rebutting those Jews who are separating themselves from the Jewish community by uncircumcising. To those Jews, perhaps the midrash says, they needn’t bother uncircumcising: Abraham will do it for them.
Abraham as Protector of Pious Jews or Pious Christians?
In the midrash from Genesis Rabbah, Abraham acts as the advocate and protector of righteous Jews, whereas he has no pity whatsoever for sinners, who are thrown out of the covenant. A parallel but reverse depiction of Abraham occurs in Luke, a gospel directed primarily at gentile converts to Christianity, in which he has no mercy for a rich sinful Jew who is tortured in hell, who in his lifetime did not help a poor man named Lazarus. According to Luke 16:24-31,
[The rich man said], “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue…” but Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony…those of us who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” [The rich man said,] “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house…that he may warn them…” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” (NRSV)
In this passage, Abraham also plays a role as protector of the righteous and the downtrodden, but in this story, circumcision plays no role in differentiating between righteous and unrighteous. There is no clear distinction between Jew and non-Jew; In Luke, Abraham seems to care primarily about charitable behavior and faith.
Whether or not Genesis Rabbah knows the story of Luke 16, it is clear that the author of this midrash does not place good works at the core of one’s religious identity, as it is in Luke, but circumcision. If you are not circumcised, the author implies, you are not a real Jew. This would have been read by Jewish Christians, those many Jews who remained observant but believed in the messianic role of Jesus, and who were being encouraged by Christian leaders to stop circumcising, as a clear demand: You’re either in or you’re out. It’s either Jew or non-Jew, it’s either heaven or hell.
It may be impossible to ascertain the exact historical context of this midrash, but the dichotomy that it presents between those circumcised and uncircumcised is clear. What’s more, Abraham may have been placed in a more fanatical, exclusionary role in this midrash as a response to early Christian appropriations of the figure of Abraham.
The ancient controversy regarding which religion had legitimate claim to Abraham and the midrash about Abraham sitting at the gate of Gehenna [hell] un-circumcising sinful Jews, helps us to understand the final blessing that is made at a brit milah ceremony:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified the beloved one from the womb, set His statute in his flesh, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy Covenant. Therefore, as a reward of this (circumcision), the living God, our Portion, our Rock, has ordained that the beloved of our flesh be saved from the abyss, for the sake of the Covenant which He has set in our flesh. Blessed are You Lord, who makes the Covenant.
Our father Abraham is there to save us, but only if we observe his covenant. Sinners who undo their covenant will be overlooked, and sinners who anger the Patriarch will be returned to their state of uncircumcision. In this sense, the brit quite literally cuts both ways.
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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