Circumcision: Interpreting the Foreskin as a Defect
Genesis 17 describes the importance of circumcision as a sign of the covenant:
בראשית יז:יא וּנְמַלְתֶּם אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם.
Gen 17:11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
Beyond that, the biblical cupboard is bare of information about its symbolism, how or why it functions as a covenant sign, and what is problematic about the foreskin. Later Jewish texts fill in this vacuum with a range of interpretations, one of which is to see the foreskin as a physical defect or disability, with circumcision a rite with curative powers.
Abraham: Walk Before Me and Be תמים
Genesis 17 opens with God commanding Abraham,
הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים
Walk before me and be תָּמִים.
In context, תמים is typically understood as denoting Abraham’s moral standing and alignment with God and the divine will, consistent with the description of Noah in Gen 6:9,
נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ.
Noah was a righteous man, he was תָּמִים in his generation, Noah walked with God.
The relationship in ch. 17 between God’s statement to Abraham that he should be תמים (v. 1) and the practice of circumcision (vv. 10-14) is far from clear. That said, the Rabbis forge an integral interpretive link between them, arguing that if God tells Abraham to be constantly תמים, and then charges him to circumcise himself and any male dependents, then it must be the circumcision that renders a man תמים.
By associative principle, if circumcision makes one תמים by removing the foreskin, the foreskin is by definition a מום, a defect that compromises the physical integrity of a male and calls for correction to make the man whole.
In a number of passages in Genesis Rabbah, illustrate the Rabbis’ logic:
Mustard seed analogy (Genesis Rabbah 11:6)
פילוסופוס אחד שאל את ר’ הושעיה אמר לו אם חביבה המילה מפני מה לא ניתנה לאדם הראשון, אמר לו… אלא כל מה שנברא בששת ימי בראשית צריכין עשייה כגון החרדל צריך למתק התורמוס צריך למתק החטים צריכים להיטחן, אפילו אדם צריך תיקון.
A philosopher asked Rabbi Hoshayah “If circumcision is so valued, why wasn’t it given to the first man?” [i.e., why wasn’t Adam born circumcised] He said to him: … “Anything created on the first six days of creation needs some work. Mustard seeds need sweetening; lupine needs sweetening; grain needs to be ground. Even humans require correcting.”
Fig stalk analogy (Genesis Rabbah 46:1)
אמר ר’ יודן מה תאינה זו אין לה פסולת אלא עוקצה בלבד העבר אותה ובטל המום, כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם אין בך פסולת אלא ערלה הזו העבר אותה ובטל המום התהלך לפני והיה תמים.
Rabbi Yudan said: “Just as this fig’s only flaw (פסולת) is its stalk, remove it and eliminate the defect (בטל המום). Thus, the Holy Blessed One said to Abraham, ‘You have no flaw except your foreskin, remove it and eliminate the defect. Walk before me and be תָמִֽים’”
Finger nail analogy (Genesis Rabbah 46:4)
אמר ר’ לוי למטרונה שאמר לה המלך עברי לפני ועברה לפניו ונתכרכמו פניה, אמרה אם תאמר שנימצא בי פסולת, אמר לה המלך אין בך פסולת אלא ציפורן אצבע קטנה שלך גדולה קימעה, העבירי אותו ובטל המום, כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם אין בך פסולת אלא הערלה הזו, העבר אותה ובטל המום התהלך לפני והיה תמים.
Rabbi Levi says it is like a matron to whom the king said “Pass before me.” She passed before him and her face blanched. She thought “what if some flaw is found on me?” The King said to her “There is no flaw on you except an overgrown nail on your little finger. Remove it and eliminate the defect.” Thus said the Holy One to Abraham, “There is no flaw on you except this foreskin. Remove it, and eliminate the defect, and walk before me and be תָמִֽים.”
Moses’ Uncircumcised Lips
The image of foreskin as a blemish finds support in other, more metaphorical uses of the term in the Bible. For example, in Exodus 6:2-7:7, which contains the Priestly iteration of God’s call to Moses with the mission of confronting Pharaoh and asking for the people’s freedom,Moses pleads inability to accomplish the task because “I have foreskinned lips” (עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם; 6:12, 30). Although the exact meaning of “foreskinned lips” is never fleshed out, many interpreters construe it as a physical defect, an actual marring of Moses’ mouth, and a speech disability, either as a consequence of a wound, or in some other form, such as a stutter (see Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti). The notion of disability is reinforced by the parallel burning bush passage, in which Moses protests that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן).
A Jewish etiology for Moses’ condition is found in a number of places, in which Moses, as an infant, burns his mouth by touching it with a hot coal.
Sklerokardia (Thickened Heart)
The “foreskinned heart” and the consequent promise to “circumcise the heart” of the Israelites offers another example of a biblical metaphor implying that the foreskin is problematic. Several key biblical passages use such metaphors as symbols of the Israelite people’s collective corruption and apostasy, leading to alienation from God’s favor, exile, and eventual redemption. For example:
…אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲוֹנָם.
…and if then their foreskinned heart is humbled, and they will compensate for their iniquity.
וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד.
Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.
הִמֹּלוּ לַיהֹוָה וְהָסִרוּ עָרְלוֹת לְבַבְכֶם…
Circumcise yourselves to YHWH and remove the foreskin of your hearts…
This metaphor is also part of a larger matrix of heart-centered sin and redemption tropes, best exemplified in Ezekiel 36:26:
יחזקאל לו:כו וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר.
Ezek 36:26 And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.
Readers, ancient and modern, have proposed a range of explanations for the foreskinned heart metaphor, some abstract (Onqelos “foolish heart,” Neofiti “wicked heart.”), and some more concrete. Of the latter, the most common is the image of a dysfunctional, defective organ.
Thus, John Hartley of Azusa Pacific Seminary comments prosaically, while taking license with the physiology,
The heart has become so hard that it has become encased in a hard growth like the foreskin. This condition requires surgery.
Hartley’s solution follows in the footsteps of the LXX translators who render עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם (Deut 10:16) as sklerokardian umon “your thickened heart.” While most of our circumcision texts are more tangibly constructed and concern the foreskin of an individual actor, the foreskinned heart texts do situate the interpretation in the larger ideational field of foreskin as defect and disability, with circumcision as the corrective.
Despite the midrashic assertion (Gen. Rab. 11:6) that men were born with foreskins in order to grant humanity a collaborative role in the creation process –God providing raw or flawed material that required perfection or completion–the authors of Avot de Rabbi Natan (ARN A 2.5) take pains to emphasize that many biblical notables were born מהול, fully circumcised, thus in state of bodily perfection. The list includes Job, Adam, Seth, Noah, Shem, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Balaam, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, and Zerubavel. The Rabbis use various midrashic means to make this argument, including noting the use of the term תם or תמים regarding some of these individuals (Noah in Gen 6:9 cited above and Job in 1:5).
Most remarkably, the text asserts that Adam was born circumcised because he was created in God’s image, implying that God is also embodied and circumcised. Though this ARN passage is at odds with Genesis Rabbah, especially as regards Adam, the sources are consistent in the notion that the foreskin is a defect and circumcision is a healing corrective that effectuates physical integrity.
Like the Angels
In the passage on circumcision in Jubilees, God explains that Abraham and his descendants should be circumcised since this would make them like angels in appearance (Jub. 15:11-17):
And the Lord said to Abraham, “You shall keep my covenant, you and your seed after you. You shall circumcise all of your males and you shall circumcise your foreskin and it will be a sign of the eternal ordinance between me and you… it is an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the Heavenly Tablets… Because the nature of all the Angels of the Presence and all of the Angels of Holiness was thus from the day of their creation. And in the presence of the Angels of the Presence and the Angels of Holiness He sanctified Israel so that they might be with Him and with the Holy Angels.
The implication is clear. Angels, who are by definition physically perfect, are therefore circumcised. Jewish males, in order to emulate that physical perfection, must also be circumcised, and their defect, the foreskin, removed.
Opacity and Apologetics
The foreskin-as-defect and circumcision-as-healing equation seems to have been generated by a confluence of internal and external pressures. As matter of hermeneutics, readers were faced with the Torah’s virtual silence regarding the implications of circumcision and of possessing a foreskin. Moreover, they had to make sense of a package of metaphors that were, at best, opaque.
From the outside, the Jewish community was challenged by the wholesale stigmatization of circumcision in the Greco-Roman world. The anti-circumcision polemic ran the gamut from ridicule to outright hostility, with the ritual being considered an act of barbarity on the par with castration. Tradition needed an answer, and the disability framework was ideal.
“No,” the texts argue “we are not injuring an infant, or compromising the integrity and beauty of his body. Rather we are surgically correcting a defect—we are improving, not harming.” This rhetoric also allowed for a potent theological valence. We are God’s partners in the creation and perfection of the human form.
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November 1, 2017
December 3, 2019
Dr. David Bernat is executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts and a lecturer in Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Heholds a Ph.D. in biblical interpretation from Brandeis University, is the author of Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Traditions, and the co–editor of Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage.
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