Rabbi Rieser and I have been considering the meaning and role of circumcision in connection with studies we undertook recently at a rabbinic study conference. This posting is very long because it includes our full translations of passages in midrash Tanhuma, because translations are not readily available.
Tanhuma, parshat Mishpatim 3 is a remarkable and disturbing polemic about brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) that makes the claim that only those who are circumcised can study Torah and thereby gain access to God’s statutes that insure survival. The background is the conversion of Avtilas, whose uncle Andrinos recommends he seek his fortune doing business in natural resources, but Avtilas seeks Torah instead.
These are the rules (Exodus 21:1). So says Scripture: [God] conveys his word to Jacob… and not to everyone (Psalm 147:19-20 ). Akilas the son of the sister of Andrinos wanted to convert. He was afraid before Andrinos, his uncle. He said to him, I am seeking to make a purchase. He said to him: Perhaps you lack silver or gold? Behold the treasury is [open] before you. He said to him: I want to make a purchase, and to know the knowledge of creatures. And I wish to be directed by you concerning what to do. He said to him: all goods that you see that are natural resources, concern yourself with them because they will rise in value. He intended to convert, came to the Land of Israel and learned Torah. When R. Eliezer and R. Yehudah came to him after some days, they found his countenance changed. They said to one another: Akilas has learned the Torah. When they came to him, he became to ask them questions and they answered him. He returned to Andrinos and he said to him: Why has your countenance changed? Perhaps your trade in natural resources suffered a loss? Or perhaps someone has made trouble for you? He said to him: no. Then why has your countenance changed? He said to him: I have studied Torah, and not only that, but I have been circumcised. He said him: who told you [to do all this]? He said to him: I was directed by you. He said to him: when? He said to him: when I said to you I sought to make a purchase, and you said to me: all goods that you see that are natural resources, concern yourself with them because they will rise in value. I reviewed all the nations and did not find a single one devoted to the land like Israel. And their end is to rise in value, for Isaiah has said (Isaiah 49:7 ): Thus said the Lord, the redeemer of Israel his holy one: To the despised one, to the abhorred nations, to the slave of… His [Andrinos’] associate regent said to him: Those whom you have destined to be destroyed, the kings [nations] will come to stand before them, as it is said (Isaiah 40:16) Kings shall see and stand up. Adrinos slapped him across the face. He [the assistant regent] said to him: one only applies a plaster to a wound. Perhaps one applies it to healthy flesh and not to a wound. Now if [people] see a common soldier, they don’t stand before him. What did his assistant regent do? He went up to the roof, fell of it [threw himself off it] and died. The Holy Spirit cried out (Judges 5:31 ), So may all your enemies perish. Andrinos said to Akilas: why did you do this? He said to him: I wanted to learn Torah. He said to him: You could have learned but not been circumcised. He said to him: If a man is not circumcised, he cannot learn [Torah], as it is said (Psalm 147:19), He issued His commands to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. To one among Jacob who is circumcised, his commands are Torah, and his statutes are the laws, as it says (Exodus 19:25), chok u’mishpat (a fixed rule). The Holy One Blessed be God said to Moses: I gave them the Torah; you give them the rules. The Holy One Blessed be God said: if you seek to survive in the world, keep the[se] rules because a person cannot survive without [these] rules. The generation of the flood perished only because they transgressed the rules. R. Eliezer ben Padat said: what is written concerning them? Shattered between daybreak and evening, perishing forever unnoticed (Job 4:20). That is the meaning of, These are the rules (Exodus 21:1).We can more easily understand this radically particularistic Jewish perspective when we consider the historical background against which it was composed; we can read this midrash as a reaction to the vulnerable position of Jews under ascendant Christianity.
I view this polemical viewpoint as one end along a spectrum of views concerning brit milah and the covenant of Torah. I offer this passage -- reflecting the Jewish covenant amidst a far more universal framework -- from Arthur Green’s EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (p. 95):
[The Oneness of God] is a deeply universal teaching. It understands that there is a primal revelation, that of the single word, prior to all specific revelations, including our own Torah. All revelations are living truth only insofar as they serve as arks to contain and preserve that single word, their true source of energy and inspiration. In that sense both exclusivity (‘Ours is the only true religion’) and triumphalism (‘Ours is the best religion’) are distortions of reality and obstacles to the work we must do. The One as primal word needs to be accessible to all people in a cultural form that they can call their own; indeed the single Word of God must be implanted and discoverable in every human spiritual ‘language.’ To think any less would be to diminish or limit the holy spirit.”I find far more comfortable with Green’s open and embracing perspective, but recognize that many will find it difficult to relinquish the exclusivity and triumphalism that are ingrained in so many veins of our tradition. We should worried about clogged arteries. Green’s view is deeply honest and hence profoundly liberating.
If radical particularism goes too far, we may still ask: What is the purpose of Jewish particularity? Why should I keep these laws and customs and practice these rites and traditions? Perhaps there is resolution in Tanhuma itself:
R. Alexandri said: two donkey-drivers were traveling along the road and they hated one another. One of their donkeys stumbled. When his companion saw him, he passed by. After he had passed, he said: it is written in Torah (Exodus 23:5), when you see the donkey of your enemy [lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him]. Immediately he returned and helped him. He began to have a conversation in his heart about the one who had treated him with love: I didn’t know [that this man was my friend]. They entered a tavern, ate and drank [together]. What caused peace between them? It happened because the one looked into Torah (Psalms 99:4), It was you who established equity. What is this? This is mishpatim (Torah laws).Torah law is not meant to fuel feelings of superiority and separation from others, but rather to bring us together and help us see the tzelem Elohim in one another. Torah, understood this way, enables us to more than survive; it empowers us to build bridges of peace, even between enemies. Consider the possibilities of using Torah not to build walls against the outside world, but rather bridges to others.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman