“Walk in My ways and be blameless”: Circumcision as a Sign of Partiality and Wholeness

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

Abraham is the first of three paradigms of the monotheistic faith, and probably the most interesting one. Despite the fact that the complexity of Yaakov’s personality and life are without doubt riveting, as his life is full of challenges, mistakes and great blessings, and despite the fact that Yitzhak is, to me at least, an inimitable archetype of cognitive ascent, and of detachment from the chaotic unravelling of history, Abraham is where it all starts. The ten trials imposed upon him by God are the alembic in which the dross is purged, and through which the quintessence is distilled. Yet, it seems to me that this ascent, this process through which the archetypical Jew is tempered by the flames of trial, does not lead to univocal truth but rather to the acceptance of partiality, paradox and the uncompromising contradictions of God’s creation. The state of consciousness through which the Divine is revealed into history is, at least in the case of Abraham, partial. The sign of the pact with which Abraham becomes the first Jew of history, is circumcision – the removal of the foreskin signifies the bond with God. Let us take a look at the first thirteen verses in Genesis 17:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.” God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn, and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.

Circumcision signifies the covenant, and as such it is a sign of connection. Abram is refined into Abraham, as is directed to walk in the ways of God – this conversion is accompanied by God’s commandment to be “blameless.” The contradictory combination of blamelessness or perfection with the pact signified by the circumcision (which notably impinges the natural conformation of the male body) is noted by Rashi who, quoting the Gemara in Nedarim 32b, points to the paradoxical connection between the bodily and the spiritual:

…at present you lack the power of controlling morally five organs, viz., two eyes, two ears and the membrum. Therefore will I add a letter (i. e. the letter ‘ה the numerical value of which is five) to your name (אברם which equals 243) so that the total of the letters of your name (אברהם) will become 248, corresponding to the number of limbs of your body (cf. Nedarim 32b)

Through the circumcision, the imperfection of the male body is corrected into a divinely oriented apparatus for the embodiment of God’s ways to men. The ritual not only enacts but also accomplishes, in Rashi’s opinion, the channeling of the physical in the correct direction. Yet we are left with the same question standing: how is the cutting of the foreskin a sign of perfection and blamelessness? The Sfat Emet sheds light on the paradoxical nature of this pact, when he argues, in his commentary to Gen. 17, that the perfection of man’s body is attained through the circumcision, as the soul is externally brought to a union with the body, uplifting the physical sphere to a higher state. Despite the beauty of this idea, it feels too Platonic for me to accept it. But in his commentary to VaYera (Gen. 18ff), the Sfat Emet presents the circumcision of Abraham as a process of uncovering of the otherwise covered human cognition / state of being:

“This bodily member is different from all others and is thus an exception, and is indicative of the whole body, for it signifies the way in which the inner truth is near and how it is the darkness that covers / veils [the understanding]. For this reason, when the outer shell is removed and the foreskin covering this member is cut off, the inner truth within the individual is awaken. And just as there is a pact signified by the Shabat, which perfects the six days of Creation … so in the body, the circumcision signifies an act which perfects and draws out the inner truth. All the other member, like the hands, the legs, the head or the stomach, are sealed – the circumcision is the opening just as Shabat is the opening, as it is written in Ez. 46:1, “Thus said the Lord GOD: The gate of the inner court which faces east shall be closed on the six working days; it shall be opened on the sabbath day and it shall be opened on the day of the new moon.

To elaborate on the Sfat Emet, the circumcision is act by virtue of which the individual is prepared for a certain kind of work, which entails not only the physical engagement of worldly affairs, but also a spiritual endorsement of Divine will. This is done, to be more specific, by channeling the creative impetus inherent in man, and by perfecting its potential effects – the darkening of the inner light through unbecoming acts of sexual intimacy. In this way we may now understand the concept of perfection endorsed by Rashi and others in explaining the blamelessness required from Abraham as he enters the pact – the act through which one signifies the uncovering of the inner truth, is an outward witness of a mingling of the bodily and the spiritual. And the perfection / blamelessness acquired through the acceptance of the pact with the circumcision, is a blemished one, a partial intrusion for the correction of the physical wholeness into a state of discontinuous perfection. The Divine is uncovered with the paradox, not with univocal truths – it is with incomplete signs that the ineffable is signified.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.