Drash on Parashat Tazria-Metzora
Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
The Jewish practice of circumcision as a demonstration of the covenant with God dates back to the Book of Genesis (in Parashat Lech L’cha), when God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his offspring.
Circumcision, however, does not come up as a commandment for all Jews until we begin this week’s sidra, Parashat Tazria, when we are told; “on the eighth day, the flesh of the foreskin should be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3).
In this particular passage, the Torah offers us a commandment but does not seek to justify or explain it. As a result, there are few other commandments that have been as debated throughout our tradition.
Taking a medical approach to the commandment, Israeli biblical scholar and commentator Nechama Leibowitz cites Isaac ben Moses Arama, a Spanish rabbi, when saying that ‘evidently, timely circumcision prevents diseases.’
Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his work ‘Ha’amek Davar’, disagrees. Drawing on a verse from Genesis ‘And it shall be a token of the covenant’, Berlin suggests that circumcision should be understood as a ‘mark of the Almighty’s alliance with you, and not as a prophylactic remedy.’
David Kimhi, a medieval biblical commentator and philosopher, compares the Jewish commandment of circumcision to tzitzit and t’fillin suggesting that ‘mitzvot shall be a token of remembrance. However, being imprinted on the human body, it is the strongest sign of all.’
Maimonides sees circumcision as ‘the physical sign as a unifying factor for all those who believe in the One God’.
Altogether we can see a wide range of understanding of the same commandment – medical, covenantal, ethical and social.
Despite these traditions, by the 19th century, leaders of the then-nascent Progressive movement objected to circumcision. One such leader, Germany’s Abraham Geiger, described it as a “barbaric, bloody act” before our movement ultimately re-embraced the practice – as we continue to do today.
Nevertheless challenges from the outside world to circumcision are not a new phenomenon, and not a few Jews have been influenced by the ongoing arguments condemning it.
In part because of these challenges, and sometimes in order to justify the commandment for themselves, I am often asked by expectant parents why – as a modern Jew and Progressive Rabbi - I am prepared to let go of some biblical obligations but continue to insist on milah whenever possible.
In answering this question, I often find myself sharing an ancient story which seems as relevant today as the day it was first written.
The midrash tells of a debate between the Roman ruler Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva which sought to explain why Jews practice circumcision:
Taunting Akiva, Rufus asked: ‘Whose deeds are nicer, God's or those of human beings?’ Rabbi Akiva responded: ‘Those of people are nicer.’
Rufus replied: ‘But how can that be, can a human being create the world?’ Akiva said: ‘Don't make a comparison with things that people are incapable of doing. Ask about something people can also do.’
Immediately, Turnus Rufus asked about brit milah – circumcision.
Rabbi Akiva said: ‘I knew you were going to ask me about that and that's why I responded to you that human deeds are greater than those of God. Let me give you an example.’
Akiva brought some stalks of wheat and some cookies and asked rhetorically: ‘Which of these are the works of God and which were made by people?’ And then he asked: ‘Which are nicer, namely which would you rather eat?’ Rufus then asked: ‘So if God wanted brit milah so much, why aren't boys born circumcised?’
Rabbi Akiva replied: ‘I could just as easily have asked you why people are born with the umbilical cord still attached, but I will answer your question anyway. God gave us brit milah to teach us that the commandments are given to us to perfect ourselves.’
In this midrash, Rufus asks a seemingly innocent question, but his true target is brit milah. He argues that God’s creation is perfect, and circumcision is an unnatural act of defacement. Akiva counters that many of God’s most important natural gifts require human interaction to achieve their highest form.
Many delicious foods are only edible when worked over, treated, and/or cooked. Cotton and wool require significant processing before they become the cloth from which beautiful clothing is made.
All humans may be born attached to an umbilical cord, but we don’t treat cutting it as disfigurement of the newborn, nor do we outlaw cutting a child’s hair or fingernails, or even piercing their ears (which also causes momentary pain).
We are given our bodies, just like everything else in the natural world, but we are also given instruction, Torah, that tells us how to care for and elevate ourselves and the world.
Akiva’s argument may not have been enough to convince the Romans to start performing circumcisions, but that was not its goal.
The midrash was obviously intended for Jewish ears - a way of reconciling our ancient practice with the mores of the time in order to shore up Jewish commitment to the mitzvah.
But in so doing, Midrash Tanchum added a layer of meaning to brit milah that serves as a paradigm for all of Judaism.
The world is a work in progress, and we are God’s partners. Only through our activity, guided by Torah, can we and it be refined, beautified, and perfected.