This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Avram is told by God to leave his native land, his birthplace, and his father’s house. Each of these “departures” cuts him off from who he was before. He leaves behind the familiarity of his native culture and the comfort of his father’s house. He becomes someone else—a stranger in a strange land, a blank slate open to becoming.
Avram will need to undergo an educational process to become Avraham: a father of multitudes. He is promised offspring and land, but learns at the Covenant between the Pieces that this promise will be fulfilled only in the future, long after he himself has been gathered to his fathers. But to seal this inter-generational covenant with God, Avraham’s male children are to be circumcised, a mark that sets then apart from the surrounding peoples.
Why circumcision? And why single out the male children?
In his lyrical philosophical work, The Body of Faith, Michael Wyschogrod speculates that circumcision as a sacrifice made by curbing the life-force:
The love that Israel receives from God cries out for a return, for the giving by Israel to God of its substance, as God gives of his. And this giving is self-sacrifice, in some form. Israel’s acceptance of the law is such a sacrifice of the uncurbed biological appetites that are at the service of the species’ life-force.
In circumcising the organ of reproduction, we curb the very essence of our being. In curbing the life-force, we dedicate it to the service of the God who gave it.
The unnatural man
But more, the act of circumcision is an act against nature as it is. A famous midrash has Rabbi Akiva facing off against the quintessential representative of the Greco-Roman worldview, “Tyranoss Rufus”:
“Why do you practice circumcision?” asked Tyrannous Rufus. …
Rabbi Akiva brought him sheaves of wheat and white bread, and said to him: “These are the works of the Holy One, and these are the works of flesh and blood. Are the latter not superior?” He then brought him bundles of flax and garments from Beit She’an, and said to him: “These are the works of the Holy One, and these are made by man. Are the latter not superior?”
Rufus said, “If he [God] desires circumcision, why does a person not exit his mother’s womb circumcised?”
R. Akiva said to him: “And why does he exit with his umbilical cord attached? Does his mother not sever it?”
And why is he not born circumcised? Because the Holy One gave us the commandments only in order to refine us through them, and so said David, “[Every] word of God is refined.” (Midrash Tanhuma. Parashat Tazria)
The debate between Rabbi Akiba and Tyrannos Rufus is really a debate about fatalism and freedom. If nature is perfect, then all we can do is remain passive and not try to improve on it. But if we can—and should—try to alter our fates, then we have to work with time. And the way we do that is through our offspring; we try to create the type of humanity that we want to see.
Thus, in circumcising our sons we create our own evolutionary selection mechanism—only those willing to make the sacrifice will be our representatives to the future. And only those who can manage to educate their offspring such that they in turn, will educate their offspring to adhere to the same goals and limits will see their genes carried into the future.
The continuity of Am Yisrael is thus a matter that is beyond “mere” evolution; here human beings must take matters into their own hands. A risky business? Certainly! But it may be that this is the only way for human beings to become completely human. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes:
For quite some time now, humans have been in a new, thoughtful phase of evolution, in which their minds and brains can be both servants and masters of their bodies and of the societies they constitute. Of course, there are risks when brains and minds that came from nature decide to play sorcerer’s apprentice and influence nature itself. But there are also risk on not taking the challenge and not attempting to minimise suffering. There are, in fact, enormous risks in not doing anything. Doing just what comes naturally can only please those who are unable to imagine better worlds and better ways, those who believe they are already in the best of all possible worlds. (Antonio Damasio Descartes’ Error)
To circumcise one’s son is to say, “This child is now a signatory to the covenant with the God of Avraham, who was told that he would become a great nation by teaching his children and his household to do tzedek u’mispat (righteousness and justice). The covenant obligates us to build a society in which the rules of “nature” are not the ones calling the shots, where “might makes right” does not mold the future. The society of tzedek u’mishpat is one where the survival of the fittest will favor other qualities than aggression and physical strength. Here, “fitness” will include ability to cooperate, to communicate, to foresee the future based on the past. These are very different traits than those selected for in the “state of nature”.
Through the Covenant of Circumcision we consciously declare that humanity is meant to transcend evolution—history is evolution by other means, just as culture is instinct by other means. Only when human beings become partners with God in their own creation, do they become truly human.