School for Biblical, Judaic & Spiritual Studies
Some Lesser Known Truths about Circumcision
by Ariel B Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel
B Tzadok. All rights reserved.
In Genesis 17, Abram was commanded
by God to circumcise himself and all male members of his household. Yet, why was
this mutilation ritual necessary? It is called a sign between God and Abram's
children, but is that all there is to it, a sign? Is circumcision just a symbol
meant to represent something else, or does it have intrinsic and actual value.
The differences between these two is significant, and needs explanation.
For centuries numerous Sages have offered numerous reasons to explain the purpose of circumcision. These reasons range from the medical, to the ethical, to the mystical. Yet, regardless of how one wishes to interpret circumcision, one fact remains historically clear, Abram and his household were certainly not the first ones, nor the only ones to be observing this ritual.
It is well documented in the
historical record that the ancient Egyptians were practicing circumcision for
hundreds of years before Abram. Some records may indicate that the practice is
far more ancient than this. According to the first century Alexandrian Jewish
philosopher Philo, circumcision was widely practiced throughout the Middle East,
even far beyond the borders of ancient Egypt. It was a common cultural practice,
with clear medical reasons, also coupled with spiritual meanings that do not
seem to be well documented.
By the time that God had commanded
Abram to circumcise himself, circumcision was already a widespread Middle
Eastern practice. We do not have recorded what Abram thought about circumcision,
but it is impossible to consider that he was unaware of this widespread
practice. It must have meant something to him, in his day, the meaning of which
is lost to us in time.
It is certainly curious that God
would chose this ritual to mark Abram, and his household. After all,
circumcision was certainly not unique in its day, anymore than it is unique
today. According to one online source, it is believed that one third of men
globally, over the age of fifteen, are circumcised. Certainly, no one can say
that circumcision is, in any way, a uniquely Jewish ritual.
In Abram's time, men of a number of
cultures were circumcised The only difference seems to be the age at which the
ritual was performed. In Abram's case, we know to circumcise the male child on
his eight day from birth. The other cultures circumcised their males at the age
of fourteen. For them, their circumcision was a right of passage into adulthood.
This clearly is not the Abrahamic message.
In his Guide to the Perplexed,
Maimonides writes that circumcision is a sign in one's flesh of one's bond with
God. It can be compared to a tattoo, but without the forbidden ink, and images.
Yet, like Abram, God was obviously aware that not only the House of Abram would
circumcise Too this day, many millions bear this mark in their flesh, who are
neither Jewish, or bear it as any kind of sign of affiliation with God, or any
Today, in the western world
circumcision is commonly performed to reasons of health. Such ideas and concepts
go back to Philo's times. Yet, in Philo's day, in the first century, no one was
rushing to observe circumcision for health reasons. Back then, it still retained
its exclusive religious significance. While ancient Egyptians, Arabians, and
Ethiopians might have been regularly circumcised, Philo makes clear that those
men from countries in the northern latitudes did no such thing. It seems certain
that neither Greek, nor Roman practiced circumcision, nor expressed any sympathy
for what in their eyes was a barbaric mutilation. One just need remember the
Selucid persecutions that provoked the Hanuka war for an example of Grecian
intolerance towards this ancient practice.
All in all circumcision is an
ancient practice whose origins, and original intent is shrouded in the mysteries
of lost history. We can however turn to two First Century writers who do give us
keen insights as to what circumcision was supposed to mean in the eyes of its
We have already introduced Philo.
He elaborates on the medical value of circumcision, but he also relates its
archetypal, symbolic reason. Philo suggests that the removal of the fleshy
foreskin of the male organ represents a higher type of circumcision, one which
removes the “fleshy foreskin” from the human mind. This is symbolic reference to
the human obligation to seek clear and lucid, intellectual thought, and reason.
The foreskin served as a symbol for clouded, unclear, thought. In order for
reason to reign supreme in the human mind, Philo writes, the “foreskin of the
mind” must be removed, and like with the removal of its physical counterpart,
take away from the bearer the source of all kinds of disease, be they physical
disease caused by the physical foreskin, or “mental” disease brought about by
the lack of clear, lucid intellectual thought.
In his own way, Philo seems to be
echoing the earlier words of the Biblical prophets. The prophets have long
spoken in God's Name calling for each Israelite individual to circumcise one's
heart. This did not in any way suggest any kind of physical open heart surgery,
but was rather a symbolic way of calling on ancient Israel to rise to a level of
higher moral caliber. The circumcision of the heart, like Philo's circumcision
of the mind, are both metaphors, but pointing to the same internal,
psychological essence. Circumcision was an external physical sign in one's flesh
that was supposed to represent a transformed internal
psychological/spiritual/intellectual state. Without this inner transformation,
the outer sign was nothing more than an act of ritual physical mutilation.
The second First Century author to address the issue of circumcision was the Jew who spread modern Christianity, Paul. He too spoke about the difference between the circumcision of the flesh, and of what he called, “the spirit.” Like Philo and the Biblical prophets before him, Paul suggests that the purpose of circumcision is exclusively internal. In an historical context, this was an interesting very “un-Jewish” position for Paul to take, one that brought him into serious conflict with the original followers of Yeshu, and their Jerusalem “church.”
As I have discussed in numerous
other places, and as is well documented in the historical, and theological
record, the original movement of Yeshu HaNotzi, (Jesus), was a political,
messianic movement. Their original intent was to raise a physical army of all
anti-Romans, with the intent of militarily challenging Rome for control over the
Yeshu's original followers took advantage of Judaism's popularity in the First Century, and spread their message about a coming insurrection far and wide into the ears of many throughout the Empire. There were plenty of sympathizers who were all too willing to join the fight against the evil empire. However, this fight was being organized by the Jews, and under the banner of their religion. Didn't this religion require circumcision as a sign of membership? What was then to be done with the many would would want to join the cause, and fight? Would they have to be circumcised in order to join? Such a requirement would have severely curtailed enrollment.
Paul is believed to have intended to thwart this political/militaristic message of Yeshu's early followers. This is why he preached against them, and was very much disliked by the Jerusalem Church. Paul, by interpreting both circumcision and the messianic message as being spiritual in nature, and not physical, was undermining the recruiting efforts of Yeshu's movement. Paul was capitalizing on Philo's philosophical ideas that were already widespread. History records for us that Paul's version of Yeshu's message, became the Gospel of Christ, and the foundation of modern Christianity. Yeshu's original Jewish followers are probably all “turning in their proverbial graves.”
As we see, since the First Century, circumcision has been interpreted as having deep symbolic meaning. In modern times, much of this symbolism has been totally lost. Today, circumcision is still widely practiced. In the secular world circumcisions are still widely performed routinely on infant male children when born, regardless of religion. Muslim young men are still circumcised when they reach puberty, and Jewish male children are still circumcised on the eight day.
In all these traditions, the association with higher, more lofty intellectual and moral values seems to never be emphasized. Today, all that is emphasized is that circumcision allegedly makes the bearer holy unto God, who therefore is supposed to guard himself against forbidden sexual practices. The sign of circumcision has been reduced to being a moral marker to build sexual chastity. While this, in and of itself, is very good, and truly meritorious, it still nevertheless, misses the point of how the sign of circumcision was meant to mean so much more.
The sign of the circumcision bears no mystery. Although in Maimonides' day it was believed that being circumcised decreased man's sexual sensitivity, modern research has shown that this is not true. Nevertheless, circumcision is supposed to serve as a sign, an external expression, for an internal reality. The physical sign alone, does not bring one closer to God. The world is full of evil doers who are circumcised, and this includes many who are circumcised in the name of Torah.
Like Philo suggested long ago circumcision is supposed to mean something philosophical. Maimonides calls it the mark of the covenant. Paul made it clear that the true mark of the covenant is internal. While Christians will discount the value of the external mark, Jews have forever embraced Torah and Halakha, recognized the archetypal important of the physical rituals. All the commandments of the Torah, when acted out physically, are intended to serve as doorways into the human psyche to awaken within us their intended deeper meanings.
Aside from myth, superstition, and legend, if one contemplates on what the symbol of circumcision is supposed to mean philosophically, and dismiss the delusional magical element some believe it contains, then the mark of the covenant can again be embraced as a mark of pride, discipline, and duty. Duty to God, and the discipline of one's self, these are one's true pride, and the path toward one's intellectual refinement.
For deeper insights into this subject, please consult my audio lesson titled: “All About Circumcision” (available in our Online Store).
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The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright (C) 1997 - 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.