Circumcision as Rebellion

By Ido Hevroni

Why Judaism rejected the decrees of Nature, Fortune, and Rome.

Circumcision is the first commandment given to the children of Abraham, and it is also the strangest. The Jewish obligation to injure the body of a newborn child has been a source of opprobrium from both Jews and Gentiles—not only in the modern world, which celebrates the rights of individuals to protect their bodies, but also in the ancient pagan world, which was well familiar with other blood-covenants. Yet despite the peculiarity of the practice and the at times virulent opposition to it, Jews have continued to observe it through the ages, even in communities that abandoned nearly all the other traditional practices. For this reason, circumcision has often been seen, and continues to be seen, as the most extreme example of the Jews’ insistence on distinguishing themselves from other peoples. Circumcision, in other words, is seen as the most glaring case of Jewish particularism.
However, there is an ancient tradition, explained in a rabbinic legend called Midrash Tanhuma, that suggests the contrary: That the true meaning of circumcision is not about Jewish peoplehood at all, but rather about the correct relationship between man and his world; that it is, in other words, a commandment with universal implications.
The midrash presents this idea by way of a story that describes a confrontation between a Jew and a Gentile over the merits of circumcision. The Jew is R. Akiva, one of the most famous of the rabbinic sages and a proponent of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the second century c.e., known as the “Bar Kochba Revolt,” which marked the final effort of the Jews to restore their sovereign life before the great exile. His adversary, called “Turanus Rufus,” is the Roman governor of the province of Judea in the years leading up to the rebellion.
The idea expressed in the story comprises three levels. On the first level, that of the simple reading, the two leaders argue about circumcision and the correct relationship man should have with nature. On a second, deeper level, these two characters resonate within Jewish tradition to reveal a broader argument about fate and the willful actions of man. Finally, on the deepest level, there is revealed the underlying philosophical assumptions of both sides, upon which the debate truly rests.1 It will become clear that this is neither a simple political struggle nor a discussion about a single commandment, but a genuine conflict of worldviews, and of the civilizations that emanate from them. Namely, Turanus Rufus venerates the classical Hellenist concepts of cosmos, mimesis, and tragedy, which together represent the limited sphere of man’s existence.2 R. Akiva’s response, however, describes a Jewish alternative: Instead of a closed world ruled by the blind forces of nature, his is an image of man who alters, even creates, a world of his own.
That such a clash should express itself through an argument about circumcision should not surprise us. After all, it was the Hellenistic adoration of the body and concern for its completeness that lay at the heart of the decision to include circumcision among the imperial edicts forbidding castration. This, historians of the period teach us, was probably the spark that ignited the rebellion in the fields of Judea.3 Despite the tragic consequences of the ban—Rome’s violent suppression of the Judean rebellion resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews, and brought a millennium of Jewish national life in the land of Israel to an end—it is nonetheless important to understand that the prohibition was not merely the result of Roman cruelty. It stemmed, rather, from the principled refusal of educated Hellenists to tolerate the deliberate injury the Jews carried out on their bodies and those of their children. In their eyes, circumcision was no less than a Promethean defiance of the gods. The text reads as follows:
Turanus Rufus the wicked asked R. Akiva: “Whose works are superior? Those of the Holy One or those of flesh and blood?”
He replied: “Those of flesh and blood are superior.”
Turanus Rufus the wicked said to him: “Look at the heavens and the earth; can you make them?”
R. Akiva said to him: “Do not speak to me of that which is beyond human beings, who have no control over them; but speak about things which are to be found among men.”
[Turanus Rufus] said to him: “Why are you circumcised?”
He said to him: “I knew you were going to ask me that; therefore at the outset I told you that the works of flesh and blood are superior to those of the Holy One.”
R. 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?”
Turanus Rufus said to him: “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 only gave us the commandments in order to refine us through them, and so said David, “[Every] word of God is refined.”4
To build his case against circumcision, Rufus challenges R. Akiva with what sounds like a trick question: Whose works are superior, God’s or man’s? His immediate intention is to challenge the rabbi on the specific commandment of circumcision. If God created the world, he would argue, how can you destroy God’s creation? When the rabbi replies to his question with the surprising answer that, in fact, man’s works are superior, the Roman attempts to push the rabbi’s logic ad absurdum: What of heaven and earth? he persists. Can man create works like them?
Here the rabbi shifts the focus of the debate by dividing the universe into two categories—that which is within human control, and that which is beyond it. Now, the discussion is no longer about man’s desire to breach the boundaries of the universe—which, as we know from the story of the Tower of Babel, carries with it tragic consequences. Rather, R. Akiva concentrates on what can and should be done within the boundaries of human ability.
Shifting the debate in this way transforms it from a discussion about the cosmic and the transcendent to one about the meaning of human civilization. In the eyes of the Hellenist, there is nothing more exalted than that which nature has given us. To him, the supreme art is that of mimesis, or imitation of the natural world: When the philosopher wishes to extol a certain painter, he relates how birds would come to peck at the grapes on the canvas; so, too, does the athlete exhibit his naked body at the Gymnasium in the belief that his is the epitome of the natural form. To the Hellenist, clearly, bodily mutilation is unforgivable.
To justify his preference for man’s works over God’s, however, the rabbi offers the examples of wheat and flax, comparing each with its own man-made end product. Rufus, with his refined pagan tastes, is asked to choose: Wheat or bread? Flax or linen? The point of this exercise is clear: If nature really is superior to artifact, why eat bread when you can have wheat? Why choose fine clothes when you can protect yourself against the cold with flax? Clearly, any civilized person would prefer the products of industry to those of nature. Thus has R. Akiva undermined the entire structure of Rufus’ naturalistic approach.
Nonetheless, this still does not completely answer the question bothering the pagan. R. Akiva’s examples prove that man is not completely “natural,” and that culture—that is, altering nature—has an important role to play in his life. Yet there is still a vast difference between circumcision, considered a violation of nature, and the improvements offered in the rabbi’s presentation. So the governor persists with his argument: If God desires circumcision, why does a person not exit his mother’s womb already circumcised? The rabbi’s final answer explains that altering nature is not simply a cultural matter, but is rather a well-established phenomenon in the natural world, as well.

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