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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles, and The Unspeakable Language of Passion.
The debate rages on regarding the pros and cons of circumcision. A recent article in the South African IOL Lifestyle online magazine once again delves into some of the history and the advantages and disadvantages of the circumcised penis.
Among the arguments in favor of foreskin is the debatable claim that “an uncircumcised penis is more sensitive than a circumcised one, suggesting that circumcised men may experience less pleasure during sex.” Of course, this is a hard one to prove, as the decision to circumcise is one typically made by others before a boy becomes sexually active, so he has nothing to compare it to. Few males will have experienced sex with an uncircumcised penis and later experience it with a circumcised one; and still fewer will have managed it in the opposite order. Is there any truth to this rumor?Torah, obviously, insists that Jewish men be circumcised, and that the circumcision occur when a boy is only eight days old. However, when circumcision is first introduced in Genesis (16:11), remarkably little is said of its purpose and effect. G-d simply tells Abraham to circumcise his own foreskin, as well as that of all the males in the family, describing this as His eternal covenant with Abraham and his children. But why circumcision? Didn’t Abraham wonder about that? Why not a nipple or an earlobe? Why there?
(It reminds me of a cartoon in which Moses is standing on Mount Sinai, looking upwards, saying: “Now let me get this straight… The Arabs get the oil, and we have to cut off the ends of our what?!”)
Three generations later, Jacob’s sons use circumcision as a negotiating point, and part of their larger strategy to weaken the people of Shechem – who allowed and condoned the rape of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. In a somewhat odd interchange, Jacob’s sons suggest that all of the Shechem‘s inhabitants be circumcised in order to promote intermarriage among the tribes, saying that “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin, for that is a disgrace to us.” Genesis, 34:14. Rashi points out that this was not an invented pretext – Jacob’s sons really did perceive the state of being uncircumcised as a defect and a blemish. And the people of Shechem promptly agreed to circumcise themselves, and nobody ever questioned why possessing a foreskin would be disgraceful.
But why would it be? Being circumcised was a covenant that G-d made with a single family: Abraham and his offspring. It was a new and unique family tradition, and a break from the rest of society. Why would a special request made by G-d of one particular family suddenly turn the natural state of being uncircumcised into a disgrace? Granted, G-d may have given you a special task – but how does that render everyone else to whom that task was not given into a disgrace?
Clearly, then, there is some obvious value and purpose to circumcision which G-d did not need to explain, which Abraham did not need to ask, which led Jacob’s sons to refer to the state of not being circumcised as disgraceful, and which the people of Shechem did not challenge. Perhaps this week’s Torah portion can give us some clue as to what that purpose is.
In Nitzavim, the Torah foretells the Jewish people’s repentance, and their ultimate return to the Promised Land. Then, it says: “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.” Deuteronomy, 30:6.
He will circumcise our hearts? What does this mean?
Nachmanides (Ramban) explains as follows:
From the time of the creation of the universe, man had the choice to be righteous or wicked. So it was for the entire duration of the Torah, in order that there be merit for us in choosing good and punishment for desiring evil. But in the days of Moshiach, the choosing good will be in our nature, and the heart will not lust for that which is not proper for it and have no desire for it at all. This is the “circumcision” spoken of here, as lust is a “foreskin” blocking the heart, and the “circumcision of the heart” is the removal of lust. In those times man will return to what he was before Adam’s sin, when he naturally did what is proper to do and there were no conflicts and contradictions in his will…
In other words, the natural state of a human being is actually circumcised (at least with respect to the heart)! It is only Adam’s sin that invited and installed the foreskin blocking our hearts, filtering out our sense of judgment and our ability to truly see and appreciate our role and the consequences of our actions. What remains is a much more vague and fuzzy sense of morals and what is right; a sense which grapples with the powerful lusts resulting from our lack of internal clarity. This conflict results in the struggles that we endure on a daily basis.
And the physical foreskin? Our sages say that “Adam came into the world circumcised, as it is said, ‘And God created the Adam in His image’.” Avos D’Rabbi Nosan, 2:5. (We are taught that Moses, too, was born circumcised.) If this is true, then it seems no great stretch to suggest that the foreskin, too, may have grown over the penis only as a result of Adam’s sin, mirroring the “foreskin” that grew over his heart.
So perhaps we have resolved the foreskin myth: it is indeed true that the foreskin carries with it a heightened sensitivity to sexual touch; indeed, the foreskin represents lust itself. However, this erotic sensitivity comes at the cost of a higher sensitivity to our moral and intellectual vision; an additional layer of distraction. Maybe this is why circumcision was so easily adopted by Abraham and his family; why it did not strike either them or others as odd; and why, once adopted, Jacob’s sons even felt an uncircumcised state to be disgraceful, as a symbol of unbridled and excessive lust.
In the days of Moshiach, however, G-d promises that He will remove the foreskin and restore our natural vision and perspective, with the effect that victories that we now struggle mightily to achieve, will be easy choices, unhampered and undistracted by our rampant lusts.