Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Auteur Mysticism: Innovative Readings on Circumcision and Hymen

The word Kabbalah means "reception," or ideomatically, "Tradition," and it is generally assumed that the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah are both ancient and static. When something seemingly novel appears in the Kabbalah canon, people generally speak of it as "revealed" rather than invented, assuming it has always been present, in occult form, prior to its coming to light.

[Adam and Eve, by Tamara de Lempicka]

This is grounded in the larger Jewish notion that everything anyone will ever derive from Torah was already present at Mount Sinai. But as my earlier entry on the supposedly old but in fact quite new pulsa de-nura curse demonstrates, there is also a degree of innovation that is a constant in the history of esoteric Judaism.

For example, the Merkavah mystics never use the term "Sefirot" and leave us nothing to suggest they had any such doctrine. It also had little meaning to the Hasidei Ashkenaz (the Rhineland mystics of the 12-13th Cent.). Moreover, the meaning of the word, which goes back at least as far as the 6th Cent. CE, undergoes significant evolution, from a simple notion of the cosmic power embedded in numbers (Sefer Yetzirah) to a doctrine of divine attributes (Sefer Bahir) to the elaborate graphic mandala of ten points and twenty-two channels well known to students of mysticism today (actually post-Zoharic design). Confusing the issue what is ancient vs. innovative is the habit of later readers to anachronistically retroject their understanding of a term or concept onto early texts (Aryeh Kaplan's commentary on Sefer Yetzirah and his explanation of "sefirah" is a classic example of this retroactive reading).

The mechanism of innovation at work in Kabbalah is that each elaboration builds upon earlier sources, even as it re-assigns meaning, often by combining them in previously unimagined ways and associations. I call this the "Auteur phenomenon" of Kabbalah. The term "auteur" aises from the world of film. Auteur theory holds that the director, while combining already existing elements (script, film techniques, actors) nevertheless creates something new and personal through his arrangement of these pre-existing elements into a new gestalt. I think something like this happens in Kabbalah (and Jewish tradition at large) all the time. Moses' staff is clearly a device of power (Ex. 15). But so is Aaron's staff (Num 17). So maybe their actually the same object. Then someone links these references to a staff carried by one of the patriarchs, and eventually we have a tradition of a single miraculous staff that passes through the generations and will in time reappear in the hands of the Messiah (PdRE 40; Sefer Zerubbalel). Then a later interpreter concludes the "staff" is actually a figure, or metaphor, for something else (like, say, the sefirot), and so the significance of the staff of Moses grows into a mystical doctrine.

Appropos of this, a regular reader, Aharon, provides us with another example of this auteur reading:

Note also the commentary on Breisheit 3:21, on the garments G!d created for Adam and Eve. Aryeh Kaplan writes in the Living Torah, "Some translate this 'shrouds of skin,' denoting the growth of the male foreskin and female hymen (Maaseh HaShem; from Sanhedrin 38b, Eruvin 100b)." (copied from World ORT.) This commentary is indicative of a tradition that the circumcision returns us to a state akin to that of Edenic man. I can only imagine how marriage may have at one time symbolized a return to Edenic fecundity for the daughters of Chava...

Assuming this appears as described in Ma'aseh ha-Shem, and assuming this is the Ma'aseh ha-Shem of the Kabbalist Elazar ha-Ashkenazi (17th Century?), then this is Rav Elazar as auteur reader. Here are the two passages from Talmud he cited:

...[regarding the true nature of Adam's sin] Rab Judah also said in Rab's name: Adam was a Min [a heretic], for it is written, And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou? i.e., whither has thine heart turned? R. Isaac said: He practised episplasm [he artificially constructed a foreskin]: For here it is written, But like man, [Adam] they have transgressed the covenant [here "brit" is taken to refer to "brit milah" - circumcision]; whilst elsewhere it is said, He hath broken my covenant...(Sanhedrin 38b).


Eve was cursed with ten curses, since it is written, Unto the woman, He said, I will greatly multiply... which refers to the two drops of blood, one being that of menstration, the other that of virginity... (Erubin 100b).

Now, in Sanhedrin, R. Isaac's interpretation is meant as a zinger directed at his contemporaries, Jews who surgically reconstruct their foreskin to conform with Greco-Roman prejudices against circumcision. In fact, there was no consensus among the Rabbis as to whether Adam was born circumcised (compare AdRN 2:5 vs. Exodus R. 46:3). Still, the assumption in this passage is that being circumcised is the "perfect" state of man (riffing also on Gen. 17) and having the orlah (foreskin) 'embodies' man's disobedience toward God.

Just as the Sanhedrin passage is trying to fix on the precise nature of Adam's sin, the Erubin passage is attempting to fix upon the precise meaning[s] of God's punishments of Eve. But the implication of this discussion that Maaseh ha-Shem latches onto is that before the Fall, Eve had no hymen (the breaking of which produces the blood of "virginity").

Elazar's auteur move is to combine and reform these two [seemingly] unrelated discussions with Gen. 3:21, "And Adonai Elohim made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them...", to come up with the [brilliant] mythic interpretation that the "skin" with which God "clothed" the primordial couple actually refers to the fleshy foreskin and membranous hymen. Therefore, Maaseh ha-Shem argues, the foreskin and the hymen are also embodied symbols of separation from Eden; manifest barriers between us and God. So it is through circumcision for a man (which one may note, also involves a 'drop of blood'*), and sexual initiation in marriage for a woman, which return us to our intended, Edenic condition (this also jives nicely with the Jewish wedding ritual, which makes reference to the united couple being like Adam and Eve in the garden - a novel teaching that reinforces a traditional ritual).

Its a compelling, clever, and even beautiful mythic rationale for circumcision and conjugal relations, but but its not an association found in the Talmud or Midrash, and I'm unaware of it being an interpretation made prior to Maaseh ha-Shem [If anyone knows of a source that pre-dates this one making this argument, please forward it to me]. Thus we see the novel unfolding within even the most conservative of Jewish traditions, and the constant reformation of Jewish teachings across the centuries.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

*The theme of circumcision as a kind of ritual androgenization of Jewish men is worth another entry, but not yet.


Blogger Aharonium said...

Circumcision as ritual androgenization? Looking forward to that post. By the way, have you encountered in your reading the basis of the tradition among ancient Egyptians to be circumcised? I learned about that custom in a course on ancient Egyptian history from the Egyptologist Gerald Kadish at SUNY Binghamton...

11:11 AM  

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