Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Brit Milah: Fast Track to Eden

In one of his more memorable shticks, the Jewish comedian Buddy Hackett would declare, "I know I'm going to heaven because a piece of my dick already went ahead of me."

Crudely put, for sure, but it's a sentiment remarkably in tune with one Jewish mystical tradition regarding the significance of brit milah, ritual circumcision. The meaning of this most arcane of Jewish aboriginal customs has largely eluded many modern Jews. Most people are reduced to saying either:

1) We do to maintain the traditions of our people, or...
2) God told us to do it, so we do it, or...
3) I want all the men in my family to match.

In the Torah itself, it is evident that the practice was thought to bring a measure of physical and spiritual protection (Ex. 4). In a piquant legend along these lines, when the fish who swallowed Jonah is about to be eaten by Leviathan, Jonah flashes the great sea monster and Leviathan flees from the sign of the covenant (I'd be startled too). The fish then releases Jonah in gratitude (PdRE 10).

But the medieval mystics of the Rhineland found another rationale - that circumcision ensures same-day service entry into Eden in the World to Come. How can they claim such a thing?

They demonstrate this is via a remarkably clever display of close reading of the Bible. For they take the wording of Deut. 30:12, "Who among us will ascend into heaven?", ignore the context (it's a rhetorical declaration that one need not enter heaven to know God's will), and instead examine the Hebrew to discover an occult message. Lo and behold, they find one. They note that the first letter of each word in the phrase,

מי יעלה לנו השמימה

spells MILaH, (circumcision). So, "Who among us will ascend into heaven?" The verse, it is claimed, provides its own answer - those who have been circumcised (Eleazar of Worms, commentary on Deut. 30:12)!

Not that those without the seal of the covenant (gentiles and women, for example) won't eventually get to Eden. Brit Milah, however, ensures one takes the short cut [pun intended]. Thus for the trimmed there will be no temporary stop in Gehenna, the Jewish purgatory (Gen. R. 21:9; Er. 19a).

Incidentally, the same interpretation also discovers the four-letter name of God,

מי יעלה לנו השמימה

in the last letters of each word of the same phrase. This in turn provides an explanation (beyond the shape of the letter) for why later Kabbalists associate the Hebrew letter Yod (the first letter of the Divine name) with the phallus.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Blogger Aharonium said...

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...

A few years ago my friend and I were studying Shmot Rabba, the 11th century compilation of midrashim related to the book of Exodus. One of our insights was how circumcision was a ritual that wards off the Angel of Death. (This is consistent with a ritual returning man to an a pre-death, Edenic state).

Here are my notes:

The polemic of Exodus Rabbah is the importance of Continuity and the role of Jewish women in keeping the tradition alive. They are thus elevated as greater prophets than men.

Re: Abraham and Sarah and Ishmael. Gen. 21:12, discussed in Shemot Rabbah 1.1, concludes that "Abraham is subsidiary to Sarah in prophecy." Context: the rejection of Ishmael following the circumcision of Isaac. Although the midrash complains of Ishmael being an idol worshiper, the following midrashim focus on circumcision and considering Isaac's covenant of the flesh, this highlights Ishmael's lack of circumcision (perhaps leading spiritually to idol worship?).

Rebecca and Isaac in Gen. 25:23. She explicitly receives a prophecy from God and Isaac doesn't get it, since he favors Esau over Jacob. No circumcision here although there is some crotch grabbing (in the ancient tradition of oath making). The significance of the oath is that it is on one's future generations -- but also on the sign of the covenant. Similarly, when the angel wrestles with Yaakov and touches the sciatic nerve. Am I reaching too far here (no pun intended)? Is this touching of the sciatic nerve like a spiritual cicumcision for all generations which follow from Yaakov?

Moses, Tzipporah and Eleazar: Ex. 4:24. Moses fails to circumcize Eleazar and the Angel of Death tries to kill him. At least this is the explanation in Shemot Rabbah. It is Zipporah who circumcises the son, touches the blood to Moses (we think we know where, see the Jewish Study Bible's commentary on the verse) and this saves her husband's life. The Angel of Death takes the form of a giant snake (note reference to the Edenic Nachash and the Nechushtan of the Midbar) that swallows Moshe "to his waist" -- euphemism for Moses' own brit milah -- or quite possibly lack thereof??

Finally, the firstborn of Israel in Egypt are saved by placing the blood of a lamb on their doorposts as a sign of their heritage. What is the blood a symbol and surrogate for? We speculate that it is proxy blood for the blood of circumcision for all the Bnei Yaakov in Eggypt that had never been circumcised due to their assimilation. Like the angel of death with Eleazar, he passes over those who can be proven to be of the descendants of Avraham, Brit Prime. I suspect from this story that there might have been an unrecorded tradition that the Israelite women in Egypt were unable to circumcise their baby sons for myriad reasons and thus resorted to an alternate symbol of the covenant via proto-mezuzah. Further speculating, this could be the symbolic significance of the nehushtan later on if the nehushtan symbolizes the passing over of the angel of death without the Israelites dying as occurred earlier in Egypt.

For further study, might Israelite women like the Midianite Tzipporah originally served as Mohelot ritual circumcisers?

2:49 PM  

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