The Self-Made Person

And on the seventh day, he should circumcise the flesh of his foreskin. (Sefer VaYikra 12:3)

I. Perfecting the human form

Parshat Tazria reiterates the mitzvah of Milah – circumcision. This mitzvah was originally given to Avraham. The commandment to him is recorded in Parshat Lech Lecha. The commentators suggest various explanations for the mitzvah. Rabbaynu Saadia Gaon explained that the orlah – the foreskin – removed through Milah is superfluous. It has no function. Its removal perfects the body of the infant.[1] 

Rabbaynu Saadia’s explanation leaves two related questions unanswered. The wisdom of Hashem is evident in the universe both on a meta and micro scale. It is observed in the Earth’s set and constant orbit around the sun. This precise orbit sustains organic life. His wisdom is also evident in the operations of the single living cell. The cell is an organic machine of beautiful and wondrous design. The Torah’s description of the creation characterizes the human being as the ultimate creation. Adam was given sovereignty over the world. The world was created for humanity. How is it possible that the male human was created as an imperfect being? Furthermore, if there is a reason for this imperfection, why are we commanded to remove the orlah and correct it?

II. Responsibility for one’s development

Sefer HaChinuch responds to these questions. He explains that the mitzvah of Milah is intended to communicate a very important message. He explains that the mitzvah uses the infant’s body to communicate a parallel message about the human soul. The infant is born with an imperfect body. It is perfected through human endeavor – the circumcision. It is our responsibility to remove the orlah and perfect the infant’s body. The same paradigm applies to the soul. We are created with “imperfect souls”. It is our responsibility to perfect them. 

In what sense is the soul imperfect? The infant is a completely instinctual creature.  This is the imperfect soul-state described by Sefer HaChinuch. In this state, the human is essentially undifferentiated from the beast. As the infant progresses through childhood and advances into adulthood, he or she is confronted with life’s most fundamental choice. The maturing individual can continue to remain an instinctual creature and devote one’s energies to the most effective and efficient satisfaction of the instinctual drives. If this path is selected, one retains the imperfect soul-state of the beast. The alternative is to redirect one’s efforts and energies and strive for a spiritual life. This is an abandonment of the instinctual soul-state.  This person seeks to perfect one’s soul – to exchange the instinctual soul-state for the spiritual soul-state. According to Sefer HaChinuch, the mitzvah of Milah communicates to us that we are created in the imperfect instinctual soul-state and it is our responsibility to strive to transform our souls into the spiritual state.[2] 

III. Hashem’s creations are perfect

Rambam – Maimonides – objects to Rabbaynu Saadia’s basic premise. Hashem does not create the male infant with an imperfect body and leave it to human beings to perfect.   Rambam assumes that the design of the human body reflects Hashem’s wisdom. This wisdom is expressed through the perfection of its design. Rambam argues it is unreasonable to posit that one is created with an imperfect body that one must complete.

Rambam then makes an amazing statement:

[The objective of] this mitzvah is not the elimination of a deficiency in the creation. Rather, it is the elimination of a character defect. The bodily damage done to this organ is the objective! It is not even minimally impaired [in its performance] of those actions that sustain humanity (i.e. reproduction). It is not rendered infertile. Rather, through it, excessive lust and instinctual desire are reduced…. (Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 49)

We may debate the veracity of Rambam’s assertions concerning the physical impact of circumcision. But let us put aside such objections and focus upon his overall explanation of the mitzvah. His position is that the human body is more perfect before circumcision. This assessment is from a strictly organic or biological perspective. If the human being is assessed strictly from this perspective, the uncircumcised anthropoid is more perfect. Why is this? The perfection of a reproductive organ is its efficiency and prolificity. The intensity of the instinctual drive contributes to this perfection. Because Rambam contends that the uncircumcised organ contributes to greater or more intense drive, it is more perfect.

Why are we commanded to create a physical defect in the infant? Rambam explains that this is because we are not merely biological or organic creatures. The human being is created in Hashem’s image. We are endowed with an eternal soul. However, the soul and body exist in conflict. The urges of the body can supplant the soul’s drive for spiritual fulfillment. The body’s urges must be moderated for the sake of spiritual pursuit. The mitzvah of Milah tempers a basic instinct and facilitates spiritual endeavor. 

It can be added that by tempering this instinct, Milah also serves a reminder. It reminds us that we seek moderation in all our urges – that this moderation is essential to achieving spiritual perfection. 

IV. The reality of the halachic perspective

Let us consider a final interpretation of the mitzvah of Milah. This interpretation accepts Rambam’s assumption that circumcision detracts from the body’s perfection. As explained above, this assessment views the human being as a biological creature. Viewed as an anthropoid, the circumcised infant his blemished. However, halachah establishes its own reality and framework. From this framework, the circumcision perfects the infant. Before the performance of the mitzvah the infant is halachically defective. Milah removes the defect and endows the infant with the material form that halachah defines as perfected. Circumcision creates a defect from a biological perspective and a perfection from the halachic perspective. The mitzvah of Milah requires that we reject the materialistic framework and replace it with a halachic framework.

The mitzvah communicates a profound message. The halachic perspective is more real than the materialistic perspective. Let’s consider another example of this concept. Each week one day is sanctified – Shabbat. From a materialistic perspective, this day is not different from the other days of the week. Halachah endows this time with sanctity. Activities performed on other days are not to be performed on Shabbat. Instead, it is a day devoted to reflection, devotion to Hashem and Torah, and spiritual endeavor. The institution of Shabbat requires that we assign uniqueness to a day that is materially undifferentiated from the other days of the week. What does this mean, practically?

V. Making it real

Imagine a short winter Friday. I rush home from work and prepare for Shabbat. It is time to light candles. We light candles, accept upon ourselves the sanctity of Shabbat. I notice that I forgot to turn on the light over the dining room table. We have invited guests. What should we do? Will we bring our guests into a dark room? We just kindled the candles a moment ago! How different is this moment in time from five minutes ago? Five minutes ago – before we lit the candles – I could have switched on the light over the table. Must we now suffer embarrassment and ruin our evening with our guests because five indistinguishable minutes have passed? 

How I will respond to this dilemma depends on my capacity to accept the primacy of the halachic framework. If I am ensnared within a material perspective of time, then I will flip the switch. If I embrace the reality of halachic perspective, then I will know that this moment is completely different from five minutes ago. I will move forward accepting that the solution to my dilemma cannot be flipping the switch. 

[1] Rabbaynu Saadia Gaon, Emunot VeDe’ot, essay 3, chapter 10, part 7.

[2] Rabbaynu Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 2.