Friday, April 12, 2013

Circumcision and Impurity of Birth

At the beginning of our portion, we read of the impurity brought on by the process of birth. The mother who bears a son is impure for seven days, after which she can become pure. Immediately after this, on the eighth day, the infant is circumcised. The Talmud (Nida 31) asks, "Why does the Torah say that circumcision is on the eighth day? So that it should not be that everyone is happy, while the infant's father and mother are sad." This is a strange statement; since when do we require harmony between a man and his wife before we do mitzvot? On the contrary, at the height of national experience, at Mt Sinai, we are commanded to separate from spouses! Even the very celebration of the coming together of man and wife, the marriage ceremony, is not postponed in case of a bride who is in a state of impurity. What then is the meaning of this talmudic statement which ascribes to the Torah the demand of intimate happiness between husband and wife as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the mila command? An understanding of the division between the impurity and the circumcision can be attained from another midrash on the same page of Nidah, but first, a short introduction.

Rabbi Soloveitchik in Lonely Man of Faith (p 11) writes of two dimensions to Man, dignified Man and cathartic Man. The "image of God" impressed upon humanity refers to its "inner charismatic endowment as a creative being." Rav Kook also points to the creative faculty of the human as a prime way in which we light up the dark world with the supernal light of divinity. Indeed, the Rambam in his Guide (1:54 second to last paragraph) states that the highest purpose of humanity is to imitate God to the best of our ability. This would include not only just as he demonstrates mercy, so shall you be merciful, but also, just as he creates, so too, be creative1. The creativity of which both these philosophers speak is contingent upon an understanding that mankind is truly free - that Man possesses the ability to choose this or that action at any point. Without this freedom, creativity is prevented by definition, and Man becomes mired deterministically in whatever place he finds himself, and any activity or product in which he engages is not really his in any real sense. Proprietary rights assume freedom; a slave, whose productive freedom is shackled into bondage to his master, is not really a producer, but a tool in the arsenal of his master.

The creative faculty of humanity and its extent are expressed impressively in another talmudic statement on the same page, and this second statement can help explain the midrash with which we started. The second statement is as follows: there are three partners in the creation of a child, his father, his mother, and God. The first thing that immediately presents itself is the term "partners". The polar opposite of the slave is the partner. While the slave is owned, subsumed by the master, the other, the partner, maintains his independent persona, free to decide to maintain or nullify the partnership at will. When partners create something, they both have equal part in its credit2. Man and woman together are essential participants in the creation of a being which never existed before, and will never be created again. Just as one who saves a life (see Sanhedrin 4:5 as quoted in Bavli, Yerushalmi and Rambam for slight variances in the text; see the manuscripts of the Mishna which do not include the phrase, "of an Israelite" as the printed text does), is considered to have saved an entire world, we might safely say that one who brings a life into this world is, so to speak, like God, who created the entire world. Creative Man is compared to God: he creates. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tazria 5) records Rabbi Akiva's answer to Tinnitus the roman, "If God wanted Man circumcised, why was he not born so? For God gave commandments to Israel in order to refine them!" Man is incomplete without circumcision, and the reason he is not born circumcised is to allow him to perfect himself.

This power of creativity, the chance to perfect by our own acts an in complete creature, reflects our task in this world. We are here for no less important reason than to perfect the world. A boy is not born circumcised; he is born incomplete, physically and morally. Just as it takes parental involvement to perfect him physically, it takes years of education, nurturing and training to turn out good deeds, humility, generosity. And so it is with the entire world: born into an unredeemed world, our task is to bring it to deserve redemption.

Rabbi Hirsch explains the idea of impurity as the polar opposite of freedom. A person who is brought face to face with an unsympathetic understanding of the limits of his abilities (for example, one who comes into contact with a dead body), may sink dejected into depression and sadness, quoting Kohelet: the end of humans is the same as the end of the beasts, they share the same fate, the death of one is the same as the death of the other. This dirge can easily bring a person to throw up his hands in defeat, surrendering his holy, creative task in this world.

It is precisely at the beginning of the life-journey of an infant, when all vistas beckon invitingly to him and his parents, at the first free-willed act to be done in his life, that it is unfitting that the dark murmurings of tum'ah be heard. We therefore wait until his parents are together in matrimonial harmony, glad with the שמחה של  מצווה, to circumcise him. Only in a state of complete suffusion of creative, free-willed action can the child be called into his task through circumcision: to build himself, to fashion a good human out of the biological creature born, and generalize this concept into his general purpose, to perfect the world - לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די.
1 The attribute of creativity is a slightly difficult one in this context. It was the subject of intense disagreement between the two major schools of Islamic thought in the ninth to eleventh centuries. The third of the four Aristotelian causes is the efficient cause. This is the immediate actor or event which directly leads to an event (see a discussion of the causes here. For example, the efficient cause of a scroll is the scribe. Early Kalam thought, as propounded by Ibn Sinna and the Mu'tazilie school, see God as the primary cause of the world, but the events of nature dictated by secondary efficient causes. Thus mankind can be said to create, and "creative" can be used as an attribute of mankind. In response to this, al-Ghazali and the Ash'ari school of Kalam set forth a view called occasionalism, that any secondary efficient cause diminishes God's power. Cotton burns not because of fire, but because of God's interference. God's rationality means that he interferes similarly in similar situations, and the repetition of these interferences is what we call the laws of nature (source).
The Rambam writes against the occasionalist school of thought, positing that it's insistence on a constantly created universe does away with the laws of nature (source). While may seem a simple matter for Rav Soloveitchik to make a statement regarding man's creative aspect, it is important to remember the philosophic baggage and historical dialogue that surrounded this issue.

2 See Philo ("On the Life of Moses" (1:155-158), who makes a similar point about partnership. However, he states it as the main difference between Moses and all other humans, what makes Moses' intimacy with God qualitatively different from anyone else.




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