The Circumcised Heart

Rabbi Reuven Mann

The commandment of circumcision is an essential feature of Judaism. Every Jewish male child is to have a Brit on the eight day of his life. The obligation to have this done lies upon the father, who normally contracts with a capable Mohel (expert in circumcision) to act as his agent in this matter. It is interesting to note that this Mitzvah is one which has wide acceptance among the normally diverse Jewish People. Although in many ways witnessing the procedure being performed on one’s child is far from a comfortable experience, this does not deter the bulk of the Jews, religious and secular, from observing this commandment. 

It seems that there are certain of Judaism’s practices that serve to define one as a Jew. Indeed, an uncircumcised man is lacking in terms of his Jewish character. He is specifically proscribed from participating in the Passover sacrifice and is considered to be not fully integrated into the “Covenant of Avraham”, although he still remains obligated in all of the Torah’s Mitzvot. It should be noted that if for some reason one did not have a Brit (circumcision) as a child, the obligation devolves upon him when he reaches the age of Bar Mitzvah.

The Mitzvah of Milah contains an additional purpose, that of differentiating man from the animals. Judaism does not enjoin man to suppress all of his physical desires, nor does it aver that the sexual urge is “evil.” The sexual instinct has been designated by the Creator to be the vehicle of the great Mitzvah of procreation. One can’t argue then that the activity which produces children is immoral.

Nor does Judaism maintain that sex is permissible only when there is a chance that pregnancy will result. Sex is a basic physical and emotional need of humans and when gratified in the appropriate contexts is a positive thing. Indeed, one of the ways in which one fulfills Oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of Shabbat) is via sexual relations with one’s spouse.

However, Judaism does maintain that the sexual instinct should be gratified in the framework of control and moderation. One should not live an animalistic life in which his primary purpose is to obtain carnal gratification through excessive eating, drinking and sensual indulgences. Such a life denies the essence of man and negates the possibility of fulfilling the true purpose for which people were created.

The Torah, at its very beginning, asserts that “Hashem created man in His Image, in the Image of G-d created He him, male and female created He them” (Bereishit 1:27). The differentiating element in man is the divine soul which no animal possesses. This refers to that part of man which enables him to obtain wisdom and allows him to gain a knowledge of his Creator. His task is to emulate, in the human framework, the ways of divine wisdom and goodness that the Creator has revealed to us in His Torah.

This week’s Parsha, Eikev, introduces us to a new dimension of circumcision, that of the heart. It is obvious that this cannot be taken in the literal sense, so we need to ascertain its true intention.

All of the major commentators agree that this refers to a process of cleansing the mind from all the factors which cause it to distort the truth. Says the Ibn Ezra, “The reference is to separation from lusts, which are as gross and leaden as a foreskin. It is also possible that it refers to cleansing the heart until one understands the truth.”

And the Sforno comments, “Therefore it is fitting that you remove the foreskin (covering) of your intelligence, by examining and eliminating the errors (of your thinking) which give birth to false ideas (philosophies).”

And Ramban (Nachmanides) succinctly states, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart—that your heart be open to know the truth…”

The circumcision of the body is thus qualified by that of the mind. The goal of the Brit Milah is to transform a physical being into a thinking creature who masters his impulses and elevates his mind so that it can ascertain accurate knowledge of the Creator and what He desires of us. He has revealed to us what is good in His holy Torah and has given us the apparatus by which we are to study and apprehend it.

It is our task to treasure the divine soul with which we have been endowed, train it, develop it and live a life of moderation and sensible indulgence so that we are not enslaved by our sensual desires and can rise to the level of being a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.” May we have the wisdom and determination to achieve this goal.

Shabbat Shalom.