British journalist Ally Fogg is aghast that some rabbinical court in Israel ruled that a baby boy had to be circumcised. His piece is well worth reading, but to me the most interesting bit is that the court mentioned a strange-sounding theological justification for circumcision:
The district Rabbinical court of Sharon disagreed, ruling that “The Jewish people have always seen the circumcision as an act of repairing and completing the Creation.”
Really? You’re going to repair and complete the “Creation” by snipping a body part, admittedly a small one, off a person whose anatomy you would presumably consider to have been Created? Did Yahweh make a design error when he endowed male humans with that little flap of skin, like some overenthusiastic Baroque architect putting a few too many ornamental frills on a building that would actually look better without them? Fogg doesn’t really discuss the issue, so I looked elsewhere and found that, yes, the notion that circumcision is an act of repair is at least a fairly mainstream idea in Jewish religious thought.
In the midrash, a pagan philosopher asks Rabbi Oshaya, “If G-d loves circumcision so much, why wasn’t Adam created already circumcised?” The rabbi replied, “Observe that everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing: mustard needs sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man needs repair [tikkun]” (Genesis Rabbah 11:6). According to this midrash, circumcision symbolizes the unfinished nature of creation. Everything in the world needs work, improvement, and repair. Even humanity is created imperfect. The act of circumcision is understood as an act of tikkun. Humans must work in the world to sweeten and improve and repair G-d’s unfinished creation, starting with the self.
I imagine the pagan philosopher, who clearly possessed a knack for asking sensible questions, had a good chuckle over that one. Yahweh sheathed the whole penis in skin, thoughtfully making the skin covering the tip loose and retractable, but considered the carefully sculpted loose and retractable bit to be an imperfection that had to be removed in order to tikkun a baby’s todger? Next you’ll be telling me that men have one less pair of ribs than women, that snakes can talk, or that the waters of the Red Sea obligingly sloshed aside for the convenience of a bunch of runaway slaves… Oh, wait a minute.
It does work a little better, though, when the principle behind the idea is explained:
In particular, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that G-d’s creation of an imperfect world was a deliberate act of love to leave room for human action. G-d invites humans to assume the role of partners in finishing the tasks of creation. Humans are agents of G-d in the world.
That’s patronizing as hell, of course, but at least it makes a kind of sense. I suppose it’s possible in theory that the universe was created by some omnipotent twerp who deliberately made everything a bit substandard just so that humans could feel useful because they were Forging a Better World. However, the logic stumbles in the specific case of the penis, given that the foreskin actually seems to be a feature rather than a bug.
It also bears pointing out – following in the vein of my last post – that “imperfect world” is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Nature is cruel, human is wolf to human, and Jews of all people should have some notion of just how much pain and horror Homo sapiens can inflict on itself. Are genocidal impulses like the foreskin, a small imperfection to be tikkuned away by the conscientious believer?
Religious Jews seem pretty serious about this business of tikkuning. They even have a term for repairing the whole world, tikkun olam, which despite its complexities seems imperialistic at worst and rather busybodyish at best. In my opinion geopolitics are much more civilized when we all give each other a bit of space. I’m not about to go on the warpath against the rabbinical court that wanted to tikkun that little boy’s todger, because I don’t feel any real need to tikkun Israel. And if the Israelis want to tikkun Canada, according to their own notions of the good and the beautiful, they’d bloody well better ask permission first.