Parashat Lech Lecha: Genesis 12:1-17:27
When God instructs Abram and Sarai to go to a new land that God will show them and promises them that they will give birth to a great nation which will be aggrandized, note that “aggrandized’ has two very different meanings: 1) an increase in power, wealth or authority, and 2) an enhanced reputation incongruent with empirical reality. The first has sometimes been true for small golden ages of Jewish history. The latter, in contrast, has been a constant of that same history.
This week, two of the three Nobel prize winners for medicine were Jews, one of the two winners of the Nobel prize for physics was Jewish, three of the three Nobel prize winners for chemistry were Jewish (two were Israelis). (The literature Nobel prize went to a marvellous Canadian writer, Alice Monroe. The previous writer to win, ostensibly from Canada, was a Canadian-born Jewish American, Saul Bellow in 1976.) Jews, constituting, not 2%, but .2%, of the world’s population have clearly won a very disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. The number of awards and the numbers in that population are just so out of whack that Jews can be considered aggrandized in the second sense above. But from this aggrandizement, all the families of the earth are blessed by all those who win Nobel prizes.
However, how Jews got from the original promise to the here and now has been very twisted. Abram and Sarai take their nephew, Lot, along to travel to the promised land. The promised land, when they get there, is not so promising; there is a famine, So they go onto Egypt. A very strange thing happens. Abram anticipates Egyptians coveting his wife because she is a very attractive woman. So he tells Sarai to say she is his sister. Why this will protect her any better is not clear. What is clear is that Abram does not have her protection foremost in mind but his own. For if Sarai is his wife, Egyptians will feel the need to kill him in order to take Sarai as a bondswoman. If Abram is her brother, then they will spare Abram in order to bargain for the favours of Sarai. Quite an ignominious beginning to a nation that will be aggrandized! For when Sarai finds favour in the Pharoah’s eyes, Abram’s life is not only spared, but he is rewarded with herds of animals and lots of servants. The nation begins with Abram pimping for his supposed sister who is really his wife.
When Egypt suffers a host of plagues, the Pharaoh somehow learns that the woman Abram gave for his favour was his wife, not his sister. To get rid of the plagues, he orders Abram to take Sarai, whom Pharaoh had married, and leave Egypt with all his flocks and servants. Lot, who has also grown wealthy alongside his uncle, also leaves. When they return to Canaan, Abram and his nephew are no longer getting along. They part ways. Lot chooses to go to Jordan, making his base in Sodom, an evil and licentious city, while Abram settled in Canaan. God reiterates his promise that Abram will father a great nation and this land of Canaan will belong to Abram and his descendents.
Then chapter 14 tells of an interval of politics and warfare whereby one alliance of kings conquers the land and cities where Lot lived and took Lot captive. Then Abram with 318 of his men conquered the conquerors, freed Lot and allowed the kings who survived to resume their rule. The King of Sodom offered to reward him. While Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre were allowed to take their share, Abram replied: “Neither from a thread to a shoe strap, nor will I take from whatever is yours, that you should not say, ‘I have made Abram wealthy.'” Abram did not seem to have the same inhibitions when dealing with Pharaoh.
However, Abram and Sarai remained childless and Abram wanted an heir. God swore to him that he would not only have an heir, but his offspring would be like the stars in heaven. Abram makes a sacrifice as surety for the promise and then, exhausted, falls asleep. God appears in his dream and very tersely foretells the four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” God then goes beyond just a promise and makes the famous covenant with Abram.
Still no child! So Sarai offers Abram her handmaid, Hagar. Hagar not only gets pregnant, but also evidently gets snooty with Sarai. Sarai beat her and drove her out of the camp. The angel of the Lord appears to Hagar, convinces her to return to camp even though she will be mistreated by Sarai, instructs her to name her son Ishmael and promises that his descendents will be abundant beyond belief. Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old.
Five years later, when Abram is ninety-one, God reiterates and renews his covenant with Abram and renames him Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Circumcision of his offspring on the eighth day will provide the evidence of the children of Abraham to uphold that covenant. “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” God reiterates his promise of a child who shall be called Isaac. Eight years later, Abraham at ninety-nine takes every member of his household, including his young son Ishmael, and they are all circumcised. Ishmael is 13 years old.
My weird question is: does circumcising a child at eight days old have anything to do with winning a Nobel prize? On 25 September, two right wing Members of the Swedish Parliament introduced a motion to ban non-medically related circumcision on young children. The same Parliament awards the Nobel prizes through a series of Nobel prise committees. Surely there can be no connection between Jews being circumcised and winning Nobel prizes in science, or between Sweden awarding such prizes and Sweden being a leading country opposing circumcision. I want to make a circumstantial argument for just such a connection.
First, let me take up the medical opposition to religious circumcision of male children. The opposition is not rooted in science. After all, in 2012, the AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued that the preventive health benefits of newborn circumcision outweighed the risks as long as that circumcision was performed by trained professionals under sterile conditions with appropriate pain management. Medical benefits included prevention of urinary tract infection, genital carcinoma, reduced transmission of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reductions in rates of phimosis, paraphimosis, pseudophimosis, balanistis. Genital carcinoma is the top ranked cancer among Swedish males. Yet Dutch, British as well as Scandinavian pediatricians were not convinced of the benefits of circumcision as a routine practice. Further, in 2002, Sweden introduced restrictive legislation on male circumcision and, subsequently, the Swedish Pediatric Society called for a complete ban on ritual circumcision.
However, I do not want to enter into the fray of the scientific evidence for and against the circumcision of male infants at 8 days old. Instead, though I believe the opposition to ritual circumcision is rooted more in non-science, so, I believe, is the defence. Further, what I claim is the real underlying reason for infant male circumcision, I believe, can be circumstantially related to Jews winning a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes. What is that underlying reason?
Let us admit the following. Circumcision is observably painful. Further, there is psychological evidence of long term emotional effects. Circumcision of an infant at eight days old does violate a child. Maimonides (the Rambam) argued that the bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. I agree. Further, he argued that the bodily pain inflicted upon an infant had a moral purpose. Here, I also agree. However, the Rambam also argued that the moral purpose was a weakened sexual satisfaction and lessened lust. I disagree. I have seen no scientific evidence for weakened lust among Jewish males and Philip Roth will one day win a Nobel prize for demonstrating precisely that.
The moral purpose is not some puritanical assault on the passions but teaching Jewish males distrust or scepticism. After all, if your father could do that to you at eight days old, if the father of your people could listen to God and be willing to kill his long-promised son, then a child who grows up has to be very wary about those around him. Faith and trust in others is not a lesson of Judaism, even faith in God. In fact, as the arguments with God over the ages attest, one perhaps has to be most wary of God. Judaism does not teach faith or love – agape – but hesed, faithfulness. You must be faithful to your father and to God, but you do not have to have faith in either one. They may or may not deliver on their promises.
That is the moral lesson that is slit into every Jewish male’s penis. Be wary. Be sceptical. Even those closest to you can harm you. That moral lesson is translated into a general inquisitorial stance that teaches Jews to query everything and not take received wisdom on authority. Even the ultra-orthodox are taught to query and probe the meaning of text.
“My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.” It is a valuable lesson and well worth the pain inflicted on an eight day old male baby. After all, someday he might win a Nobel prize.