Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order
We are into anniversaries – the 50th year since the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, was captured in Bolivia and the signing of The Outer Space Treaty bringing modern law of the open seas into space law. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but also the Bolshevik Revolution and the defeat of German troops by the British in the Battle of Broodseinde signally the eventual defeat of Germany. It is the 150th anniversary since Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of the Species, and since Canada was created as a country. Finally, this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing or gluing his 95 theses on a church door signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
But what did we study in our Torah study group last week – God’s covenant of the promised land with Abraham and the circumcision of Abraham and his entourage as a sign of that covenant. (Genesis 17: 1-14, the ending of the parsha, Lech-Lecha – see below) This week – Vayeira, Genesis 18-22 – begins with the controversy over who were the three individuals who appeared at the opening of Abraham’s tent and asked about the well-being of his wife, Sarah.
Strangely, all of the above events are connected. Let me begin with the most absurd claim, that the ritual of Jewish circumcision had any relationship to the above momentous historical events. In the Torah, circumcision is not recorded as an act of health to reduce the chances of venereal diseases and of AIDS and, in modern parlance, to ensure the survival of the fittest. Although Talmudists depict the act as removing a defect and the ritual an act of human intervention to advance the cause of perfection, circumcision is much more significant as a sign.
From the ancient Hellenistic-Roman world, when circumcision was regarded as a barbarous act, to the modern world when circumcision is seen to conflict with a reverence for “the natural” and inflicting pain on a child regarded as an abuse of rights, circumcision was connected with misanthropy. In response, circumcision has been defended by Jews as an improvement over a natural defect that, without correction, led to disease and sometimes even death. The link to a deficiency is reinforced when Moses referred to his stutter as “having uncircumcised lips.”
However, Ezekiel viewed circumcision, not as a minor flaw to correct an imperfection, but as a major transformation. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) He was not talking about cleaning out the coronary arteries, performing a valve replacement or even using surgery to correct a thickening of the walls of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but a transplant operation wherein one obtains a new heart. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant between God and his people that will give them a new spirit. Circumcision is not, as it was for Philo, the excision of an unwanted and even evil presence, literally a catharsis, an excision of desire and vanity, but a process of being reborn with a new name and a new mission. Possessing a foreskin is not a mark of Cain; it is not a defilement. However, its removal is an opportunity.
Christians took the revolutionary transformational rather than reform version of circumcision a step further. One did not even have to imprint the revolution in one’s flesh, for faith in Jesus alone would bring about the transformation. One merely needed to surrender oneself to Christ. As Paul said, the “true” Israelites are “not children of the flesh…but the children of the promise.” What does such a debate have to do with the Cuban revolution and with Outer Space as a realm for the whole human race and not just for the powerful? What does it have to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, the British defeat of Germany in WWI and the instantiation of Zionism into international law with the Balfour declaration? More significantly, what does it have to do with Darwin’s theory of natural selection and with Martin Luther?
The Darwinian connection, ironically, is the easiest to answer, though only in a simplified form; natural selection is the scientific inversion of the theological doctrine of divine election. Circumcision certainly has a great deal to do with election and promise. For God promises Abraham, of which circumcision is a sign, two things – that he will be the forefather of many nations and that his direct descendants, the Israelites, will be a nation that will possess the land of Canaan. Christian Zionists, who preceded Jewish Zionists, married the two tracks of the Abraham covenant by viewing their own nation in the Enlightenment world as one of many nations chosen to fulfill the covenant, but that the Jews had a unique role for they had to be restored to their land for the covenant for all nations to be fulfilled. For some Christians, this also meant that all Jews had to be converted to a belief in Christ in order to bring about the Second Coming. For other Christians, these millenarian beliefs were independent and not linked to restorationism.
When I was entering my teens, there was a storefront just north of Bloor Street on Markham Street in the City of Toronto that offered an outreach to Jews. I recall distinctly going into their small office and receiving a nickel (5 cents) if I promised to read the pamphlet they handed me. Much later in my life, I would host a television program for twelve years on a Christian evangelical station which, contrary to widespread belief in the Jewish community, did not expect or push Jewish conversion to Christianity, or even expect that mass Jewish conversion to happen as a precursor to the Second Coming, but instead believed in restorationism, in a resurrected Israel as the precursor to a resurrected Jesus. Further, the term Israel was also detached from its specific association with the Jewish people and linked to a self-definition of one’s own nation as one also descended spiritually from Abraham.
Between these two periods, in 1980 I undertook an investigation of the source of the promise of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1979 to move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a promise that turned into a fiasco. My link began with a meeting in early spring of 1979 convened by the Canadian Jewish lobby group to solicit the advice of Irving Abella, Harry Crowe and myself, about whether the Canadian organization advancing the cause of Israel in Canada should act on Prime Minster Begin’s request that Canadian Jews lobby the Canadian government to make such a move. The three of us thought it was a bad idea, very unlikely to happen and likely would result in a terrible backlash.
In the 1979 Canadian election, the Tories adopted such a program and the Jewish lobby was riven with suspicion and divisions over whether the professionals in the Jewish organization had betrayed the board of directors by advancing such an effort even though the board had deliberately not adopted such a program. I knew the executive had not been responsible. But then why did the Tories adopt the platform? When I was in Israel that winter, I heard a bizarre explanation. Before the election, Joe Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, in the company of friends, a Jewish couple without a close connection to the organized Jewish community or Zionism, had visited Israel and Jordan. They were feted in Israel. While in Jordan, the king had made them wait for two hours before granting them an audience. Maureen was particularly stirred up by this insult that so contrasted with the way they had been treated in Israel; she pushed Joe to adopt the policy of Canada moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
I thought the Israeli explanation was far-fetched at the very least and ill-fitted my knowledge of the extraordinary norms of hospitality of Arabs in general and of the royal household in Jordan more particularly. In any case, how could such an intemperate fit, itself incredible, result in the Tories adopting the decision? When I returned, I determined to research the issue and publish my findings – which I did. The results of the scholarship had virtually no impact on the widespread belief in the Jewish community that the Tories had been influenced by some of the Jewish community’s professional staff, in spite of an absence of any authorization to lobby for such a move, and by the goal of winning ridings in which Jews were a significant presence.
The truth was both more mundane and far more fascinating. A 5-person Tory policy committee dominated by Christian Zionists and led by Lowell Murray, a policy advisor to Joe Clark, (Murray was named a senator after Joe Clark took power on 4 June 1979) had met prior to the election campaign and adopted as part of the Tory program the promise to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem. Thus, the Canadian Conservative policy in 1979 had a kinship with the Balfour declaration and the efforts of David Lloyd George to implement what he had learned in Sunday school.
This interpretation of the significance of Britain’s imminent defeat of Germany, creating political space for the realization of restorationism, was deeply entrenched in British history, not simply in the Christian Zionist writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury, but in the theology of John Calvin versus that of Martin Luther. Both Calvin and Luther were “literalists” opposed to the manifold treatment of the biblical texts via metaphor, allegory (as in preterism, the belief that prophecies were merely allegories for actual historical events that had already taken place) and analogy. Both believed in the necessity of a Jewish mass conversion preceding the Second Coming. However, Marin Luther became enraged by Jewish resistance and became openly and strongly anti-Semitic. Calvin never abandoned his belief in Jewish restoration.
In America, Calvinism became associated with an obsession with God’s chosen people, a national belief in American exceptionalism and the singular mission of the American nation as well as the Protestant ethic and a reverence for individualism. It was also rooted in hermeneutics. John Winthrop in his well-known “City upon a hill” speech in 1630 as the Puritan Governor of Massachusetts described the Puritans in America as persecuted refugees who had inherited a special covenant with God and a special mission in history. This Christian Zionism was also put forth by John Cotton and his disciple, Increase Mather, who became president of Harvard.
When did the Jewish return to Palestine, restorationism, get divorced from the belief in mass Jewish conversion as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, with millenarian hopes? I believe it came about by the creation of what my colleague, Sanford Levinson, depicted as the Constitutional Faith that underpins the American view of the world and their place in it. For unlike Winthrop, who resisted the expansion of civil and political rights and refused to codify the laws governing the colony, the Constitutional Faith emerged as a belief in a civic religion rooted in the rule of law that can be established without any requisite preconditions, least among them, mass conversion of the Jews. It was this civic religion that painted King George III as the anti-Christ and provided the theological foundation for the Revolutionary War even though Cromwell a century earlier had believed in restorationism and had allowed the Jews to once again reside in Britain. Bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been adopted as the American vision.
However, Christian Zionism, globalization and the rights of free passage across the seas and through space had even earlier roots in Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and Peace – De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres as long as one does not rely on Louise Loomis’ 1949 translation which leaves out most of the Jewish references. Grotius was a seventeenth century Dutch Arminian. He read Hebrew and Jewish exegetes rather than relying on the Latin text of the Bible. He was a follower of the Dutch Reformed theologian, Jacobus Arminus, who grew up immersed in Calvinist theology but, along with his Remonstrant colleagues, emphasized election and the role of grace in freeing men as well as the freedom of the individual to receive or deny that grace. They believed in biblical scriptural interpretation as the mode of determining who can be saved. Grotius as a Remonstrant opposed the Calvinism of the Gomarists.
Grotius was a nationalist who opposed Spanish domination, but a nationalist who believed that nations could live in peace and prosperity if they all abided by a universal law binding all humanity. Hence, the Just Theory of War. He, along with Thomas Goodwin and John Wycliffe, viewed the Jewish restoration to their covenantal land as a sine qua non for the full flowering of international law.
Grotius, along with John Owen and Joseph Mede, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, were restorationists rather than revolutionaries, and realists rather than millenarists. America, as its national belief system evolved, had a special mission. Under Abraham Lincoln, Americans fought a war for the universal rights of man rather that the particularist rights of slave holders. When Abraham Lincoln met the Canadian, Henry Wentworth Monk, in 1863, they discussed the unique role of each of their nations, one in gestation and the other engaged in a bitter fight between twins.
Lincoln had joked about his Jewish podiatrist who had been the source of his ability to stand without pain on his own two feet and joined with Monk in lauding a new moral order, with Monk stressing the prerequisite condition of restoring Jews to their own land in Palestine which, for Monk, was a precondition for Christ’s second advent. Lincoln, though he admired Monk, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and expressed sympathy for the ideal of restoring the Jews to Palestine, but was never allowed time to implement that dream. In light of the controversies this past week over John Kelly’s remarks on the secessionist, General Robert E. Lee, and the issue of compromise or no compromise with advocates of slavery, Monk took up both positions and impossibly urged compromise on secession, but only if the South agreed to free its slaves and abolish slavery.
Monk advocated a world government based in Jerusalem and globalization rooted in the age of railways and steamships, telegraphs and newspapers. Unlike Hugo Grotius, who died as a result of the injuries and ill heath resulting from his shipwreck, Monk was restored to health in spite of coming close to death in the wreck of his ship off the cost of Massachusetts. He survived for several decades living on his family farm in the Ottawa Valley and promoting not only restoration of the Jews to Palestine, but the creation of an international court to ensure world peace, a vision adopted by the Conservative leader, George Moffat, and eventually developed by the Dutch heirs of Hugo Grotius that led to the founding of the international court in The Hague.
Thus are great international innovations and nationalist visions a by-product of debates over circumcision.
With the help of Alex Zisman