Parshas Lech Lecha
B'rit Milah and Karet
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
KARET: "INTERVENTION" OR "INHERENCE"?
"This is My covenant that you shall keep...circumcise all of your males. The
male that does not circumcise his flesh, that soul shall be cut off from its
nation..." (B'resheet 17:10,14). For the first time, the Torah introduces
us to the punishment known as "Karet"-excision from the nation.
In an earlier essay, in discussing the Flood, I introduced the notion of
"Inherence": the idea that God's rewards and punishments are "built in" to
the scheme of this world and are not a suspension of the natural order. We
found that to be an acceptable approach to the Flood; can we go one step
further and apply "Inherence" to prescribed punishments, such as Karet? I
believe that we can.
The punishment of Karet (the meaning of which is the source of dispute both
in the Gemara and among the Rishonim) can be found later on in the Torah as
the consequence of violating any one of a number of prohibitions (notably in
the areas of Mikdash and Arayot [sexual taboos]); however, there is
something almost unique about its application in the case of B'rit Milah -
and therein may lie the solution to the "Inherence" perspective here.
MITZVOT 'ASEH AND MITZVOT LO TA'ASEH
All Mitzvot can be broken down, binary-fashion, in a number of ways. We are
familiar with the division of "Mitzvot Bein Adam laMakom" (Mitzvot whose
realm is exclusive to the relationship between man and God) and "Mitzvot
Bein Adam laHavero" (Mitzvot affecting interpersonal relationships); we are
also familiar with "Mitzvot haT'luyot ba'Aretz" (Mitzvot which are
agriculturally-driven) and "Mitzvot she'Einan T'luyot ba'Aretz" (Mitzvot
which are independent of land); we also recognize the division of "Mitzvot
'Aseh shehaZ'man G'rama" (Mitzvot of commission which can only be fulfilled
at a set time) and "Mitzvot 'Aseh sheLo haZ'man G'rama" (Mitzvot of
commission whose fulfillment is not limited by time constraints). The most
basic division with which we are familiar is, of course, "Mitzvot 'Aseh"
(Mitzvot of commission, e.g. eating Matza, shaking a Lulav, giving Tz'dakah)
and "Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh' (Mitzvot of omission; e.g. avoiding mixing milk and
meat, avoiding "M'lakhah" on Shabbat, not turning a deaf ear to a fellow in
It is a rule of thumb that punishments - whether administered by an earthly
tribunal or by the Heavenely Court - are only meted out for a specific
violation of a Mitzvat Lo Ta'aseh. (see, for instance, MT Sanhedrin 19:3).
This is true in a "technical" sense, even though we do not have "inside
information" as to how each individual is judged by God; within the
framework of Heavenly punishments (Karet, Mitah biY'dei Shamayim), this rule
generally holds true - only violations of Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh carry the
consequence of punishment.
[one clarification: It is clear that failing to fulfill a Mitzvat 'Aseh
demands Kapparah - atonement - which is the purpose of the 'Olat N'davah.
Note MT Ma'aseh haKorbanot 3:14]
B'RIT MILAH AND KORBAN PESACH
There are only two Mitzvot 'Aseh whose non-fulfillment results in a formal
punishment: B'rit Milah and partaking of the Pessach offering (Bamidbar
9:13). In both cases, the punishment is "Karet".
When two Mitzvot command their own category, sui generis, two questions
1) What makes them unique and
2) What features do they have in common?
By investigating the special nature of 'Am Yisra'el, we can, hopefully,
discover the nature of these two "exceptional" Mitzvot.
THE PRICE OF MEMBERSHIP
Membership in any group provides companionship and a sense of shared
purpose. In return, the members occasionally must sacrifice their
individual desires and needs. There is invariably an equation between the
extent to which one negates one's self towards the group and the sense of
sharedness with that group.
The Torah makes demands upon the individual in his daily life: a multitude
of restrictions, a higher business ethic and a theocentric sensitivity. In
order to claim membership in 'Am Yisra'el, however, it is not sufficient to
be an ethically aware and theologically oriented individual. To be a Jew
means joining the Jewish Nation. That means sharing the goals, dreams, joys
and sorrows of an age-old and forever-young people. It means a shared
history and a common destiny. Imagine someone living a life of Halakha
today, insensitive, on the one hand, to the glorious rebirth of the State of
Israel; while apathetic to the high rate of assimilation right here in
America. They would be missing the central, crowning feature of Am Yisrael:
Community. Note Rambam's formulation regarding someone who is not involved
in communal concerns:
"Someone who separates himself from the community (even though he does not
transgress any violations), who isolates himself from the congregation of
Yisra'el, not fulfilling Mitzvot among them, not involving himself in their
troubles and not fasting during their fast days; rather, he goes his merry
way like one of the non-Jews, as if he were not one of them - has no portion
in the World to Come" (MT T'shuvah 3:11)
Indeed, all of our fixed liturgical petitions are in the plural number,
indicating a communal request: "Grant us knowledge, redeem us, heal us..."
Until we are all healed, no one of us is truly healed; a member of our
groups suffers and we suffer along with him. A friend is bereaved, we are
sad; not just for his loss, for it is our loss too (and therein lies his
(According to the RAN in Rosh haShanah, this same reasoning may be applied
to the justification for reciting B'rakhot on behalf of others - see the
sugya there at 29a).
One who refuses to participate in the rituals that define one as a member of
the group, is surely "cut off" from the group. This is the natural result
of his actions: non-participation in the most fundamental group rite is
active denial of membership.
BELONGING TO THE NATION:
COMMON HISTORY AND
There are two elements of sharedness that are central to membership in Am
1) A Shared Past (i.e. a common history ) and
2) A Shared Future (i.e. a common destiny).
(Rav Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik zt"l referred to "common history" as
"B'rit Goral"; he coined the term "B'rit Yi'ud" as an expression of "common
Membership in the nation demands both - our bonds are rooted in a sense of
common past; whereas our national venture, our joint project and mission is
sourced in a sense of common destiny.
We propose that each of these unique Mitzvot 'Aseh, B'rit Milah and Korban
Pesach, represents one of these perspectives.
That the Korban Pesach, is symbolic of a common history is self-evident -
and will be explored in greater detail in our shiur on Parashat Bo.
That the covenant of circumcision symbolizes common destiny needs some
A CURIOUS DISPUTE
The Midrash relates a conversation between R. Akiva and a Roman philosopher,
Tornus Rufus. Tornus Rufus asked R. Akiva whose deeds were greater, man's
or God's. R. Akiva answered that man's were greater.
Tornus Rufus further asked R. Akiva why Jews circumcise their males. R.
Akiva explained "I knew that you would ask that, and that is why I first
answered that man's deeds are greater than God's." R. Akiva then produced
wheat stalks and cakes and demonstrated: "These are God's deeds (stalks) and
these are man's (cakes)-aren't these cakes finer than the stalks?" Tornus
Rufus then asked: "If God desires circumcision, why isn't the child born
circumcised?" to which R. Akiva responded: "and why does the umbilicus come
out with him which his mother has to cut? As for what you asked, why isn't
the child born circumcised, because God gave Yisrael the Mitzvot for the
sole purpose of their participation. (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria).
Although R. Akiva and Tornus Rufus were arguing about circumcision (a sore
point from the perspective of the Greco-Roman culture of the gymnsasium),
their dispute cut much deeper. The underlying challenge to the reigning
culture (then AND now) implicit in the Mitzvah of B'rit Milah is a statement
about the role of Man and the relationship between Man and God.
THE GRECO-ROMAN VIEW
The Greco-Roman perspective, represented by Tornus Rufus, understands Man as
a creature of God (or, in their parlance "the gods"), another (more highly
evolved) link in the chain of creation. However, the creation, as such, is
Divine and not subject to Man's interference. The cult of "hedones"
maintains that Man's job is to enjoy the world on its own terms - it is not
Man's role to tamper with Creation or to try to better it, that approach
presuming some kinship with the Creator.
This was not only the source of much of the "pleasure principle" inherent in
that culture; it was also the weltanschauung supporting the pedestal of
athletic competition and physical beauty. As one writer put it: The Greeks
found holiness in beauty (whereas the Jews found beauty in holiness!).
THE APPROACH OF TORAH
R. Akiva obviously represents the Jewish perspective: Man is not just
another creature. Man is, potentially and actually, made in the image of
the Creator; hence, Man is a creator. The Mitzvot were given so that 'Am
Yisra'el can realize the Torah's goal for all of Mankind: To be partners
with God in the ongoing process of Creation.
"Any judge who executes a perfectly true judgement is considered as if he
were made a partner with God in the act of Creation" (BT Shabbat 10a).
Proper judgement is a continuation of the proper balance achieved in
Creation; the judge is carrying on the Divine mandate of Creation. As we
explained in last week's discussion, when Manking sufficiently blurred the
distinctions and mangled the order of Creation - that order itself was
reversed, allowing the Supernal Waters and the Nether Waters to comingle,
producing a Flood.
The most integral and constant expression of that destiny - of our mission
to improve on "Ma'aseh B'resheet" and to continiue to bring order into the
chaotic world around us - is circumcision. It is as if we are introducing
the young child to his life goal by way of example:
"Your job is to create! Be not satisfied with Creation as you find it!
Imitate God, for it is in His image that you were made. Create, build and
achieve mastery over the world. And, by the way, you'd best start with
achieving mastery over yourself."
This is the destiny of 'Am Yisra'el. Active participants in ongoing
creation, we do not rest from our socio-religious goal: Tikkun Olam.
Befriending the heart with no companion, mending the torn fences of
Creation; this is our mandate. The covenant obligates us to work with our
Partner; the circumcision symbolizes the nature of that work.
One who refuses to participate in the rituals that define one as a member of
the group, is surely "cut off" from the group. This is the effect of his
actions: non-participation in the most fundamental group rite is active
denial of membership. "Karet" is not an arbitrarily designed punishment; it
is the natural result of one's rejection of full membership in 'Am Yisra'el.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.