The Human Body Code
The imagery of the Bible hints at the luminous potentiality of our bodies to experience God.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L.
Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Scripture descends to speak to us, using metaphor to reveal the holy. In Parashat Eikev, we find references to the "mighty hand and the outstretched arm" by which God liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:19). When the Torah uses the human body as a code to decipher God, we glimpse through ourselves the presence of the One in whose image we are created. Knowing that God is incorporeal, some find such physical descriptions of God inadequate and turn to the natural world. Thus we may imagine God as a rock (hatzur, as in 32:4), as dew (Hosea 14:6), or as a spring of living water (Jeremiah 17:1). Nevertheless, if we look closely at the corporeal imagery in parashat Eikev, we discover that its imagery hints at the luminous potentiality of our bodies to experience God.
The portion begins, "And if (eikev) you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, your God Adonai will maintain faithfully for you the covenant" (7:12). Why is the term eikev (here translated as "if") used to introduce the conditional clause, instead of a word more commonly employed for that purpose (such as im or ki)? The unusual language that begins our parashah invites the early medieval commentator Rashi to engage in word play, linking eikev to the noun akeiv ("heel"). Rashi writes that if we heed even minor Commandments that are easy to trample over with our heels (in other words, commandments that we are likely to treat lightly), then God will keep the promises given to our ancestors. Read in this manner, the portion opens with a warning about not allowing thick skin to divert us from the path on which we walk toward God. Like Moses who takes off his sandals to experience holiness emanating from the earth, so we too are called to remove all barriers between God and ourselves.
The Male Womb and Circumcising the Hearts of Women
The next verse states, "[God] will favor you and bless you and multiply you--blessing your issue of the (literally: your) womb" (7:1). What is interesting here is that the Hebrew wording is all in the masculine singular. Are men imagined as having wombs, or more darkly, as owning women's wombs? Perhaps we can generously understand the verse as a suggestion that empathy can allow anyone to feel the blessing of a full womb. We know God first as the Creator, the womb of the world. The organ that nurtures potential life may be found in only half the population, yet the Torah suggests that both men and women celebrate pregnancy and birth.
If we accept this idea, then women can look at a later verse in our parashah that speaks in an unequivocally male metaphor and not feel excluded. Although our translation reads, "Cut away ... the thickening about your hearts" (10:16), a more literal translation of this verse is, "Circumcise ... the foreskin of your heart." In other words, remove that which obstructs your heart and keeps you from following God's teachings; open yourself up to experiencing "the great, the mighty, and the awesome God" (10:17). The foreskin in this expression can be likened to the thick skin on our feet that keeps us from feeling our connection to the Holy most intimately. Women and men alike can have a heart that is tender, loving, and open to the Divine, not just those who have literally been circumcised.
The metaphor that calls for a naked heart may help us to understand a deeper reason for the mysterious--and frankly disturbing--ritual of b'rit milah (circumcision). Native American and Mayan beliefs align with Kabbalah in understanding the left side of the body as feminine and the right as masculine. Since the heart rests on the left side, circumcising the heart brings feminine energies into play. Would the addition of a circumcised heart bring into a balance the masculine and feminine energies? Perhaps the metaphor found in parashat Eikev hints that the purpose of the ritual is to remind both men and women to keep the heart tender, for this is not only a woman's quality.
The circumcised heart is not gender specific. All of us are called to bring forth creative and nurturing energy within ourselves and to act with an empathic heart. Some say that the reason girls do not have an equivalent physical ritual to b'rit milah is that they are born circumcised, the implication being that they are born with unveiled hearts. B'rit milah, then, becomes a spiritual catch-up for boys to approach the openhearted potential of girls.
Being a mother of sons, I have trouble with this explanation, yet we know that women walk through the world with circumcised hearts by their very place in many cultures. They reveal themselves because they often have less power and therefore less to lose. When we think of the hardened, calloused heel that feels little under it, experience shows that women do not have the luxury of stepping without looking carefully. Every misstep becomes a reason for others to keep us back; it becomes an accusation of our iniquity or incompetence.
Rabbi David Mark sees b'rit milah in a broadened mythic context when he compares the phallus to the ancient symbol that the Greeks called ouroboros, the mystical snake that rolls through eternity with its tail in its mouth. He asserts that removing the foreskin from the phallus is like when the snake-a symbol of eternal life-sheds its skin. As a result, through the act of b'rit milah, we incorporate God's promise of eternal life for the Jewish people directly into the male organ of reproduction. When applied to parashat Eikev, this interpretation helps us to see that a circumcised heart, possible for all of us, allows for growth and expansion, and provides a model for sloughing off gratuitous, constraining defenses.
Torah gives us a language that speaks beyond the physical world and gender. Both women and men embody God in their ordinary lived experience. Just as when we are in danger or despair we reach for another person to lift us up, so we understand that God is reaching for us with an outstretched arm to free us from slavery. In our female and male bodies we find God, and in this discovery we know ourselves to be more than physical beings. All of us are called upon to be creative, transparent, and loving before God.
The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.