A Double-edged Blade / Parashat Vayishlach

This time, circumcision does not constitute a way of marking oneself so as to forge a connection with God; instead, it serves as a preparatory stage for the murder of the Other, the stranger, who seeks to join the family.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

Up until now, the Torah has not referred to even one woman who was born within Abraham’s family. One gets the impression that it is perfectly natural that only males are born into that family, while females are “imported” from outside. Moreover, it seems to be preferable for the “imports” to come from within Abraham’s extended family. Rebecca, Leah and Rachel come from Haran and are integrated into the patriarch’s nuclear family. However, an absolute barrier is established between the three and their original family, which is portrayed in a highly negative light. In contrast, Esau’s wives, natives of Canaan, are described as “a bitterness of spirit unto Isaac and to Rebecca” ‏(Genesis 26:35‏). Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, brings him an Egyptian wife.

But up to this point in the biblical narrative, no mention has been made of daughters in Abraham’s family, although clearly they exist, as one reads in the weekly portion of Vayigash ‏(in another three weeks‏): “[Jacob’s] sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into Egypt” ‏(Gen. 46:7‏).

At the same time, the presence of a woman among the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will demand the “import” of a male into the family. The introduction of another man might require a unification of families and possibly a mixing of blood.

Such unification of families threatens to take place in this week’s Parashat Vayishlach. Regarding the meeting between Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and a male of high birth from Canaan, the Torah relates: “And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled [or tormented] her” ‏(Gen. 34:2‏).

Shechem falls in love with Dinah and wishes to marry her; his father even proposes to Jacob’s sons that they enter into a long-term covenant: “And make ye marriages with us; give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you. And ye shall dwell with us; and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein, and get you possessions therein” ‏(Gen. 34:9-10‏).

Ostensibly, Jacob’s sons do not reject the proposal by Shechem and Hamor − however, they make such a covenant conditional upon the circumcision of those two men and all males in their city. If they fulfill this condition, Jacob’s sons say, “then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people” ‏(Gen. 34:16‏).

But the counterproposal of Jacob’s sons is insincere; as the Torah notes, they reply to Shechem and Hamor “with guile” ‏(Gen. 34:13‏). Thus, “on the third day, when they [Shechem, Hamor and all the males of their city] were in pain” ‏(Gen. 34:25‏), Simeon and Levi exploit the weakness of these newly circumcised men who wanted to join Abraham’s family. They enter the city, killing every male and taking their sister back with them.

As presented in the story of Abraham in Lech Lecha ‏(the portion we read last month‏), circumcision is meant to represent the covenant between his family and God: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you” ‏(Gen. 17:10-11‏). Not only must the family’s biological sons bear the physical sign of the covenant on their flesh, but the obligation of circumcision also applies to all men who join the family: “he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed” ‏(Gen. 17:12‏). In Abraham’s case, the object of circumcision is to remold the Abrahamic man so that he will be different from the Promised Land’s other inhabitants.

The story of Dinah completes the narrative of the Book of Genesis and returns circumcision to center stage three generations later. Here as well, circumcision serves as the “admission ticket” to the family, but it undergoes a surprising reversal. This time, the act does not constitute a way of marking oneself so as to forge a connection with God; instead, it serves as a preparatory stage for the murder of the Other, the stranger, who seeks to join the family.

The transition from Abraham to Simeon and Levi could be told as a story about a decadent process − that is, how the praxis of identity-molding, a democratic custom that can be carried out by anyone, turns into a xenophobic praxis that is also intended to enable the annihilation of the Other who seeks to join the family ‏(even if it can be justly said that this is a corrupt Other, who raped Dinah‏).

This story could have been also presented as a narrative about the moral ascent of

the mountain of racial separation − from the initial molding of the Abrahamic body by artificial means available to anyone desirous of such a process, to a genetic, racial separation that cannot be eliminated, even by means of free will. Quite the contrary: When the stranger attempts to become like the Israelite ‏(who, at this point of time, is now worthy of this title‏), he will be given a death sentence.

However, Genesis does not recount this tale as a didactic story with a clear moral. It chooses a more elusive manner of narration that is less symmetrical and which blends together different emotional strata. The social domain in which Jacob and his sons operate is divided through circumcision into “same versus different,” into “marked versus unmarked.” When Shechem, Hamor and the male inhabitants of their city seek to join the family, Simeon and Levi, exploiting that desire, annihilate them.

Jacob is very troubled by their actions; his peace of mind is disturbed, not by the separation itself, perhaps not even by the murder or the use of circumcision to obtain a physical advantage over those who hope to join the family. What troubles Jacob is the underlying significance and the ramifications of the division into the self and the Other: “And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi: ‘Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and, I being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house’” ‏(Gen. 34:30‏).

The custom of marking oneself is expanded; it permits not only a separation between “I” and the Other, but now also constitutes a weapon to be used against others wanting to belong to the family. Thus, the praxis is transformed from a marking of differences to an instrument of destruction. As such, it can also be turned against Jacob’s family and can open the door to its annihilation.

In effect, Simeon and Levi commit an act that is far more dramatic than one of simple revenge against Shechem and Hamor: They change the very nature of circumcision or − to be more precise − they reveal its other dimension. They transform the social marker into a social weapon, they alter the gate of entry that allows the Other to become the same, and they turn the act of circumcision into a moat where all those wishing to enter that gate drown.

The two aspects of circumcision − the liminal aspect, which defines the outer boundary of identity, and the violent aspect, which is expressed in an impairment of the flesh and the artificial molding of a man − intermingle in the debate being conducted today, here and abroad, on circumcision. With its almost symmetrical narratives on Abraham’s circumcision and on the circumcision of Shechem, Hamor and the male residents of their city, Genesis supplies an interesting opening for rethinking the subject.

According to Genesis, the marking of identity and the use of violence are two sides of the same coin. The discourse on circumcision is today being given such prominence not just because of the question of the morality of causing pain, or the issue of the right to make fateful decisions for an infant, but also because this is a discussion that touches at the very heart of the issue of the violent boundaries of ethnic identity.

The only figure in the second story of circumcision who is not affected by the determination of identity through the marking of the flesh is Dinah. Unlike other women who are generally described as “marking” the domestic space, Dinah, whose body has not been marred by circumcision, is free to cross the borders between the families of nations.

Perhaps this is the reason why the sages provide an ending to Dinah’s story and therefore marry her off to Job: “Rabbi Abba, son of Kahane, said, ‘Dinah was Job’s wife’” ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 57:3‏). Job is the stranger who is uncircumcised and who has no connection with Abraham’s family. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in the Book of Job, it is Dinah who gives Job the most interesting of all the counsels he receives: “Then said his wife unto him: ‘Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Blaspheme God, and die’” ‏(Job 2:9‏).

Here as well, Dinah’s solution is not to remain with the same, not to remain with those whose flesh bears the covenant’s seal, but rather to define the relationship in a different manner, to shatter the boundaries that have been marked and to escape.

'Brit Milah,' by Zvi Malnovitzer (1980).