Friday, June 28, 2013

[PHI 3000] Why circumcise?

At a brit milah the other day, a mohel reasoned as follows:
Why do we circumcise? Why didn't God create us "the right way" both physically and morally? After all, God could have, if he wanted to. God commanded us to circumcise baby boys because he enjoys seeing them improve themselves both physically and morally.
At first glance, there seem to be several problems with this theodicy. First, how does circumcision make one a better person both physically and morally? In what sense is removing the foreskin an "improvement"?

Second, even if God enjoys seeing boys improve themselves both physically and morally, what about girls? After all, girls are not circumcised. Doesn't God enjoy seeing girls become better persons?

Third, this theodicy seems to make God dependent on human beings for his enjoyment. Being perfect in every respect, couldn't God find better ways to entertain himself, without relying on human beings?

Fourth, if God is capable of enjoyment, pleasure, or having a good time, is he also capable of displeasure or having a bad time? If so, feeling displeasure indicates a want or a defect. Does that mean that God lacks something or has some sort of defect?

Finally, taking the Bible as the word of God, the first mention of circumcision in the Torah is in the Book of Genesis 17:9, well after the creation of Adam (Genesis 1:26). Why did it take God so long to realize that his creation can be improved upon?


  1. I think the third question raises the biggest issue. The question is: "Being perfect in every respect, couldn't God find better ways to entertain himself, without relying on human beings?" After pondering the issue we may come to ask another more serious question regarding traditional theology: Is God capable of entertaining Himself, without depending on something or someone else? I argue that under the traditional view, God is always dependant on His creation (whether that's humans, animals, the Earth, the universe) for "entertainment". Being the greatest conceivable being, God cannot be depending upon anything for His enjoyment or well being. Thus, the traditional view of God in this respect has to be wrong. The only worldview or religion (that I know of) that offers a solution to this puzzle is Christianity, where God is tri-personal and each Person has loved each other from all eternity. Consequently (assuming this is true) God does not depend on anything else for his enjoyment.

    Regarding question 4, I am not sure how being capable of enjoyment entails being capable of displeasure. Even if that was so, and God has an unsatisfied longing, that does not bring up the question of the greatest conceivable being. God can decide to create, for instance, human beings with free will that would eventually rebel against His own will as in Genesis 3. God may desire for humans to align to His will, but being the ultimately just being he will keep granting humans freedom of choice. Forcing them to submit to His will to fulfill His longing would be something a desperate tyrant would do as in many dictatorships throughout history. But God wouldn't sweat it because He would be ultimately in control.

    I think the last question is open to Biblical interpretation but assuming that Genesis' story of creation is to be taken literally, then we would have an issue trying to explain God's delay.

  2. I also see lots of problems with the mohel's reasoning. This is my take on these questions:

    With regards to the issue of how does circumcision make someone a better person, I conclude that the answer can lie in Jewish thought. I have not studied the Torah thoroughly, but I think circumcision is a physical representation of the people of Israel as set apart from the rest of the world for God's purpose. It signifies that one does submit to God's law and His will. Now, the act of circumcision itself does not entail that one submits to God's law, because after all the child has no say on whether he wants to get circumcised. So just having a piece of skin removed does not itself make someone a better person, it has to be what that physical trait represents that makes someone better.

    The second question would tie in nicely if we acceptmy answer to the first question. It would be unfair to think only men have the opportunity to better themselves, so it cannot be that circumcision is necessary for personal betterment


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