The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Foreskin of the Heart

Originally posted on August 6th, 2009
Please forgive me for the unpleasant mental images that spring from the title of this post. Jews around the world are approaching the second Shabbat of Consolation after Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Yesterday was Tu B’Av, the Jewish St. Valentine’s Day, and so it is not inappropriate to consider matters of the heart.
The weekly Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is Eikev, the third piece of Deuteronomy, or D’varim, the last book of the Pentateuch. Moses stands on Mount Pisgah, and can see the Promised Land he may never reach. His six-score years of life on this earth are over, and his last mission before he dies is to give his people the final portion of his take on God’s wisdom before they cross the Jordan River and enter the land without him.
In Eikev, Moses lays out the virtues of obedience to Deity, the rules for entering the Promised Land, an entry that will come with a swath of blood in the book of Joshua, reminds the Israelites of their sin of the Golden Calf and to warn them about idolatry in the new land, and exhorts them to serve their God in their new home.
We find the following line, standing on its own, outside the context of what comes before or after it, in Deuteronomy 10:16:
וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם–לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד
The King James Bible translates this as: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.”
That’s pretty much the literal translation. If you want to cringe at this metaphor, go right ahead. But don’t end there. There is something beautiful in this ugly metaphor.
What was circumcision to the Israelites? It is described as a b’rit milah, or covenant of circumcision, colloquially called a bris by the Ashkenazi Jews. The word milah refers to the circumcision, as the first word (umal’tem) in the passage above, and the b’rit refers to a covenant, specifically the Covenant between the Lord and Abraham. The whole nature of the relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham is described by the word b’rit. This is the basic agreement to have a God-people relationship, and the nature of the mutual benefits such an agreement will have. Among Jews and Muslims, male circumcision is a de facto standard, so much so that outsiders are routinely referred to as the “uncircumcised”.
So what could a circumcision of the heart entail? While it is not obvious whether a man is circumcised or not without a high level of familiarity with him, it is impossible to tell if a person has circumcised his heart. Why is Moses asking us to do this?
Throughout the Torah, Moses talks about the sin of hardening one’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened against the Israelites, which ends up ruining his country when plague after plague hardens rather than softens his heart. The rebellious Israelites are described as stiff-necked and hard-hearted. It is almost as if a thick layer of calluses has grown over the heart and blocks out all empathy.
What if, with a sharp scalpel, all of the calluses and gunk could be stripped away, leaving the heart soft, pliable, and available? It would hurt, but afterwards, the heart would be free to feel its full range of emotions.
Later, in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” This time we’re not asked to do it ourselves– God will do this to us whether we want Him to or not.
And in Jeremiah 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”
Here’s the important part: wickedness hardens the heart, and a hardened heart is able to be more wicked without conscience intervening. A mason is obligated to remain virtuous, and his conscience should prod him into doing what is right. We know that if we stray too grievously from the right, we will fall into tragedy, and in the midst of tragedy, the buffers around the heart get stripped away, and we suffer heartache. In that heartache, we feel emotions we’ve prevented ourselves from feeling for a long time, and in the suffering we feel, there is opportunity not only for genuine contrition, but for the heartache we feel to teach us compassion for others in similar straits, and to make us better men.
In sudden tragedy, the GAOTU circumcises the foreskins of our hearts, but it is less painful if we do it ourselves, at our own speed. Most of us can remember a dead friend or family member who never found out how much we loved them, and it stings the eyes with tears to know this. How much less painful is it to remember a dead friend or family member who lived fully aware of how much we cherished them. It takes a bare, softened heart to love another, and it is better that we should keep our hearts so conditioned than for fate and the GAOTU to suddenly rip the outer layers off of our hearts in sudden tragedy. It is also wise to know that most of us are carrying such griefs, with varying levels of capability. Where one man sees another’s anger, a different man sees another’s grief, and this man is better equipped to alleviate the distress of his brother.
Think of the event in your life that has hurt you the most deeply, and understand that almost everyone else has been wounded that deeply some time in their life. Let your circumcised heart teach you compassion for the sufferings of others, even those sufferings that are invisible to you.
As masons, we are called upon to embody the Masonic Virtues of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. How often do we ask ourselves if we are treating our brothers with the Brotherly Love they deserve? How often do we ask ourselves if we have contributed liberally enough to the relief of a distressed brother mason, his widow and orphans? With a circumcised heart, one is better able to see where he can be of service to others. Circumcision is a sign of a Covenant with our Creator. The circumcision of the heart ends up being vastly more important than the lower circumcision.
In the martial art of aikido, the practitioner engages in physical combat with his heart wide open to the emotions of his attacker. This is terrifying, but ultimately more powerful, and all the most profound examples of the art of aikido show a practitioner able to connect his heart to his assailant’s heart, and thereby to turn an attacker into a brother. One of my old senseis used to say, “Aikido is the art of turning your attacker into your friend, whether he likes it or not.”
Terry Dobson Sensei was a student of the Founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei. He writes:
I hate the samurai. I think the samurai suck, and you can quote me. It’s not that they were without virtue, or nobleness. But they didn’t have a lot of heartfulness. One of the first steps to being a samurai was to get beyond love and grief. All this romance about samurai life ignores the fundamental truth that it was a very heartless existence. Japan gave us this wonderful art of Aikido. It gave me my life. But you have to be judicious about it. You have to include the heart stuff. Realize that what you’re dealing with is a warm. live human being whose body and spirit may be easily hurt, easily crushed. You must throw another person in the context of love. This is hard to do, especially when you’ve had a lousy day or when you owe back taxes. So you must continually come back to the fact that there is no separation between you and the other person.
There’s nothing cool about this, because a cool heart is a numb heart. Contemporary culture tells us to be cool, but the heart tells us that there’s something more important than being cool, something realer than cool. Brotherly love isn’t cool. Loving your Creator isn’t cool. Love isn’t cool. That’s why Freemasonry will probably never be cool. The grips and tokens and passwords and rings and such may look cool, and our buildings may look cool on the outside, but the heart of Freemasonry is warm, not cool.

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