This week’s Torah reading is Lech Lecha, which begins the narrative of Abraham, the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. In the past, we have written about what it was that made Abraham so special, and why he merited to become the primary forefather of God’s chosen people. It is at the end of this week’s reading that God makes an eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants:
“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, throughout their generations, an everlasting covenant… And this is My covenant which you shall observe, between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, that every male be circumcised… at the age of eight days every male shall be circumcised throughout the generations…” (Genesis 17:7-12)
God makes a pact with Abraham that reads something like this: Abraham and his descendants take upon themselves the task of observing God’s commandments in order to repair a once-perfect world, and to spread knowledge of Godliness, righteousness, and morality; to be a “light unto the nations”. In return, God promises Abraham constant blessing and protection, as well as the rights to the beautiful, holy land of Israel.
As a sign of this eternal covenant, God requests that Abraham and all of his heirs be circumcised. The reasons for this are numerous and carry a profound meaning. One of these reasons is to serve as a constant reminder to men – who are naturally very prone to sexual immorality and licentiousness – the true purpose of sexual intimacy and reproduction. A deeper reason is that originally, God had created man without the foreskin. As a result of Adam’s consumption of the Fruit, and the subsequent exile from Eden, the foreskin grew out as a mark of imperfection. As always, the physical world is only a reflection of the spiritual, and just as man’s spiritual composition was tainted, so too was man’s physical composition.
Indeed, from a biological perspective, the foreskin serves no significant purpose. Although many hypotheses have been proposed for why it may exist, none have been corroborated. Moreover, it is well-known that circumcision reduces the risk and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. (Despite the objections of many in recent years who claim that circumcision does not reduce risk of STDs, recent studies do in fact show a clear advantage. Click here to read more.)
Finally, it is interesting to note that the animal world is devoid of foreskins. (Many animals do have a ‘penile sheath’ which is often mistaken for a foreskin.) However, there is one family of mammals that do exhibit a foreskin quite similar to that of humans: primates.
Ape, Humans, and Opposable Thumbs
Although the religious community and the scientific community are frequently at odds with one another when it comes to evolution, both sides agree on one thing: humans and apes share a very special bond. From a scientific perspective, humans and apes share over 95% of our genes, as well as a very recent common ancestor. It is important to note that this does not mean, as many wrongly believe, that “humans came from monkeys”. Humans did not come from monkeys, nor any other apes that exist in the world today. What science suggests is that humans and apes descended from a common ancestor. (So, apes would be more like our biological cousins, and not our “grandparents” as many wrongly assume).
What may surprise a lot of people is that traditional Jewish holy texts say something similar. Judaism divides all created things into four categories: domem, inanimate matter; tzameach, plant life; chai, animal life; and medaber, speaking beings. Humans alone are in the category of medaber, while all animals are in that of chai. The apes, however, are an exception, as they are considered neither chai, nor medaber, but something in between! (A discussion of this can be found in Sha’ar HaMitzvot, on parashat Ekev.)
The great apes are unique in that they, too, are very intelligent, can make tools, and even have opposable thumbs. The opposable thumb is a defining feature, and often said to distinguish humans and apes from the rest of the animal world. Incredibly, nearly 500 years ago the Arizal wrote of the opposable thumb’s spiritual significance, and described it as an appendage that stems from, and symbolizes, the sefirah of Binah, literally “understanding” and intelligence (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36).
So, both Torah and science agree that apes are unique and human-like. What exactly is their spiritual significance?
Stop Monkeying Around
Although apes are very similar to humans from a physical standpoint, when it comes to spirituality we inhabit totally opposite spheres. Though apes can communicate, humans alone possess verbal language. Although they can also make rudimentary tools, humans alone have the ability to create, construct, and build civilizations. Whereas apes are known for their sexual promiscuity and polyamorous relationships, humans are meant to be monogamous and loving. Whereas apes are wild, instinctual, and prone to petty violence, humans are meant to be cultured, restrained, and peaceful. In short, apes symbolize the worst of what it means to be human. Those humans that are promiscuous, violent, and animalistic essentially fall to the level of an ape.
In an intriguing passage, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us what happened to those people that built the Tower of Babel. Those that built it with the intention of dwelling in the Heavens were scattered around the Earth. Those that built it simply for idolatrous purposes had their language confounded. Finally, those that built it in order to wage war, to gain more power and material gain, were turned into apes – an appropriate measure-for-measure punishment.
It is therefore not surprising that of all animals, only apes and humans share the trait of foreskin. Apes represent the very spiritual imperfection that humans aim to repair. And of course, while apes are powerless to do anything about it, humans alone have the ability to remove their foreskins. Humans have the power to repair their imperfections, to restore their divine image, and to return to a perfect state of Eden, as God had originally intended.