Hebrew circumcision reimagined for contemplative practice, in which the newborn is the contemplative insight into the sense of self.
Turning Rites Around
YHWH, the biblical god, instructs Avrahm to circumcise all males. Could it be that God’s instruction left us with a manual for beholding our mind?
During one meditation retreat, I was struck how much the seven-day creation myth of Bereshit (Hebrew for Genesis,) described the experience of the rising of thought from the wakeful spacious awareness, and the sense of self that was imbued in it. I began to see the ancient stories of my Jewish heritage as coded manuals to steering my awareness and studying my consciousness. As I study Jewish customs, life cycle rituals, and calendar year, I became curious whether mystics left me instructions in plain view to access their contemplative-mystical experience.
What if, instead of a ritual ‘out there’ re-enacting, symbolizing, a biblical narrative, or even be placed in an ancestral continuum, or be applied to a present day circumstance, what if I use the biblical narratives as models to relate to this very moment of awareness and the sense of self — as a doorway to selflessness, dvekus, the Jewish-esoteric experience of single-pointed unity with God-reality?
I am not keen on using the language cutting, nipping, or violent language regarding being with one’s body or mind. I am aware this forceful/decisive energy-attitude is useful at times, and that using this firm language may be triggering to some.
I am aware that this kind of reading may seem provocative or even offensive to those who are affected by the Brit’s psycho-social controversies and even traumatized by them, or around their experience of male and female binaries, body mutilation, male-favoring cultures, and patriarchy. I want to affirm and validate that these are true and very real, to those who experience them, and systematically.
Others may experience the actual birthing, blood, or the act of traditional circumcision as indispensable or fundamental to their way of life. This article isn’t intended to exclude, argue or discern otherwise, but be in a creative, even playful, relationship with mind and body-ancestry.
Brit: A New Reading
Visual images of deities ‘cutting’ through ‘opponents’ that stand for attachments, transgression, or the illusion of duality and the self are prevalent in mystical world traditions.
“Chhinnamasta (Sanskrit: छिन्नमस्ता, Chinnamastā, “She whose head is severed”), is a Hindu goddess, a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Mother goddess. The self-decapitated nude goddess, usually standing or seated on a divine copulating couple, holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in another. Three jets of blood spurt out of her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants.”¹
Buddhist teachings set up similar scenes. Manjushri Buddhisatva yields his double-edged sword of wisdom, “taking and giving life.” His figure is placed in the center of Japanese Soto Zen training halls. Zen Buddhist Koans, such as Nanquan Kills a Cat and Bodhidharma Sat Facing a Wall² while his student Huika offered him his severed arm — scenes which a practitioner contemplates-struggles in order to break through their duality-making habits of mind.
In Buddhist architecture of the mind, the seventh of eight consciousness is the Manovijñāna (मनोविज्ञान), the aspect of the mind that designates phenomena an owner. It is a subtle experience of any phenomena as ‘mine’ or ‘not mine.’ As an after effect, it creates a self, suddenly there is an ’I’, a self, separate and apart from reality, ‘relating’ with reality. Most of the daily consciousness operates within the view of this self, and Buddhist practices targets the moment of its formation, to see its insubstantiality and align ones life to this insight.
St. Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, in Romans 2:25–29, called specifically to practice circumcision not on the flesh but as an act of spiritual interiority and closeness with divinity. By that he started a controversy among the early Christian sects, and of course, the Jewish community. Unfortunately, the essence of his words seems to have been lost on all accounts, as they were simply coopted as part of the political debate in which his call to not circumcise the flesh had been taken as a symbol of sectarian and religious exclusion / inclusion.³
Deep Dive Into Hebrew Words
Let’s look at some of the Hebrew words associated with Brit Milah:
Zachar (זכר), is the Hebrew word used for a male-gendered creature, as well as to half the nouns in the gendered Hebrew language. It is also the root relating to remembering, recalling. Conjugated it will also mean a remnant, an impression, something that is left behind. Rosh Hashanah, the day celebrating the Hebrew Calendar new year, is referred to in the Torah as a day of remembrance. Sufi practitioners, who practice the esoteric teachings of Islam, meet in Zikr, a ceremony of remembering of the presence of the Beloved, Allah.
In the Tanakh, aka Hebrew Bible, there are many references to the word Orlah, in five distinct ways: It is repeated in reference to (1) the flesh that covers the male penis organ, (2) Moshe’s heavy/stuttering lips; (3) ears of those who don’t listen; (4) young trees that can’t grow⁴; (5) a stubborn heart. in this way, the Orlah is related to the Kabbalist Klipah — the mystical component likened to a crust that covers over the divine spark and is the object the Kabbalist quests to liberate.
What if Circumcision/Brit Milah, the circumcision, done for every male/zachar, is an instruction on how to hold a thought, a memory, a self-consciousness? It posits that thought/memory, attached to a self-consciousness, is Arel, rough, clumsy at best or ‘sinful’ at worst, meaning, it is obstructing direct experience of the divine = reality. To circumcise/limol a moment of mind is to clip the attached sense of ‘I’ that is accompanying daily mundane awareness, to see through the aspect of consciousness that see phenomena as ‘mine’,‘to free the mental being back into the flow of the abundance/shefa, to infinity/ein-soff. This is the sign/ott of the covenant (Brit in Hebrew) of Bnei Israel with God. Meaning, one affirms its non-duality with the infinity of reality, in this very body, but returning awareness to the body. By performing this circumcision on himself first, Avraham exemplified the imperative to practice awareness of one’s mind, and all consequential ‘children’, afterthoughts, future selves, Banim (Hebrew: sons), Binah — the Kabbalist sephirah that represents the first formation of the overflow/shefa into a mind form. By doing so, Avram gained his exalted ‘Hei’ in his name and became AvraHam.
Holders of Wisdom: Pinchas and Eliyahu
The ‘Deities’ that the Hebrew rite invoke at the ritual of the Brit Milah, according to most liturgy manuals, are of Pinchas and Eliyahu. I acknowledge that the bloody and violent narrative related to both male figures at this rite has proven controversial to many of my colleagues, from anywhere on the gender spectrum and outside of it.
Pinchas is one of the figures invoked during the rite of circumcision. The Tanach tells the story of Pinchas who took action against a Hebrew male and a Midyan woman while they were having intercourse — a story that literally taken, has drawn much scrutiny and controversy. It happened in the place call Bochim, Hebrew for ’those who weep.’ He killed them by stabbing them where their genitals met, at the cavity/nekeva — meaning, he nipped them at the bud. Messy scene! This is commonly interpreted as a righteous act of zealotry. In this age? It’s a hard sell. But perhaps, Chhinnamasta and Manjushri as seen above, invite us to use Pinchas, not as a character in a story, but as a specific, discerning movement of awareness?
Eliyahu, too is invoked in the liturgy of the Brit ritual. The cutting of the foreskin itself takes place while the Sandak (an honorary role often taken by a grandparent) is seated on a special chair designated for Elijah. Eliyahu's narratives describe his zeal and ferocious prophetic action. Commentaries refer to him and Pinchas as, in fact, the same person, and that Eliyahu’s punishment (or gift) by the biblical God for his zealotry/devotion, is to preside over every Brit Milah for eternity, as the guardian of the covenant.
In meditation, invoking Pinchas can be the practice in the midst of a self, ‘after the act’ when a ‘newborn’ a self is born = when a thought form is fully formed and ‘self-ed’, experienced as a ‘me’, it is here where Pinchas’s blade come to separate awareness from the object that hijacked it. Invoking Eliyahu can function as reminder for ‘preventive’ practice much like the Japanese Buddhist entity Nio, the ferocious guardian protector whose grand statues often placed guarding the entrances to temples. In fact, many psalms invoke the ever-watchful eye of the Guardian of Israel, likened to placing guardians in the entrance to cities, night and day. [Psalms 121:4], Prophet Yishaya [Yish’a’ya 5:27] describes that in Awareness, “none is weary or stumbles, They never sleep or slumber; The belts on their waists do not come loose, Nor do the thongs of their sandals break.”
Visualizing Eliyahu and Pinchas is also an ancestral anchoring tying a ‘solitary’ practice with a longer line, a richer net, of support and inspiration.
Holder of Compassion: Tziporah
Checking on the attitude of awareness is important. Guarding, cutting, words that invoke discipline and effort. Where is the love here? Who in the sources may charge this practice with love, or redefine what it means in the meditative realm of the Brit?
Tziporah, person of Midyan and Moshe’s wife, circumcises her sons in this way:
וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי חֲתַן דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי: וַיִּרֶף מִמֶּנּוּ אָז אָמְרָה חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת⁵
Tziporah took the Tzur, hard rock, or in this reading, Tzura, a form of perception, the compounded self, and took out its dullness/attachment to awareness, foreskin of her son/ orlat b’nah. Orlaht =obstruction, B’nah, translated often as ‘son’, is also a derivative of Binah, clear discerning awareness. She then touched/arrived (Tigah) at the habit (legs/Raglav⁶) of her son (Binah), spoke to it, and celebrated them (chatan, receiver, celebrant) into the realm of silent presence, damim, ‘those who are silent,’ a word commonly translated as ‘blood.’
She did not discard the orlah, that which covers, obstructs or obscures. Tziporah did not discard of the tzur (rock, form, shape, tool,) she did not discard of anything.
The passage continues, ‘yaraf mimeno’, means in Hebrew , ‘eased off, let go!’ and Tziporah proclaimed and repeated — “the circumcised is a celebrant of silence.”
Together with Pinchas and Eliyahu, Tziporah takes her stand as a protector of the brit. Tziporah brings in the motherly, loving, and integrating energy. Powerful as both Eliyahu and Pinchas together — and me being mindful of gendered interpretation — she balances their Gevorah (the kabbalist term for form) with her Chesed (loving formlessness.)
Covenant of Silence, Covenant of Blood
The blood, dam, is the essence of dmamah, in which the drama of consciousness unfolds. Pirkei D’rebbi Elazar (chapter 29), a rabbinic interpretive text, speaks of liberation as a result of two ‘blood lettings:’ the blood of Passover and the blood of brit. In my reading, I relate these, too, to two moments of awareness. The blood of Passover refers to the mind that is in the grip of attachment, the grip of a storm, a plague — Mitzraim! There is a need to descend into the architecture of the city, swoop in like YHWH’s angel of death, make clear discernment with what is found there — to protect and cultivate some (the houses of the Hebrews, smeared with a lamb’s blood), or to do away with (the Egyptian’s firstborns — first thoughts). The blood of the Brit is let within the spacious mind of contemplative absorption (or simply in a naturally open mind,) when one can clearly see the trapping of somatic energy into thought and the creation of a ‘self.’ There — It is the blood of the Brit that flows, and the clarity of the view affirms the covenant of one with reality, one’s faith in practice.
Covenant in this context is an act of practice. A determination to return to an orienting component of experience towards clarity and mystery, based on ones own verified experience. ‘Covenant,’ an English word often associated with a transactional relationship, differs from the Hebrew Brit, which can also be understood as a truce, or collaboration, a coming together. In the contemplative context I utilize it as a volitional intention to engage with reality in a certain way, as-it-is.
Application can be varied. Below are two creative ones.
Application #1: Visualization Practice
One that relates to moment to moment experience of mind in meditation.
Visualize Pinchas on your left and Eliyahu on your right
Tzipora at one’s back, guiding, mending, applying, receiving, blessing the phenomena that appears on the sky of the mind
Being aware that Pinchas, Eliyahu and Tziporah are too, appear in that sky, not outside.
With each birth of a self-moment, of cognition of a sense, a thought, a feeling, of relating to reality as me or mine
breath, following Tziporah guiding in releasing ownership
letting the orleh, the identification, go
resting in protection of Eliyahu timeless awareness
Pinchas’ watchful eye
letting go of the whole scene into a a spacious, unattached mind
When a new phenomena appears
invoke the Brit, and its guardians
Application #2: Initiation Rite in a Non-dual Training Path
Another application calls back the ceremonial, public rite that the brit milah is often associated with, but in this case, celebrating not the child, nor the emergent thought, but the first spiritual opening, the insight a practitioner has into the nature of their sense of self, which shifts their relationship with reality. The buddha called a practitioner who experienced a glimpse of Nirvana as a ‘stream-enterer.’ In a similar fashion, a practitioner experiencing Ein-sof (Hebrew for limitlessness, nondual state) may mark their ‘stream entry’ with a brit, deciding to orient towards their own mind, perception and reality, with this verified glimpse as a guidepost to their spiritual life. This covenant, a presentation of intention, is witnessed and held in accountability, by others.
Such event will impress this experience as a reference, to bring the practitioner to own their responsibility for their practice, and to be in relationship with reality that is informed from their extant of insight. Further rites can be developed, as a practitioner deepens their insight.
Pidyon Haben, for example, a rite that follows the Brit timeline in 22 days and is based on a father’s ritual ‘redeeming’ their firstborn son from belonging to the Hebrew temple priesthood. Recall that HaBen — The son — can also be read as HaVen — to understand, also a derivative of Binah, discerning awareness. Ripe for our kind of reading, it can be reimagined as a public ritual in which one takes the insight they celebrated into the covenant with the Brit, willingly receiving a mind into their possession, as a tendril of the transpersonal mind, and now takes moral and ethical ownership — untethering it from the prescribed ‘temple.’ Traditionally, Pidyon ha-ben acknowledges that all “first fruits” (including grain, animals, and fruit) belong to God. In our case, following celebrating the Brit’s spiritual opening, a kind of hubris, pride, or sometimes fright, may set in in the practitioner. Pidyon Haben reminds one that they, in fact, control nothing, or affirmatively, that they are held in a larger hand.
Reading the Brit in a non-dual way releases many it from a potentially controversial, exclusive, gender-based or heritage-based limitations, and invites Everyone to be in relationship with mystery.
Finally, whether the ancient Tanakh, or the rabbinic manuals actually meant to encode non-dual mind manuals or whether these are ecumenical modern interpretation of my own, is in a way, an irrelevant question to me. I am inspired to find skillful ways to penetrated the dream of separation, and find ways to articulate the reality I already experience. I glad to find texts within my own ancestral lineage, and new interpretations that allow living a freer, fluid way in accord with such reality.
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² The Gateless Gate Cases #14 & #41
³ Paul’s suggestion raises a key issue regarding the turn from the historic-tribal covenant of the Hebrew people, to a universalized practice that anyone can practice — how that manifests in christianity, imperialism, cultural appropriation and most importantly, how to practice a non-dual path — being both a universal self-less emanation of reality, as well as carriers of specific genealogical ancestry.
⁶ Same usage of the root RGL as in Na’a’lecha M’al Raglecha, the scene where Moshe encounters the burning bush and is told by God’s voice to take off his shoes, translated to take off the lock from your old habits. Same as Moshe’s Shal