From My Flesh I Would Behold God: Imaginal Representation and Inscripting Divine Justice, Preliminary Observations

Elliot R. Wolfson, New York University

In his Treatise on Contradictions and Lies , the eleventh-century Spanish Muslim, Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Hazm attacks the Torah for proffering a blatantly anthropomorphic portrait of God. One of the most graphic anthropomorphic accounts, in his view, occurs in the story of Abraham’s three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18:1-8. The narrative begins with the declaration of the appearance of the Lord, but relatively quickly speaks of three men standing before Abraham. Ibn Hazm remarks that, in addition to promoting an anthropomorphic conception of God, the biblical text lends support to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, what is preserved in Scripture is even more objectionable than the Christian Trinity, for while Christians believe in three persons within one God, the Torah presents three separate individuals without a mechanism of ontic reintegration. According to ibn Hazm’s reading, the narrative attests that Jews of old espoused an incarnational doctrine that exceeds traditional Christian dogma in posing a threat to monotheism and hence it is the consummation of shame.

We begin by acknowledging the obvious: The statement of ibn Hazm was uttered polemically, and words declaimed within the framework of a polemos , a strategic battle, must always be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Still, it is worth pondering if buried in the polemic there is not a shard of truth, a fragment that would enable the attuned reader to follow a path backward to an originary moment by which I mean, in the Heideggerian sense (unfortunately often misunderstood by more fashionable postmodern modes of discourse) the disclosure of an essence. Such an essence, far from being static and reified, is the way that something evolves, a process perpetually underway, snaking its way like a river and thus defying a linear sequencing of events moving from one point to another. The trajectory of the way fosters a return to the end that is an anticipation of the beginning. What is required to apprehend the sway of this path bending back in extending forward is an act of remembrance, thinking commemoratively, an inner recollection, as Heidegger puts it, that is not exhausted in merely returning to something bygone and remaining there, becoming ossified in such remaining with whatever is bygone. Rather, understanding the path of essence involves a turning toward what is undisclosed and turned inward into what has been.

Hearing Revelation Anew

What, then, can we recollect about the textual roots of Judaism from ibn Hazm’s comment? The first step on the path must be a listening. Not for naught did early rabbinic figures denote the contextual sense of Scripture by the word ke-mashmao , literally, “as-it-is-heard.” To render the literal meaning of the text, one must be attuned to what is spoken therein. But what does this mean hermeneutically? Rosenzweig is helpful here as he taught us that the revealed word must always be heard anew; if the traditional notion of revelation is to have any legitimacy for one who takes seriously the Nietzschean proclamation that God is dead, it is precisely in this sense of hearing-anew what has been inscripted of old. Furthermore, even beyond the literal boundaries of the scriptural canon, every word has divine potentiality insofar as it may be renewed in dialogue with the other. The otherness of the other imbues language with the capacity for renewal. To grasp this truth one must take hold of the paradox that novelty and repetition are not logical antinomies. Even to speak of them as polarities dialectically overcome in the discernment of the identity of their difference (in accord with Hegelian logic) is not sufficient to grasp the confluence of hermeneutics, ontology, and temporality underlying Rosenzweig’s understanding of revelation and the correlative notion of sprachdenken (“speech-thinking”). The originality of hearing-again is predicated on the recognition that every reading has the potential to be new. Consequently, the writing of a text is never complete for in each moment both the substance of text and reader is refashioned. Nothing is as ancient as this claim to radical novelty.

It may come as a surprise that Derrida, the leading exponent of the deconstructionist hermeneutic, which challenges claims to the integrity of text and reader, has nonetheless articulated a similar paradox when describing the newness and repetition of his own writing: “I’m well aware of the fact that at bottom it all unfolds according to the same law that commands these always different things” (Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret , trans. G. Donis, ed. G. Donis and D. Webb, 2001, p. 47). It lies beyond the scope of this presentation to engage all the intricacies of Derrida’s comment, but suffice it to say that his notion of reading and writing as the constant renewal of the same that is different in the sameness of its difference is predicated on an assumption regarding the nature of time. Derrida conceives of time as determined by the singularity of each moment that is to come, the future that as future is indeterminate and unpredictable, the now that never can be fully present since it is not a presence that may be represented. I note, parenthetically, that this depiction of the future, and of temporality more generally, lies at the base of Derrida’s utilization of messianic and eschatological modes of expression to convey a notion of justice that is beyond-the-law or, as he himself occasionally puts it, using Kafka’s locution, before-the-law. Derrida assures us that no repetition can exhaust the novelty of what is to come, but to presume the singularity of every new moment as the wholly other, we must posit that each moment is identical in its otherness. The technical term Derrida employs to refer to this phenomenon is iterability, which is characterized by the twin aspects of repetition of the same and affirmation of the new. For Derrida, the paradox of the altering-altered repetition is most poignantly captured in the verbal gesture of naming, for each time I address an other with a proper name, the name is both shared by others and distinctive to the person being addressed.

Perhaps more pertinent to this setting is the formulation of the paradox of innovation and recurrence offered by the sixteenth-century kabbalist, Moses Cordovero. The ever-changing aspect of time, that is, the belief that each moment of time is entirely different from what preceded it, can be appreciated only if we heed the fact that in Cordovero’s theosophical metaphysics temporality bespeaks the comportment of the divine impulse, the unnamable Ein-Sof that appears through the veil of the name YHWH. Cordovero relates this quality of time to the hermeneutical possibility of new interpretations of Torah: there are always new meanings to be elicited from Torah since the latter manifests the infinite light that is seen through a speculum of seemingly endless obfuscations. Cordovero’s linkage of innovative explications of Torah and the evolving nature of time underscores the intricate connection in kabbalistic lore between phenomenological hermeneutics and ontology of time. As for Derrida (and I might add Heidegger and Levinas) so for kabbalists, the quest for meaning unfolds in time; un/covering of truth is the temporal discovery of what has been re/covered.

To return to the path. What can be heard again from the biblical narrative in the eighteenth chapter of Genesis? It will be recalled that chapter seventeen, what I will call the pretext, recounts another epiphany to Abraham. In these verses, he is informed of the change in his name, the prediction that he would be the father of many nations from whom kings would arise, the pledge of the land of Canaan as an everlasting inheritance ( ahuzatolam ) to his descendants, the command to circumcise every male, which is portrayed as the sign of the covenant ( ot berit ) established between God and Abraham’s progeny, the promise of the birth of a son, Isaac to Sarah, through whom the pact would be upheld, the destiny of Ishmael set in contrast to Isaac, and, finally, the circumcision of Abraham and his son Ishmael (Gen. 17:4-27). In the body of Scripture, there is no explicit connection between the two chapters. Their textual proximity, however, allowed rabbinic exegetes to presume and explicate such a link, forging a thematic nexus between circumcision and revelatory experience.

God’s Visit to Abraham in the Qur’an

In the spirit of comparative analysis, I think it worth digressing here from the main path to note that the trace of the biblical tale in the Qur’an ignores the pretext, thus beginning with recounting the visit of the angels who had been sent to destroy the people of Lot, that is, the inhabitants of Sodom. Prior to communicating with Lot that he and his family, with the exception of his wife, would be saved from the shower of brimstone, the angels bore the message to Abraham and Sarah (referred to simply as his wife) that they were to be the progenitors of a line extending through Isaac and Jacob (11:69-83; see also 15:51-60; 29:31-35). Curiously, the Qur’an nowhere mentions the events of the preceding chapter in Genesis. It is understandable why the covenant of circumcision to be established with Isaac would have been ignored, but that the circumcision of Abraham and Ishmael are overlooked is noteworthy. It is relevant to recall that the reference to the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Qur’an 37:100-108 does not mention Isaac but only Abraham’s righteous son; in fact, the promise of the birth of Isaac immediately follows the retelling of the trial of the sacrifice, ibid, 112-113, thus leaving the impression that the son Abraham was willing to offer as a sacrifice was not Isaac but Ishmael even though the latter’s name is also not mentioned explicitly. In later Muslim tradition, Isma’il is the one described as az-zabih , the chosen sacrifice that Abraham was willing to offer to Allah. Thus, given the importance of Ishmael in the Qur’an, one wonders why his circumcision in particular goes unmentioned.

One might conjecture that, in the symbolic economy, circumcision is replaced by prayer, which, according to another passage, was established within the House of God (interpreted as the Kaba in Mecca, the spiritual axis mundi of Islam; cf. 3:96, 5:95) by Abraham and Ishmael (2:125-129). Significantly, in another Qur’anic passage, in which one can discern two of the five basic duties of the Muslim, Ishmael is described as being faithful to his promise, a messenger, and prophet, who enjoined his people to prayer ( salat ) and alms-giving ( zakat ) (19:54-55). This supports the idea that prayer replaces circumcision, but it remains unclear why the account of the circumcision of Abraham and Ishmael was not reinterpreted (both mythically and ritually) in a manner more sympathetic to the aspirations of Islam, particularly with regard to (un)covering scriptural roots for the belief, confirmed in later tradition, in the unique prophethood of Ishmael from whose posterity came Muhammad, the prophet of Allah. The disregard of Ishmael’s circumcision, and indeed of Ishmael himself, is conspicuous in another chapter in the Qur’an that makes use of the narrative from Genesis 18. In that context, Lot and his family are designated the one Muslim household who are left as a sign for future believers to fear Allah’s wrathful punishment of the wicked (51:24-37). The sacrifice of Ishmael is passed over in silence, and Lot is upheld as the chosen one of Allah, the one who established the house of Islam. The insignificant, indeed non-existent, role accorded circumcision in the Qur’an calls for interpretation.

In early Islamic exegesis, perhaps reflecting Jewish folklore, Abraham’s circumcision is enumerated as one of the ten trials by which God tested him (a possible reference to the aggadic theme may be found in 2:124 where it says God tried Abraham by giving him commandments). More importantly, the ritual of circumcision was appropriated as a sign of identity for Muslim males, in part due to the existence of this practice in pre-Islamic Arabia. The sharing of this ritual on the part of Jews and Muslims, who stand in contrast to Christians, was not lost on medieval rabbinic figures who, on account of this similarity and several other features, did not consider Islam to be an idolatrous religion. Along these lines, it is important to note that Maimonides ruled that the circumcision of Muslims, the Ishmaelites, ideally should occur on the eighth day, a ruling that potentially would have narrowed the gap separating the two faith communities even more. We even find criticism on the part of Muslim clerics against Christians for abandoning circumcision. All this evidence only serves to set into sharp relief the fact that in the foundational prophetic text the matter is simply ignored.

Lack of consideration paid to the covenant of circumcision between God and Abraham also stands in contrast to the mentioning of the promise of progeny to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob elsewhere in the Qur’anic retelling of the biblical narrative (6:84; 21:72; 37:112-113), while in its adaptation of Genesis 18 and 19, the Qur’an emphasizes the rescue of Lot, depicted as the messenger sent to admonish his people on behalf of Allah (7:80-84; 26:160-175; 27:54-58; 37:133-138; 54:33-39). Lot, it will be recalled, is grouped together in one setting with Ishmael, Elisha, and Jonah, as the four who are favored above the nations (6:86), and, in another passage, he is identified as one of the righteous to whom judgment and knowledge were given (21:74-75). Lot serves as a catalyst for the faithful Muslim to believe in divine righteousness, which comprises the meting out of judgment to the sinful. On this point Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their scriptural foundations – and by scriptural foundation I do not intend a substance fixed, simple, and stationary, rather a process complex, diversified, moving – are in agreement: God’s justice cannot be conceived without assuming a system of reward and punishment. Judgment, in the end, must be judged an expression of mercy.

Exegesis and Eisegesis

Rabbinic sources are conscious of the need to enunciate the manner in which the covenant of circumcision, the promise of Isaac’s birth, and the account of divine justice cohere. One gets this impression not so much from what is transmitted in particular dicta, but from the way these dicta were gathered together and anthologized. Before we can broach this topic, however, we must first ask, whether the interpretative strategy of fashioning a link between circumcision and the epiphany is to be labeled “eisegesis,” reading-into-the-text, or “exegesis,” reading-out-of-the-text? To answer that question, we must raise another, asking if it is at all plausible to demarcate a boundary between inside and outside in the topography of texts? To be sure, texts are material entities, occupying space and exhibiting density. Yet, textual space is to be distinguished from physical space, the parameters of the former resisting longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates. Consequently, the inside-outside dichotomy would seem inadequate to account for the complex relationship between text and reader. The hermeneutical condition, we might say, entails collapsing the opposition of reading-in and reading-out; indeed, reading-out is in the vein of reading-in, and reading-in of reading-out. Outside/in, inside/out: between these axes the wheel of interpretation revolves.

To heed the intent of the theophany in chapter eighteen, we would do well not to discard the matter of circumcision mentioned in chapter seventeen. By the canons of modern form criticism it is possible to dissect the text into individual strata and thereby remove any potential contradiction or conflict. Biblical chronology, however, needs to be explicated from the redactional standpoint whereby discrete literary components have been woven into a single unit, albeit of a composite nature. Examined from that perspective, the visitation of God and the ensuing discussion regarding divine justice must be construed from the vantage point of circumcision. This stance is well documented in rabbinic sources.

Classical Jewish Sources on Islam and Circumcision

As one might expect, rabbinic exegetes downplayed the circumcision of Ishmael in his thirteenth year in contrast to the circumcision of Isaac on the eighth day. One of the more interesting midrashic expansions of this theme, preserved in many literary sources that span a considerable historical range, concerns an imaginary dialogue between Ishmael and Isaac prior to God’s commanding Abraham to sacrifice the latter. The gist of this tradition (bracketing for the moment the textual variants that emerge from the different versions) is that the attempted sacrifice of Isaac is upheld as superior to the circumcision of Ishmael, which, in comparison to the circumcision of Isaac, demanded a greater sacrifice since it occurred in Ishmael’s thirteenth year when he could no longer easily endure the physical pain. The fact, however, that Isaac was prepared to give his whole life in comparison to Ishmael’s willingness to circumcise his penis indicates that Isaac’s self-sacrifice was superior and thus he accomplished a higher state of piety ( Genesis Rabbah 55:4; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 89b; Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Vayera , 42; Tanhuma, Vayera, 18; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen . 22:1).

There is much to say about the rabbinic (re)reading of Scripture, but suffice it here to note that the relevant texts preserve clear evidence for the need on the part of some rabbinic sages to diminish the circumcision of Ishmael while aggrandizing the circumcision of Isaac. Needless to say, later on in the Middle Ages, when the biblical figure of Ishmael became the prevailing rabbinic way of referring to Islam, the interpretive tactic assumed a far more pernicious polemical valence in the hands of Jewish exegetes. Consider, for example, the following reflection on the attribution of the title wild ass of a man, pere adam (Gen. 16:12) to Ishmael offered in the Zohar (2:17a), the great compendium of kabbalistic lore that began to take shape in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, most likely in the region of Castile:

A wild ass of a man and not a man. [He is called] a wild ass of a man because he is circumcised and the beginning of the human form is in him, as it is written, And his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (Gen. 17:25). As a result of being circumcised, he entered the beginning that is called all ( kol ), as it is written, “He shall be a wild ass of a man,” and not a man. His hand in everything ( yado ba-kol ), certainly, but no more because he did not receive the commandments of the Torah. The beginning is found in him because he was circumcised, but he was not complete in the commandments of Torah. But the seed of Israel, which is perfected in everything, is called a man, and it is written, For the Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob his own allotment (Deut. 32:9).

I cannot enter into a lengthy discussion on the attitudes toward the non-Jew in zoharic literature. Suffice it here to say that, according to some passages, Islam is granted a higher status than Christianity. The latter, generally designated by the name Edom, is identified consistently as the demonic other side and is thus placed outside the realm of holiness, whereas the former, referred to as Ishmael, is accorded a place within the divine pleroma , though in some passages (and especially in the later strata in the zoharic corpus) Islam is also portrayed as an unholy force. In homiletic passages where Ishmael is positioned in the sefirotic world, it is related primarily to the fact that Muslims practice circumcision, even though the zoharic authorship insists that it is distinguishable from the Jewish sacrament. This is the intent of the afore cited passage: By virtue of circumcision the Muslim is able to reach the level of Shekhinah , the last of the ten luminous emanations of the divine, his ontological root, related exegetically to the expression yado ba-kol since the word ba-kol can function as a symbolic circumlocution for Shekhinah .

The Jew attains a loftier position in the sefirotic pleroma , which is related to the fact that the halakhic rite of circumcision involves two acts, milah and peri’ah , the cutting of the foreskin and the pulling back of the inner membrane to disclose the corona (Mishnah, Shabbat 19:6; according to the interpretation of Gen. 17:13 in Genesis Rabbah 46:12 we are to suppose that the biblical injunction to Abraham included milah and peri’ah ). As a result of these two ritual actions, the Jew is conjoined to Malkhut and Yesod , the ninth and tenth gradations whose unification signifies the androgynous unity of the Godhead. In contrast to the uncircumcised Christian, the Muslim at least falls under the category of human. Even so the Muslim is not as perfectly human as the Jew since only the latter performs both milah and peri’ah . (In a separate study, I examined the connotation of the word adam in zoharic literature, arguing that it applies most accurately to the Jewish male, a philological point affirmed repeatedly by kabbalists through the generations.)

In spite of the relatively favorable view of Islam, the status of the holy seed is applied exclusively to the people of Israel, for it is connected to the seal of circumcision, which is manifest exclusively as a result of the exposure of the phallic corona. A polemic against Muslim circumcision is implicit in the statement that until Abraham was circumcised his seed was not holy since it came forth from the foreskin and it was conjoined to the foreskin below ( Zohar 1:103b). In another passage, the birth of Isaac is contrasted explicitly with that of Ishmael on grounds that the former was conceived after the circumcision and is thus truly a product of the holy seed, whereas the latter was conceived before the circumcision and is thus derived from the realm of impurity (ibid., 1:110a). The depiction of Islam as a demonic force is affirmed in another passage where Ishmael is associated with idolatry in a manner that conflicts with other zoharic texts that assign a liminal status to Islam between the holiness of Israel and the impurity of Esau (1:118b). Although it would be anachronistic to blame the rabbis of Late Antiquity for negative attitudes expressed in Medieval kabbalistic sources, it is not incorrect to chart the synchronic and intertextual evolution of these ideas. The contrast of the circumcision of Ishmael and Isaac in earlier rabbinic texts paved the way for the more insidious orientation displayed in the Zoharic anthology and subsequent kabbalistic documents based thereon.

Theophany and Circumcision

To circle back to the theophany at the terebinths of Mamre: according to one midrashic tradition, God appeared to Abraham precisely because he wanted to visit him after he had undergone the trial and tribulation of circumcision (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metsia 86b; Tanhuma, Vayera, 2; Pirqei Rabbi Eliezer , 29). In a fashion quite typical for the rabbis, a seemingly innocuous element in the scriptural narrative is the touchstone to deduce a profound moral teaching: just as God paid a visit to Abraham at this moment, it is incumbent on the devout to visit the ill. In other rabbinic passages, the connection between circumcision and the theophany purports to disclose something more fundamental about the way of piety, that faith is justified by the performance of good works. Thus, for example, in the beginning of a collection of midrashic reflections on Abraham’s vision, gathered in Genesis Rabbah 48:1, a tradition reported anonymously accentuates this point: “It is written, ‘after my skin had been pulled off; from my flesh I would behold God’ (Job. 19:26). Abraham said: After I circumcised myself, many coverts came to cleave to this sign. From my flesh I will behold God. If I had not done this, whence would God have appeared to me? The Lord appeared to him etc. (Gen. 18:1).” The passage encapsulates the rabbinic ethos that reward is consequent to action. Here it is the rite of circumcision that is singled out as the means that facilitates God’s appearance before Abraham, a point underscored by the exegesis of the verse from Job, that is, after the foreskin has been removed, one envisions God from the flesh of the penis. In further commentary on Genesis 18:1, the homiletic point is reinforced. Especially important are comments attributed to R. Isaac and R. Levi that bring to light the connection of circumcision and the sacrificial rite. Just as the building of an altar and the offering of sacrifices occasions the manifestation of God, so “how much the more so” does the circumcision of Abraham ( Genesis Rabbah 48:4-5).

In passing, it is important to bear in mind that the rabbinic text preserves an impassioned, if somewhat obscured, response to evidently antagonistic claims of early Christian homilists, for example, Justin of Martyr, that the duty of circumcision of the flesh, as opposed to circumcision of the heart, is to be viewed as punitive as it marks the fate of the Jews as a people suffering due to their rejection of the messianic status of Jesus. For the rabbis, too, there is an intrinsic homology between circumcision and sacrifice, but this is not to underscore punishment and suffering. On the contrary, this affinity indicates the special quality of the Jews to be worthy to receive the visionary presence of God, which is presented in this context as preparation to assume the calling of the special election, to walk in the way of the Lord by advocating righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19). As we shall see, the matter of divine justice, from the perspective of the biblical text and the rabbinic tradition that evolved there from, cannot be separated from the covenantal bond of circumcision. To anticipate the later discussion, there can be no divine justice in the absence of a righteous vessel in the world, and the righteousness of that vessel is dependent on the hallowing potency of circumcision. That is, beyond the physical incision, circumcision demarcates the act of ultimate piety, which is the underlying intent of many rabbinic texts that advance the symbolic identification of circumcision and sacrifice. The leitmotif is epitomized in a tradition preserved in a relatively late source whereby Abraham’s circumcision is said to have occurred on Yom Kippur, to signify that every year on the day of atonement when God sees the blood of the covenant of the circumcision of Abraham he forgives all the sins of the Jewish people ( Pirqei Rabbi Eliezer , 29). Needless to say, the portrayal of circumcision in sacrificial language responds directly to the polemical deportment on the part of some Christian exegetes that circumcision reflects the benighted condition of the Jews in the economy of divine forgiveness. Far from being a sign of spiritual depravity, as Justin had argued, circumcision is the mark that Jews still possess the most viable means to secure the exoneration of God.

In another midrashic tradition included in the microform in Genesis Rabbah (48:7-8), which is related exegetically to the description of Abraham sitting at the opening of the tent as the day grew hot (Gen. 18:1), the nexus between circumcision and revelation is elaborated from yet another vantage point. This section begins with the teaching of R. Levi reported by R. Berechiah, focusing on the seated posture of Abraham: “He desired to stand, but the holy One, blessed be he, said to him, Sit! You will be a sign for your progeny that you sit and Shekhinah stands, so, too, your progeny will sit and Shekhinah will stand over them, ‘God stands in the divine assembly’ (Ps. 82:1).” That the theophany immediately succeeds circumcision serves to make the didactic point that God’s providential care over Israel is guaranteed. This is deduced from the fact that Abraham remained seated as God stood over him. The citation from Psalms that concludes the passage should not be lightly passed over. “God stands in the divine assembly” ( Elohim nitsav ba-adat el ). Contextually, the phrase divine assembly denotes the angelic host, but midrashically it is applied to Israel. We are justified in assuming that the Jewish people are thus portrayed on account of their capacity to receive the providential presence of God. Significantly, in a latter version of this midrashic reading, Abraham’s receiving God in a sitting pose is interpreted as an indication that in the future when his children will be sitting in the synagogues and academies God will stand over them (Tanhuma, Vayera , 2).

Based on older sources, including the foregoing, the localities for the two primary acts of devotion, prayer and study, are signaled out as providing the physical context wherein God appears imaginally to the Jewish people. Prayer and study, according to the rabbis, are the essential modes of worship through which God is experienced as a tangible presence. The point has been affirmed by many scholars, but what is less appreciated is that the intentionality required in these two acts of piety is predicated on an iconic visualization of the divine within the imagination. In the physical space circumscribed by words of prayer and study, the imaginal body of God assumes incarnate form. This is the intent of the statement attributed to R. Abbahu, “‘Seek the Lord while He can be found’ (Isa. 55:6). Where is He found? In the houses of worship and the houses of study” (Palestinian Talmud, Berakhot 5:1, 8d). At the heart of this poetic envisioning (a semiopraxis greatly expanded in medieval kabbalah ) is the imaginary configuration of that which has no image through the semblance of what it appears not to be.

We may surmise that circumcision was perceived as the principle means by which Israel somatically attains the angelic posture. (Rabbinically, angelhood does not signify incorporeality, as we find in the later medieval philosophical tradition, but a purer form of embodiment, an aetheral body that occupies the intermediary region between transcendence and immanence, the image that is real.) The intent is made clear in a comment at the conclusion of the homily in Genesis Rabbah. The relevant text, which is attributed to R. Yanai, sets out to explain God’s response to Abraham’s worry that his circumcision would drive away guests from his domicile, “Up until now uncircumcised men came to you, but now I and my retinue are revealed to you as it is written ‘He lifted his eyes and he saw’ (Gen. 18:2), he saw the Shekhinah and he saw the angels” ( Genesis Rabbah 48:9). Circumcision has transformed Abraham.

The view expressed in the midrashic text has an interesting analogue, albeit in a different terminological register, to the wisdom espoused by Plotinus (which can be traced back to the adage of Anaxagoras that like is attracted to like), who described the mechanism of inner sight by which the eye beholds the great beauty of the divine: “For one must come to the sight with a seeing power made akin and like to what is seen. No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like, nor can a soul see beauty without becoming beautiful. You must become first all godlike and all beautiful if you intend to see God and beauty (Enneads I, 6.9).” I do not mean to push the comparison of R. Yanai and Plotinus beyond a reasonable measure, but they do share the assumption that there must be a homology between the one who sees and what is seen. The difference between the two concerns the respective specifications of the nature of the organ of sight and the object of vision: For the Neoplatonic philosopher, perfection of sight comes by way of separating the soul from the senses and passions of the body so that the mind can ascend and return to its source in the One. This is intent of the assertion that the soul becomes godlike to see God. For the rabbinic authority, by contrast, the circumcised flesh is the medium through which one is able to behold God and the angelmorphic presences, for prior to the circumcision Abraham could receive naught but the uncircumcised.

It stands to reason that the rabbinic figures who accepted such a view maintained that the foreskin covering the penis is the barrier that prevents one from envisioning matters divine rather than the body per se. Support for this surmise may be gathered from another text where we read that Abraham was considered tamim , blameless or perfect (Gen. 17:1) only on account of removing the foreskin by the cut of circumcision ( Genesis Rabbah 46:4; see Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 24a; Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha, 16; Pirqei Rabbi Eliezer , 29), that is, perfection of the body comes about as a result of eradicating the foreskin. The rabbinic supposition, which is far from the purview of Plotinus, is that God can be seen by the eyes of the body from which the impurity has been excised. The coherence of this claim philosophically rests on a further assumption regarding the somatic configuration of God’s imaginal presence, that is to say, the imaginal body of God cannot be envisioned except by one of circumcised flesh, for only one who is circumcised has removed the barrier that prevents the eye of the imagination from beholding the presence ( Numbers Rabbah 12:8). To put the matter somewhat differently, the phenomenological prospect of an epiphany depends on the ontic reciprocity of divine and human embodiment, for, in the mirror of imagination, theomorphism and anthropomorphism converge. In the particular case we are examining, the convergence is related to the incarnation of God’s visionary presence in the form of the three men who conversed with Abraham.

Theophany of the Threefold Glory

The subsequent identification of the men ( anashim ) as angels ( mal’akhim ) in the succeeding chapter (19:1) opens the way to seeing the contours of the vision more clearly. Initially, we read that the Lord appears to Abraham, but then we are told that when he lifted his eyes, he saw three men (Gen. 18:1-2). In beholding YHWH, Abraham beheld the three angels who appeared in human form. The blurring of the line dividing God and the angels is a literary theme evident in a substantial number of biblical verses (Gen. 16:9-13, 21:7, 22:11, 31:11, 33:11-13; Exod. 3:2ff., 14:19, 23:21, 32:34; Josh. 5:13-15; Judges 2:1, 4, 5:23, 6:11ff., 13:3ff.; Isa. 63:9; Ps. 34:8), and we may consider it one of the fundamental axioms of the prophetic experience in ancient Israel. The biblical motif is embellished considerably in rabbinic lore. According to an interpretation transmitted in the name of R. Simeon ben Laqish, the three men correspond to the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael ( Genesis Rabbah 48:9), and, according to another tradition, reported anonymously, based on the belief that no angel can perform more than one task, Michael was sent to inform Abraham of the birth of Isaac, Gabriel to destroy Sodom, and Raphael to save Lot (ibid., 50:2). That the anthropomorphic form of the three angels was understood by some rabbis as signifying the incarnation of God is evident from another anonymous remark preserved in the same midrashic context: “Here it says angels (ibid., 19:1) and later on it says men (ibid., 19:10). Later on, when Shekhinah was over them, they are men, but when Shekhinah departs from them, they were garbed in angelhood ( lavshu mal’akhut ).” According to this aggadic tradition, when Shekhinah was upon the celestial emissaries, they are elevated to the form of men ( anashim ); when, however, Shekhinah is removed from them, they are demoted to the level of angels ( mal’akhim ).

In a study published in 1990, I suggested that the incarnational implication of this text was made explicit in the following statement by Nahmanides in his thirteenth-century commentary on the Torah to Gen. 18:1: “When [Scripture] refers to angels by the name ‘men’ according to the opinion of the rabbis this [involves] the glory created as angels, called by those who know the ‘garment’ ( malbush ), which is perceptible to the physical eyes of the pure souls as the pious and the sons of the prophets, but I cannot explain.” Nahmanides preserves an esoteric interpretation of the theophany, which he classifies as rabbinic. As I argued in the afore cited study, he is likely referring to the passage from Genesis Rabbah under discussion. The secret of the garment ( sod ha-malbush ), as the disciples of Nahmanides and other kabbalists would later call it, signifies the belief in the angelification of the divine glory in a form that is perceptible to the pious and prophets, the investiture of the glory in the guise of an angel, a phenomenon demarcated in Scripture by the description of angels appearing as human beings. The notion of the angelic glory manifest as the glorious angel is an archaic Jewish esoteric belief that has informed the imaginal propensities of mystic visionaries in all three monotheistic religions.

We are now in a position to evaluate the opening comment of ibn Hazm. In my judgment, the Muslim polemicist was not far off the mark when he detected incarnational and trinitarian elements in the biblical narrative. (As an aside I note that in Eastern Orthodoxy, the appearance of the three angels to Abraham is designated, in both literary sources and icons, the incarnation of the Old Testament.) Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me unequivocally say that I am not suggesting that we see in this passage a typological precursor to Christian dogma. My point, rather, is that a theologically attuned reader, one not shackled by years of prejudice that have established superficial boundaries, will open herself up to the genuine incarnational possibility of this text.

It is, moreover, precisely this possibility that holds the key for understanding the contextualization of the dialogue between Abraham and God concerning the way of judgment in the second part of the chapter. Prophetically, divine justice is not an abstract ideal; it is a dialogical response on the part of an embodied deity to the behavior of humankind. When the theological motifs in Scripture are examined phenomenologically, that is, when we seek to understand the eidetic structures underlying the imaginal representations of the deity, then we must conclude that without the assumption of an incarnate form, we cannot conceive of a judge who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Furthermore, given the centrality of circumcision in the aesthetic conception of the anthropos proffered in ancient Israel, especially in the priestly stratum of the biblical text, which engendered later pharisaic and rabbinic verbalizations, it is hard to imagine that the divine body would not have been envisioned by those of a poetic spirit from this phallomorphic perspective, an assumption borne out especially in the esoteric current that has run its course through Jewish history, which has placed the circumcised phallus of God at the center of contemplative visualization.

Theophany and Divine Justice

How, then, do we illumine the connection between the two parts of the narrative, the inaugural vision and the discussion about divine retribution? The promise of progeny to Abraham is associated with his being the great nation through which all the nations of the world would be blessed, and the consequent responsibility foisted upon the future generations of Jews to guard the way of God by championing righteousness and justice in the world (Gen. 18:18-19). Indeed, God initiates the discussion by informing Abraham of his plans to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah precisely because he cannot conceal his actions from Abraham since he occupies the unique position vis-àvis the other nations (ibid., 17). But blessing has its burden; the nation slotted to be the fount of beneficence must live up to a high moral standard. At this juncture in the text there is a transition to the dialogue between God and Abraham concerning the fate of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (ibid., 20-33). Abraham’s confronting God on the question of just punishment is an instantiation of the singular destiny that Scripture ascribes to his descendants, the people of Israel. The ethical demand for justice, which cannot be extracted from its theological underpinning, arises not out of the logical deduction of universal moral principles but out of commitment to a particular covenantal community. The task of disseminating justice is the unique calling of the nation that traced its lineage back through Jacob and Isaac to Abraham. In the biblical idiom, the particularity is etched on the body of the Jewish male through circumcision.

Abraham in New Testament and Qur’an

It is precisely at this nub that the distinctiveness of the three monotheistic faiths becomes most evident or, in the image used in medieval times, the three rings become undone. The divergence is already evident in the scriptures of each faith (not to mention later commentarial traditions, a subject far too vast to examine adequately in this paper). Let me briefly relate to the apposite passages in New Testament and Qur’an. First, it is germane to recall the interpretation of a crucial part of Abraham’s theophany in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Commenting on the assertion that Abraham’s descendants be named through Isaac, Paul wrote “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. For this is what the promise said, About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son” (Rom. 9:8-9). From a strictly textual standpoint, one would be hard pressed, even after spending years studying Talmud, to make sense out of Paul’s exegesis. From a theological perspective, however, his agenda is obvious. The phrase “children of the promise” is not limited to individuals born of Jewish parents, but rather designates the children of God, that is, those who enter the community of the true Israel through faith rather than obedience to law. As Paul puts it elsewhere, a man is justified by faith apart from works of law and since the one God is God of Jews and Gentiles alike, both the circumcised and uncircumcised are justified by their respective faith (Rom. 3:28-30). Based on the logic of this argument, Paul goes on to say that Abraham received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them (ibid. 4:11). The promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world comes not through the law but through faith and hence the very notion of his progeny must be extended to include Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, which is the meaning of Gods declaration (Gen. 17:4) that Abraham would be the father of many nations (Rom. 4:13, 16-17).

As many scholars have noted, Paul’s textual reasoning had a profound impact on the formation of Christianity as a distinct religion and the eventual schism with Judaism. By privileging justification by faith over works, and arguing that the covenant of circumcision was bestowed upon Abraham on account of the righteousness he acquired when he was uncircumcised, Paul effectively inverted the ancient Israelite perspective, which was preserved in the classical and medieval rabbinic sources. In a manner of speaking, the spiritual struggle for Jews in the modern and contemporary times has been to reverse the Pauline logic, to reestablish the particular as the ground for the universal.

Turning to the Qur’anic utilization of Abraham’s theophany, as we have already noted, the pretext of circumcision is completely ignored. The eventual birth of Isaac is mentioned in some of the relevant passages, but what is really crucial to the reworking of the biblical text in the Qur’an is the salvation of Lot and his family, the household of Islam. Lot, and not Abraham, is portrayed as the faithful prophet who gives witness to the inevitability of divine judgment that benefits the worthy and injures the iniquitous. In spite of a positive role assigned to Abraham in the Qur’an in some passages, which seems to reflect the influence of Jewish tradition – he is portrayed as the father of monotheism, a fierce opponent of idolatry, the model of the righteous one who is true in faith ( hanif ) dedicated to converting non-believers (37:84-97; 16:120-122; 60:4-6) – careful scrutiny of several verses indicates a rather complex relation to this figure. Especially problematic is the attitude expressed with respect to the Jewishness of Abraham. In one context, it says explicitly that Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but an upright man who bowed his will to Allah, hanifan musliman , the paradigm for those who embrace the religion din ) of Islam (3:67). I suggest the logic implicit here is not far from that employed by Paul in the aforementioned deliberation the epistle to the Romans, although I cannot know for certain the nuances of the exegesis underlying the passage in the Qur’an. Further on in the same chapter the sane religion of Abraham, which reflects the original intent of Allah, is contrasted with the legal excessiveness of the children of Israel (ibid., 93-95).

In another passage, the polemic against the Jews is couched in a blatant misreading of the Torah text. In that setting, God is said to have tried Abraham with several words, an idea that likely was derived from rabbinic legends, and as a consequence of passing those tests Abraham was promised that he would be made a leader (Imam) of the people. When Abraham requested the same for his offspring, he was told that reach of the divine promise is not within the reach of evil-doers (2:124). I cannot help but see here an attack on Jews contemporary with the author of this text. Another example of this is found in the remark that Abraham and Isaac were blessed but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to themselves (37:113). I do not quibble with the fact that this observation was accurate – for when is it not right to say that some people are righteous and others are not? – but the function of the remark in its literary context is most certainly to berate contemporary Jews.

Beyond Universal and Particular

When one undertakes to read the eighteenth chapter of Genesis in conjunction with the seventeenth chapter, the approach adopted by rabbinic interpreters through the ages, then what emerges most manifestly is a tension between the universal and the particular. Although these terms are foreign to the cultural environment of the ancient Near East, it does not seem to me inappropriate to apply them to the biblical text. On one hand, it is the particular destiny of the descendants of Abraham to occupy the position of being the great nation through which all other nations are blessed, but, on the other, it is precisely this destiny that bestows upon the children of Israel universal concern for humanity at large. In his effort to obtain from God an assurance that no innocent man would be punished, Abraham stands typologically for the Israelite (and, by extension, the Jew) who must protect the way of God by seeking justice in the world. Deeply embedded in the biblical and post-biblical Judaic view is the exclusive ascription of this moral responsibility to the Jew who belongs to the concrete people of Israel, and not merely a Jew in spirit. The claim that Abraham will be the father of many nations and the wellspring of blessing does not preclude the singularity of this ascription; quite to the contrary, it is precisely the latter that facilitates the former. If we were to translate the biblical idiom philosophically, then we could say that Scripture evinces that respect for the other cannot come about without genuine recognition of the selfhood of the other, but recognition of the selfhood of the other is predicated on discerning the otherness of the self. Abram the Hebrew, Avram ha-ivri (Gen. 14:13) the other one who has come over from the other side, fulfills this function in his demand that God live up to an ideal of morality when dealing with the Sodomites. The discord between responsibility for the other vis- -vis the self and acceptance of the distinctiveness of the self vis- à -vis the other is an ancient struggle that must be negotiated anew in each generation.

The ethical mandate thus embodies the paradox of novelty and repetition that I discussed above in conjunction with hermeneutics and temporality. Postmodern logic of textual reasoning must move beyond the polarity of new and old, even beyond the need to move beyond the polarity, for the dialectical overcoming of polarities is a resolution that of necessity preserves the antimonies it seeks to undermine. Analogously, what is required to deal with the ostensible clash between the particular and the universal is a mode of thinking that transgresses even the dialectical creed espoused by Hegel, which affirms the identity of identity and non-identity. It is not sufficient to say the universal comprehends the particular, for, in so doing, the face of the other in the other’s specificity runs the risk of being effaced, nor is it sufficient to say the particular realizes the universal, for this approach has the potential to justify the political agendas of discrete national entities without any appeal to a shared ethical standard. How the new is old and the old new without being either new or old, and how the universal is particular and the particular universal without being either universal or particular, this remains to be articulated in the perpetual coming-to-be of the moment that never comes-to-pass. This expectation we can only hope to remember, retrieving traces of what is yet to be left behind.

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