Circumcised Hearts and Stiff Necks

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Shira Stutman and Professor Rob Reich for Parshat Ekev

We invite you to contemplate the idea that people of all genders need to be circumcised. Without a mohel. Self-administered.

Witness, from this week’s portion:

“Circumcise your hearts and do not be stiff-necked anymore.” (Deut 10:16)

The cruelties of the world are obvious, the injustices vast. To awaken every day with a clear head and heart in the midst of a broken world imposes an emotional toll. So we build inner fortresses around our hearts, and then we slowly forget about these emotional fortifications.

The idea of “circumcising your heart” invites us to remove the fortress. Rashi (11th century France), for instance, teaches that it means “remove the closure and cover that is on your hearts, which prevent My words gaining entrance to them.” Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain): “Purify your heart, so that it will understand the truth.” And Sforno (16th century Italy): “remove the ‘foreskin,’ prejudices with which your intelligence is afflicted, so that you will realize the errors you have made in your world outlook based on false premises.” Rabbi Rachel Barenblat eloquently describes “calloused hearts” that diminish feeling, increase the distance between us and others, and stand as a metaphor for the ways that we need to work to avoid turning away from God’s teachings.

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What happens when we do not sense the callus, forget about the fortress? We become rigid, we become doctrinaire. We risk a self-congratulatory attitude that ignores the constant need for reflection, learning, repentance, and growth. Abravanel teaches that “a stiff-necked person cannot look behind to see how his actions have led him to where he finds himself.” The calluses of an uncircumcised heart may provide an individual with emotional insulation from the cruelties around us, but they distance us from the lived world and, ultimately, from true human needs.

The rabbis speak to the fact that change and transformation don’t just happen upon us. They require effort of our own. They require us to do the work of feeling, seeing, learning, and understanding. What an appropriate reminder for Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, as we begin to turn our metaphorical hearts and necks toward the high holy days.

The Torah continues:

“For the ETERNAL your God is…great, mighty, and awesome…who… upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deut 10:17-19).

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Such familiar words! To love strangers and fight for the oppressed and forgotten — so easily referenced and so difficult to accomplish. But when we circumcise our hearts we can then turn our necks outward to the world, vulnerable, nakedly open to the experiences of others. The internal work cannot be separated from the work of changing the world, of standing shoulder to shoulder with those who are oppressed. We cannot have one without the other.

In this moment of upheaval, resist the desire to just mindlessly re-attach yourself to the general principles of loving the stranger and feeding the orphan and then go about your pre-pandemic, pre-uprising lives. Instead, work to remove the calluses that keep us from recognizing the ways that, for instance, even the most liberal and progressive of white people still play a part in upholding white supremacy. Justice will come when our hearts are open and our necks flexible, when “doing for” is replaced by “doing with” or even better “taking instruction from” the widow, the orphan, and all whose voices have been ignored.

Rob Reich is Professor of Political Science, director of the Center for Ethics in Society, co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and associate director of the Institute for Human-Centered AI at Stanford University. He is the author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. His teaching and writing these days focuses on ethics, policy, and technology. Twitter: @robreich

Shira Stutman, Senior Rabbi at Washington, DC’s innovative Sixth & I, was named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Forward, among other awards.  She speaks nationwide about how to build a welcoming and diverse Jewish community. She graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Twitter: @rabbishira