Hate the Hider
A Circumcised Heart
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
So writes James Baldwin in the Fire Next Time, a deeply powerful collection of two essays from the noted author.
Hatred is a masking agent. It obscures pains of loss, disappointment, and lack of control. Hatred covers the heart up and prevents people from accessing the tools necessary, namely knowledge of the heart in order to begin to heal themselves. Whether we are aware of it or not, we wield hate as a way of not actually dealing with pain. Baldwin had a keen understanding of this from the many battles he thought of as a renowned Black, gay men preaching for civil rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
This idea is one that resounds throughout time. Certainly, I imagine many of us can look around at the world and see the nocuous effects of hate. Not just in the explicit speech of people which are the obvious moments, but in the way that hatred animates the very breaths of those who traffic in it. It is the lifeblood of so many nowadays.
It is also an idea that predates Baldwin. The idea that hatred or other nefarious emotions can stunt our intellectual and emotional development is an ancient one. So ancient that it finds grounding in our Torah portion this week.
Toward the latter bits of Moses’ long retelling of the Golden Calf story, we get the directives that people should undertake in order to prevent such failures.
For the most part, they are predictable: revere God, walk in God’s paths, and love God with all your heart and soul. It makes sense that after wronging God with our infidelity, the people should show a sense of emotional connection to God.
And then in Deuteronomy 10:16, we hear the following:
Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.
The last part of the verse is something familiar to us. We have been a stiff necked people for a long time, but it’s the first part that piqued my interest.
In Hebrew, the sound should be even more jarringוּמַלְתֶּ֕ם אֵ֖ת עָרְלַ֣ת לְבַבְכֶ֑ם ׃.
That first word there, u’maltem, should immediately bring us to a brit milah, ritual circumcision. So we should circumcise our hearts?! Wait, what? Let’s try to understand what the Torah is getting at.
Situating the verse within its context help us with that. After the aforementioned directives about loving, fear, and obeying God, right before this verse, we also learn that it was mostly on the merits of our ancestors that we were chosen, which seems to imply that the behavior of the people at that time is warranting this circumcision.
What part that is, is described by the verse that follows.
For God is supreme, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing(10:17-18)
Having a thickened heart means not focusing on the divine tasks of behaving morally, raising up the downtrodden, and serving those whom society has sidelined.
Taken at face value, it seems from these verses that the current batch of Israelites has fallen on their faces in terms of their societal responsibilities, or at least there is worry that this will happen. Yet, why we do need the image of the heart and circumcision? It stands out in its uniqueness. We can trace our answer through a few different texts.
From the Sforno, a 15/16th century Italian commentator, we learn the following
“therefore, it is appropriate that you remove the “foreskin,” which are 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.
The heart in Tanakh is not the locus of emotions as we frame it today. The heart is the seat of intelligence and how we process and view the world. The “therefore” in his commentary is key because it links this comment to the Sforno’s previous comments where he relates that the reason God has chosen us and given us these commandments is to make us as close to God-like as humanly possible.
Removing the foreskin of the heart then is a way to open ourselves up, to rid ourselves of the prejudices and false premises, those deeply seated beliefs and viewpoints that do more harm than good. It is how we become more divine.
Our heart is how we process through the world. When we leave it uncut, and we are presented with new ideas, belief systems, or world views, our first instinct is to hunker down and go on the defensive. Think about the feeling you get when you hear something that in your heart you know has truth in it, but goes against all the things you’ve thought since you were a child. In the eyes of the Sforno, if we can strip that away, then we get closer to imitating God.
We create an openness and permeability within ourselves.
This is not just a one time task. This is a practice that we have to undertake to shake our hearts from their doldrums. The Mei Hashiloach, the great chasidic master understands the word umaltem here as related to the word le’malel(to utter over and over again).
That is, in order for the words of Torah to penetrate, we must sit with it over and over again in order for it to generate enough potency to shed our hearts of their thickness.
You can feel the urgency in these commentaries. They know this is incredibly hard work. It is a spiritual practice because allowing the hatred to keep our hearts uncircumcised is unacceptable in the eyes of Judaism, especially if your excuse is it’s too tough.
Baldwin recognized the same thing. Writing in his unfinished manuscript Remember This House, discussing the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Dr. King, and Malcom X, Baldwin wrote
"Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Baldwin understood that this was not easy work. As his quote from the beginning alluded, it can even be painful. But, that does not mean we are free to desist from it. First we have to recognize it by paying attention to our own hearts. Then, we act on it, over and over again. Through that, we can emulate divinity with a little lighter of a heart.