Thematically, the focus of Parshiyot Tazria-Metzora is on the laws of ritual purity and impurity, with one exception — the commandment to circumcise a male child on the eighth day after birth: “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3) How does milah (circumcision) fit in with all of the other prescriptive and proscriptive mitzvot found in this week’s Torah reading?
The Tanhuma, a 7th-8th-century midrash composed in Eretz Yisrael, attempts to resolve this anomaly by way of a purported conversation between the heroic sage, Rabbi Akiva and his adversary, the Roman consul Turnus Rufus: “A story. Turnus Rufus, the wicked one, once asked Rabbi Akiva: ‘Whose deeds are nicer, those of the Holy One Blessed be He or those of flesh and blood (human beings)?’ Rabbi Akiva replied: ‘Those of flesh and blood are nicer!’ Turnus Rufus, startled, responded: ‘But can a person make the heavens and earth or anything similar?’ Rabbi Akiva said to him: ‘Don’t give me examples of things that are beyond human ability; instead give me an example of something that human beings are capable of. Turnus Rufus replied: ‘Why do you circumcise? Said Rabbi Akiva: ‘I knew you were going to ask me about that, and that is why I answered you the way I did, that the deeds of human beings are finer than those of the Holy One Blessed be He.’ Rabbi Akiva brought before Turnus Rufus stalks of grain and some finely baked bread, and said to him: ‘These stalks of grain are the works of the Holy One Blessed be He and these loaves of bread are the works of human beings. Aren’t these, the breads, nicer than the stalks of grain?’ Turnus Rufus responded: ‘If God really wanted circumcision, why aren’t male children born circumcised?’ Rabbi Akiva said to him: ‘Why is a baby born with its umbilical cord still attached to his stomach so that his mother must cut it? And you ask me why the baby was not born circumcised? [The reason is simple.] The Holy One Blessed be He gave the mitzvot to Israel to refine them’, as David said: ‘The words of the Lord are pure’ (Psalms 18:31)” (Adapted from Tanhuma Tazria 5)
Turnus Rufus, in this story, is obviously intended to be Rabbi Akiva’s foil. He is made to represent a position that is contrary to what the author considers a Jewish message. The Roman consul represents the worldview that circumcision is a defilement of the intended “natural” state and is consequently offensive. Rabbi Akiva is tasked with explaining the flaw in this thinking. He does this with two examples: in one, he points out that bread, the product of human labor, is preferred as food over raw wheat, while in the other, he notes the need to cut the umbilical cord to complete the birth of a child. These examples prove that human efforts “improve” on what God’s “nature” has to offer.
Still, this message has not answered our original question. Brit milah — the covenant of circumcision, the midrash asserts, is symbolic of the significance of all of the mitzvot — God’s commandments. The mitzvot were given by God to refine or “purify” the people Israel. And so, this answer not only defines milah’s place in this week’s Torah reading but more significantly it attempts to give expression to its author’s opinion of the true purpose of Jewish living.