2012May I circumcise myself? On rituals and "halakhically incorrect" cognition in midrashic exegesis.
Conference talk given at: International meeting of SBL, July 23, 2012, Amsterdam. Slides. (Program unit 'Palestine and Babylon: Two Jewish Late Antique Cultures and Their Interrelation').




The proto-Karaite Anan ben David, in his Book of Precepts, prohibited self-circumcision, based on the Niphal forms in Gen 17. A similar train of thought also appears in the Tanhuma (Warsaw edition, Lekh Lekha 17), with the conclusion that Abraham miraculously found himself circumcised. Beside the very much understandable practical reasons... why is self-circumcision rejected in these theory-driven sources? It is noteworthy that no such prohibition exists in rabbinic halakhah (cf. e.g., Mishne Torah, Milah 1:2 and 2:1), and Gen 17 is most often understood as Abraham circumcising himself, eventually with divine help (Gen. Rab. 49:1, Tanhuma Vayera 2). Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley proposed a framework to analyse religious rituals from a cognitive science of religion perspective, and I shall show how their framework helps us solve this puzzle. The key to the solution is the observation, informed by Harvey Whitehouse's modes of religiosity, that both early splinter-group leaders and aggadic midrashim belong to the 'imagistic mode' in Judaism, whereas the 'doctrinal mode' is represented by the 'theologically correct' rabbinic halakhic system. The first results of an on-going project at the University of Amsterdam on "The Jewish Mind: Jewish rituals and the cognitive science of religion" will be presented.