Banning Circumcision: The Target Is Religion, Not Jews

For centuries, circumcision kept Jews apart from members of other faiths. Jews practiced it as a core religious obligation, but outside of Muslim countries, no one else around them did. More recently, circumcision is emerging as a force to accomplish the opposite. Efforts in San Francisco and Santa Monica to criminalize the circumcision of minors will bring Jews and non-Jews closer together, because the target is not Jews, but religious belief itself.

The almost identical ballot initiatives are badly flawed. They may even be unconstitutional in unduly restricting the religious liberties of Jews and Muslims, both of whom see circumcision as important to their faiths. The measures take decision-making away from parents, who have always had to determine what is best for their children in innumerable ways. They replace parental prerogative with the authoritarian will of society. Parents may think they know what is best for their children, but segments of society knows better, and they are intent on prevailing.

What parental decisions they will seek to criminalize next? Is circumcision the only parental practice that could be objected to as somehow injurious to the well-being of a child? Whatever unwanted consequences result from circumcision, they cannot hold a candle to obesity. Will parents soon be prosecuted for allowing their children to eat snack food rather than broccoli? Will we incarcerate parents who do not make their children exercise sufficiently, and allow them too many hours in front of a computer screen? Should we jail citizens of Santa Monica for failing to move their children to Montana, where children are less likely to be affected by street crime or traffic accidents?

If circumcision was uniformly accepted by medical science as a hazard to minors, there might be room to argue for banning it. Society recognizes its obligation to protect children from parental decisions that are undeniably dangerous, when they offer no value other than the fulfillment of a religious precept. Thus, female genital mutilation is illegal in the United States. It carries great medical risks, and provides no advantages other than a religious one to a small percentage of Muslims.

That is hardly the case in regard to male circumcision. Supporters of the ban do not argue that circumcision should be banned because it is dangerous, because it isn't. (Seventy percent of males in the United States are circumcised.) They argue that it denies the child a measure of sexual pleasure when he grows up—an argument that is disputed by others.

Any purported cost has to be evaluated against the benefit to the child, and the benefits are considerable, at least in the minds of a significant part of the medical population. The World Health Organization (2007) describes the efficacy of circumcision as "proven beyond reasonable doubt." It is linked to a lower incidence of penile cancer and STDs, and offers considerable protection against HIV. (Adult men in AIDS-ravaged Africa have been known to trek for four days to be circumcised in a distant clinic.) The best case that can be made for supporters of the ban is disputed in every argument; it does not remotely resemble the case against behaviors that are banned.

Why circumcision, and why now?

Circumcision was never challenged in 200 years of American history, including times when anti-Semitism was widespread. The proponents of the ban are not anti-Semites, and include many Jews.

What has changed is the antipathy of some people to religion. While the United States is still one of the most religious and religion-friendly countries on earth, people opposed to it are growing more contemptuous and more militant. To them, circumcision can be nothing more than an ancient pagan rite preserved by the superstition of religions that should have died centuries ago. Circumcision is abhorrent because it demonstrates how people can accept and defend what the critics believe to be the darkest nonsense.

People, they feel, ought to be enlightened enough to understand that the Bible may be decent literature, but as a guide to practice, it is a dismal failure. Enlightened people do not believe in G-d, and certainly not the one of the Bible. Those who know better ought to do whatever we can to slowly rid civilization of the evil of religion. (This is reminiscent of the similar campaign of communism to wipe out religion by force. Religious life was banned for the seventy years that Russia suffered under communist rule, but it could not be snuffed out. Today, Russian Orthodoxy and Judaism are blossoming in Russia. In 1958, Chairman Mao reported that China was religion-free. Today, more Chinese attend church on Sunday than are members of the Communist Party.)

In all likelihood, the measures will fail by large margins. If they would pass, Jewish parents would simply drive out of the city limits to fulfill the mandate of the Jewish faith. Passage of the measure, however, would be a blow to the standing and position of faith in those communities. It would declare that extreme anti-religious "enlightenment" must assert itself over and against the repressive forces of worthless religion.

What will suffer is the Judeo-Christian heritage that made this country strong.

5/31/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Jewish
  • The Velvet Kippah
  • Circumcision
  • Law
  • politics
  • Ritual
  • Judaism
  • Yitzchok Adlerstein
    About Yitzchok Adlerstein
    Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.