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The San Francisco Cut


Do you really believe those San Franciscans who want to make circumcision illegal are genuinely concerned with the welfare of children? If they were they’d immediately introduce a law restricting parenthood to those who have passed a psychological examination. But then I doubt many of them would survive sane.

I ask you, what is likely to do more harm to a child? The loss of a minute piece of skin and a moment’s transitory pain (and most children I have heard cry do not go on for more than they do after an inoculation), or years of mental cruelty, sexual abuse, violence, and manipulation? The hypocrites should at least be consistent and include piercing children’s ears in the ban, but then that would offend all the aging hippies as well as the other local lobbies.

Let us not in any way compare it to female circumcision in which an organ is removed and the whole purpose is to prevent female sexual pleasure. In Judaism sexual pleasure is marital obligation and required. I am not aware that circumcised Jews or Muslims have a reputation for not enjoying sex.

There are those who argue that the experience is so traumatic it damages children psychologically forever. You can respond in several ways to that. One is to say we Jews don’t seem to have done too badly on it. We have outlasted most of our competitors and shown ourselves to be remarkably resilient; indeed, the more Orthodox we are, the more we reproduce.

Circumcision did not seem to have held back all those Nobel prizewinners, world renowned musicians, academics, economists, writers, artists, and financial wizards. But if we Jews have not been noticeably traumatized by circumcision, what he HAVE been traumatized by is anti-Semitism. Actually, given that such a high proportion of males in the US get circumcised too, perhaps we should blame the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on circumcision. Oh yes, and New York passing gay marriage too!

Much of the material disseminated in California about circumcision is manifestly anti-Semitic and directed against a religious ritual rather than cruelty. Of course there have been errors and accidents and some circumcisions have gone wrong. There have been mistakes throughout the medical world. Thirty billion dollars are awarded each year in the USA alone for medical malpractice. Shall we ban medicine?

I am, of course, not a medical expert. I have never argued that we should adhere to any of our traditions for medical reasons. It certainly doesn’t do any harm, and I have read that circumcision helps prevent the transmission of certain sexual diseases, including AIDS. But I don’t know if it does, and I certainly don’t base my religious observance on those grounds. Neither am I willing to argue aesthetically that a circumcised penis looks nicer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or the partisan.

I am also prepared to assert that if anything could be proven to be medically dangerous or psychologically damaging, this alone in Jewish Law requires one to desist. That is why the most Orthodox of hemophiliac children will not be circumcised. It is a cardinal principle of our religion to put health and life first.

Therefore it seems to me that the opposition can only be animated by prejudice and antagonism. The argument is put that the campaign only aims to open the public’s eyes to the fact that circumcision is not necessary. Well blow me down. I am not aware of any law in a free society that says it is. It may be a matter of fashion, but then people do indeed do weird things in the name of fashion without making a law about it. By all means, spend as much money as you want publicizing the beauty, medical advantage, and benefits of not being circumcised. Be my guest. I’ll even donate, if it can be proved. But surely an attempt to ban it is both a prejudiced expression of irrational hatred and an infringement on a person’s liberty.

Circumcision is usually an expression of parental love for their children, that that are inducting them into a moral and spiritual tradition that they value. It is not an act of cruelty. And I write this as someone who hates circumcisions and looks away or stands as far back as possible; if it were not a religious obligation, I would forgo it! Perhaps one might argue that all religion is dangerous and a lot of religion is indeed very dangerous. But we do not proscribe it just because we disapprove. Otherwise I’d campaign to ban most religions.

Surely society has gone mad if it permits any kind of behavior that is libertarian while at the same time it seeks to ban something simply because it is tradition. Surely if we start interfering in what parents do without the evidence to substantiate the claim, then we must legislate to stop parents producing children unless we are convinced and they have passed the tests to show that they can be good caring and responsible parents. In my long educational experience I can state with absolute confidence that more lasting and detrimental damage has been done to children by poor parenting than by any cuts or injections. But clearly some San Franciscans don’t care for who is a good parent or not, only for trying make everyone else as unbalanced as they are.

Thank goodness the USA has a constitution that protects freedom of religion. Anyway there are far more Muslims in California than Jews. If the antis don’t mind offending Orthodox Jews, they might twice about Fatwas.

25 thoughts on “The San Francisco Cut

  1. I'm with you there. You should not ban something that is not necessarily harmful. I heard that circumstition has lots of helth benefits, too. Even my atheist mother thought about doing it to my brother but she did not do it at the end because he was no longer a baby. She wanted to do it because of health benefits and hygiene. I also believe that is wrong and unjust to ban a tradition that does not do any harm to anybody. I would support banning religion that are harmful like those fanatics that discriminate minorities and spread hatred and kill people including their own children and adults in the name of their religion.
    Any piercing and circumcision should be done by trained doctor or mohel who has a medical training as well in a hygienic environment to prevent infections. I have never heard that any Jews disregard the conditions and the health of their children and adults. A baby cannot even remember being circumsized. How can they be traumatised by that? What non-sense.
    I was very shocked by the so-called Christians in the US who ran around with banners to spread hatred against lesbians and gays and also abortion. They were ignorant and not educated. These minorities don't do any harm. It only concerns their own life. The fanatics are harmful because they spread hatred by using the Bible that also include our books as weapon. It is outragious.
    I learnt the christian Bible in school and I have never heard that it said 'hate anybody who is different than you'. We learnt 'love your neighbour as you love yourself' and we learnt all the human rights and left out the negative bits that can be easily misunderstood. We actually learnt about love and respect not hatred though the pupils decided to do the oposite but that was their decision and not what they learnt.


  2. milah is very difficult to jusitify using contemporary concepts. You write about inducting them into a moral and spirtual tradation. milah, though, is irreversible. Moreover, unlike teffilin or kashrut or niddah which are all reflexive voluntary undertakings, this is something that is done to someone else without consent.

  3. Thank you Sabine for your contribution. Its always good to hear different points of view coming from other cultural experiences. Thats what makes the world go round!

  4. Yes thats true it is difficult to justify. Still Milah is indeed different and I do not accept that the trauma is as serious as people make out. If you look at the sorts of African ( indeed Asian and American) traditions of altering, scarring and tattooing you will see how the early Hebrew tradition was a distinct attempt to move away from it while still retaining some physical mark.

    I also think its a significant antidote to the 'If I like it it must be good' school of morality & tradition.


  5. You are correct about the anti-Semitic nature of the this project. At first, I thought it just a mis-guided person who wanted to help children. But when you see the cartoons they publish, it reminds us of the Nazi anti-Jewish cartoons of the 1930s. I'll try to send some to you to put up if you want.

  6. I've just seen the cartoons and article in the JC. They are revolting and as Joe Tate says undoubtedly anti-Semitic despite what Mr. Hess has said about them. Some people when showing how "sensitive" they are, neglect to think about the sensitivities and beliefs of others. It's another form of a pervasive selfishness which infests the world.

    It is common practice at this time to traduce Jewish beliefs and in fact anything that smacks of Judaism especially in the UK and much of Europe and we don't have to look far to see from where much of it emanates. I suppose circumcision is one of the few things that Muslim communities will not complain about and my only hope is that the "Left" will be "left" sitting astride the razor blade on this one.

  7. But it's not a question of trauma or comparison with other (primitive?, ancient?) cultures. It's a question of an irreversible operation with no immediate medical benefit, and done without consent. The fact that some propents of a ban may have questionable motives is neither here nor there. In today's world you need to make the argument for milah in terms of human rights, individual autonomy etc. I have yet to hear a fully satisfying, convincing case. If this is just the start, we need to come up with a modern response quickly. Complaining of antisemitism is not a response.


  8. Leila:
    And the news from Holland is that Parliament has passed a law banning Shechita. But the interesting question is how they will deal with the Muslim reaction because Muslim methods will automatically be banned too. Some commentators suggest this was really designed to get at Muslims because it seems large scale public slaughter of lambs is becoming much more widespread, but because the Left Wing need the Muslim votes they were frightened to frame it as ban on Hallal and so chose to attack Shechita instead!

  9. Adam:
    The trouble is that the positive case is a spiritual one not a scientific one and in the modern world we tend only to talk about 'rights' and not so much about 'obligations.' This is a clash of cultures indeed. But the history of the world teaches us that today's 'certainties' may not be tomorrow's. Intellectual and moral fashions change. I believe we need to balance the scientific rational with the mystical spiritual to get a more complete picture. That for me is the power and necessity of religious tradition even when individual religious people betray them..

  10. Again, it makes no difference whether you adopt the vocabulary of obligations instead than rights. The argument that I have or see an obligation to refrain from labour on shabbat, eating shell fishs or what not is going to be seen differently from saying that I have an obligation to perform milah on my son.


  11. The point is that in today's climate we need a response that is grounded in the terminology of contemporary discourse. And in particular, one that addresses the question of the obligation or right to do something to someone else.


  12. Do you mean Adam, that we have no right to inoculate babies because they are not in a position to ask for it? Circumcision is hardly more painful to a tiny baby than is an injection and I think that most Jewish boys would prefer it to be done at that time rather than later.

  13. Leila,

    Comparision with vaccination is specious. We are entrusted to take care of our children. Where parents fail in this duty society steps in. There is a very definite non-marginal benefit to vaccinating one's child. The same cannot be said for milah. The point about pain is neither here nor there. Our obligation to mol our sons would remain even if it were painful. (As matter of detail, I would question your assesment of the relative discomfort of milah and jabs. But that's not relevant to the argument.)

    Your argument that many boys would prefer to have it done earlier than later assumes that they'd want it done at all. The critics would say that that is not something that the child is able to express at the age of eight days.

    My basic point is that contemporary discourse uses a different set of axioms from those informing, say, Rabbi Rosen's essay. This problem is not going to go away. We urgently need to come up with arguments formulated in terms of today's language.


  14. Jeremy,

    The problem with your argument, "I believe we need to balance the scientific rational with the mystical spiritual to get a more complete picture" is that babies are not in a position to balance anything, and so what does it amount to? That what's good for you, you believe good for others? You're entitled to think this and you may even be proven right but as Adam points out, it's not a compelling argument.

    Would you, at your age, be persuaded that anyone else aside from you, could decide that something should be done to you, purportedly in your best mystical spiritual interests, without any consultation? Presumably, you'd have to be unconscious, and when you came round, I bet you'd object. Even if it turned out that the only thing that had happened was your beard had been curled and dyed pink which would be startling (even in New York) but not irreversible. If it were anything else — sudden and instant acquisition of a foreskin — you'd sue, notwithstanding however much mystical spirituality had gone into the decision making!

  15. DK

    We do in Western society draw a distinction between children and adults and the laws differ and what we can do to children differs too. That's the reality.

    Indeed both in Jewish and Secular Law I am entitled to decide for my children, lots of things that I would not for one moment dream of trying to impose any adult, whether its religion or their education or indeed my own moral code.
    From a Jewish point of view I have obligations to my children and circumcision falls into that category as much as teaching them Torah.

    And yes 'Good' as I define it, does indeed mean what I decide is 'Good' which may be the result of intellectual reasoning or conditioning or both.
    But that does not mean I can or want to unilaterally impose my good on everyone.
    Anyway I do indeed also believe in the value of Western, liberal culture and Civil Rights.
    It is an intellectual error of Western thought that one has to be consistent and monochromatic.
    Take 'Democracy.' There are hundreds of different versions not to mention those ghastly States that call themselves Democratic and its hard to get everyone to agree on an exact definition. Is the gerrymandering and artificial boundary system of the USA democratic? !!!!

    So I am indeed subject to different pulls, influences and ethical systems. One of them is Jewish and in general I give that priority. But not necessarily always, as with Womens Rights, to take the most obvious example or Civil Partnerships or whatever you call them. Circumcision is an example of my accepting a religious obligation out of commitment rather than logic. And although I agree it is circular, that system requires, as I said above, circumcision as MY obligation to my sons.


  16. Jeremy,

    Thank you for the long response. Unfortunately it does not answer the question for me. You refer to Western society which distinguishes between the legal status of children and adults. It does make this distinction but it also in the main, finds circumcision repugnant. It is Western society under discussion, not Jewish religious obligation. There is also a religious commitment to wear a yamulke and Western society probably, in the main, finds this quaint or picturesque rather than barbaric because according to Western society, what a person wears is broadly a personal matter so long as it has no impact on anyone else. Physical acts on the body are in a different category, even between consenting adults when no medical attention is required as a consequence (see Operation Spanner). I'd argue that this is paternalistic and intrusive but it is a fair indication of Western society's views of what is permissible. Against that background, I do not know how to defend circumcision, and I don't think you do either.

    It was once accepted medical practice (in England) to remove children's tonsils but this has since fallen into desuetude, there being no apparent benefit to performing the operation en masse. If parents now insisted on their children having this operation, for reasons other than medical ones, how on earth could they be defended? Western society expects us to exercise a certain level of responsibility, towards our own bodies, and towards those in our care. Circumcision falls a long way short of these expectations.

  17. DK

    I think I have answered you but you're not paying attention.
    I make no attempt to justify logically or in Western terms my eating habits nor my sexual behaviour nor my observance of Shabbat. I am not interested in trying to reconcile irreconcilables. Any more than I try to reconcile Genesis with Darwin. Thats why I referred to Jay Gould's theory of non overlapping Magisteria. Look it up.

    I do entertain conflicting values and I do give priority to the Jewish. Still, I repeat, Jewish Law itself would agree that if scientific evidence tested and tried, showed that circumcision damaged a child mentally or physically ( and don't try exceptions because then we'd have to abandon all intrusive medicine) we would desist.


  18. Yes dearest Bananbrain it is indeed offensive. But I think religion and religious people ought not to be protected from ridicule. As you may recall I am a fan of 'The Life of Brian.'

    I strongly oppose legislation protecting religion from 'cartoons.'


  19. Adam

    I just dont think you CAN offer rational justifications of meta physical phenomena or religious onligations. Just as one cannot prove the existence of God to Atheists. This is behind Jay Gould's theoy of non-overlapping Magisteria. Its the same as expecting Ayattolah Khameni to convert to Judaism! Its theoretically possible but pretty ulikely. I wouldn't expend any energy trying.


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