Like most of you, I’m always inclined—possibly just a bit excessively, although I like to think not totally pathetically—to suppose the best in others, to imagine that other people, even when I disagree with them vehemently, are acting on principle and not out of sheer malice. And, indeed, one of the cornerstones of American democracy is exactly that basic assumption: that public debate about even the most important issues can be carried on in the context of discourse than is passionate and heartfelt without ever crossing the line from fiery to inflammatory. And so, with that in mind, I allowed myself to imagine that the benighted souls in San Francisco and Santa Monica who are spearheading the ballot-box campaigns in those cities to make infant circumcision illegal were being guided by principles that we clearly do not share and that their entirely reasonable interest in safeguarding the welfare of children was simply in this instance being applied insanely and unscientifically. And surely in this regard it also bears saying out loud that it is, at least generally speaking, the opposite of being in our best interests for us to see anti-Semites hiding behind every bush when policies that run contrary to the best interests of the Jewish community are proposed by people who simply feel otherwise about some specific issue than we ourselves do. But taking that as a guiding principle does not mean that there aren’t actually any anti-Semites out there, only that it does not behoove us as citizens of a democracy automatically to impute base motives to people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye on some specific issue without any actual evidence to support that assumption.
And then I started reading some of the literature these people are putting out, notably a comic book-style publication called Foreskin Man that features an Aryan-looking superhero who spends his days rescuing innocent babies from a series of mohalim and rabbis who look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Julius Streicher’s venomously anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer. I cannot print the images here—they’re under copyright and I would not reproduce them even if they weren’t—but you can find them on-line easily enough for yourselves at www.foreskinman.com, where you can view all the pages of both issues that have so far come out. For people (unlike most of ourselves) who do not live with the Shoah on a daily basis, some of these crude, insulting images might almost be considered funny. But they would only elicit such a response from people unaware of the degree to which Der Stürmer laid the groundwork for the German people’s passive response even to the Nazis’ most overtly aggressive, violent, and virulent anti-Semitic policies.
Am I over-reacting to what is essentially a comic book? Maybe I am! But I also know the power of the printed word and the way that even the most innocent-looking documents, and especially those that appear “merely” to be aimed at children, can become cornerstones of a prejudicial worldview in which the “other”—in this case the Jew, but just as easily any other member of a disliked or misunderstood minority possessed of “weird” ways or too dark skin or peculiar facial features—eventually becomes identified with the forces of malignity in the minds of a populace that comes to believe “facts” about the minority group in question that appear to be part of the fund of shared public information, things that everybody somehow just “knows” to be true.
The effort to impede Jewish parents from circumcision their sons goes back a long way. Everybody knows of King Antiochus’ effort in that regard, as described in the First Book of Maccabees (a Jewish work written in the second century BCE), where we read that the king ordered his Jewish subjects “to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols and to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals and to leave their sons uncircumcised, thus making themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane so that they would forget the Torah and its ordinances (1 Maccabees 1:47-48). We all know how the Jewish people responded to that situation, but less well known is that the Bar Kokhba revolt, which followed the Maccabean uprising by most of four centuries, came on the heels of the emperor Hadrian’s two-pronged attack on Judaism whereby he both banned the circumcision of boys and also attempted to build a temple dedicated to Jupiter on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The revolt, under-recalled by Jews today but once a central pillar of the Jewish worldview, was bloody and awful: the Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote that, in his estimation, more than half a million Jews were killed by Roman forces in the course of the revolt and fifty Jewish towns and almost a thousand Jewish villages were razed to the ground. Yet even in defeat the Jews were victorious in one specific way: Hadrian’s successor, a man named Antoninus Pius (who was emperor of Rome from 138-161 CE) specifically exempted from the general ban on circumcision Jews who circumcised their sons (although not their slaves or their male servants).
The initiatives in California have gotten most of the space in the discussion to date, but a bill called the Male Genital Mutilation bill was submitted to Congress and to fourteen state legislatures last January. No member of Congress has endorsed the bill, but the very fact of its existence has opened the door to those who are inclined to consider religious rituals by their very nature suspect and who find it natural to condemn any effort to grant religion a stronger foothold in American culture than it already has. It goes without saying that at least some of the people who support the MGM bill are not motivated by religious prejudice. But regardless of any specific person’s motivation, any effort to curtain the rights of Jewish parents to circumcise their sons has to be viewed by us as an outright attack on the right of American Jewry to self-preserve and to raise up a generation of committed, engaged Jewish young people who will eventually take the place of their elders. And for that reason alone we need to respond vigorously and without undue fear of over-reaction. In my opinion, this issue has nothing meaningful to do with the welfare of children and everything to do with the future of the Jewish people.
Part of the problem is that many opponents of these anti-circumcision initiatives base themselves on medical evidence. And, indeed, in every specific case I have investigated, it is better—although sometimes only slightly so—to be circumcised than not to be. Circumcised men, for example, have ten times fewer urinary tract infections than uncircumcised men. Uncircumcised men, by contrast, have somewhere between 1.5 and two times the risk of contracting prostate cancer than circumcised men. Being circumcised also appears to impede a man’s ability to contract the HI virus that causes AIDS. And it is also worth noting that sleeping exclusively with circumcised men reduces a woman’s chances of contacting chlamydia or cervical cancer by up to five hundred percent. So, on the whole, it is healthier to be circumcised and it is healthier for women to have as their sexual partners circumcised men. Nor is there any evidence at all that circumcision impedes sexual performance or the ability to experience sexual pleasure. Still, the whole set of health arguments has the feel to me of a set of red herrings because, even granted that all the statistics given above are correct, should it still not be a basic civil right of citizens not to undergo optional surgery—and surgery that is not addressing any actual condition with which the patient is grappling and is solely intended to ward off possible medical problems that only may occur in the future should certainly be considered formally optional—without first having their formal consent solicited? Surely, they should! And that is why I find the whole set of medical arguments unconvincing—because, in the end, they only buttress the opinion that circumcision should require informed consent of the kind no child, let alone an infant, could possibly give.
Perhaps the most profound part of the problem has to do with a basic difference of opinion regarding the place of children in society. In the world out there, children are generally seen as mini-adults, as scaled-down versions even in infancy of the grown-up men and women they will eventually become. They are thus basically to be viewed as autonomous beings capable of charting their own course in life except in those specific ways that children cannot be deemed capable of making rational decisions in their own best interests. But this view of children as tiny, if slightly restricted, grown-ups, for all it is pervasive, is at serious odds with the Jewish way of considering things. For us, our children are the natural extensions of ourselves into the years beyond our own lifetimes, the ambassadors we create specifically to send into the future and to create there a perfected version of the Jewish world we ourselves inherited from our own parents and have worked through the years of our lives to perfect as best we could. According to our way of seeing things, our children are not autonomous beings who should be free to go off in whatever direction strikes them as desirable or rational, but links in a so-far-unbroken chain of generational endeavor to bring the world from the past into the future, from hoariest antiquity to the redemptive moment that our faith teaches us to spend the years of our lives seeking to bring about.
As much as our children are themselves, they are also ourselves…and the profound distinction between parents and children that characterizes so much of American discourse with respect to childrearing techniques and the rights of children to chart their own course forward in life is as a result just a bit foreign to us. To usher every one of our boys into the covenant that binds God and Israel is not only our right, but our sacred duty. It cannot be subjugated to the whims of passing fashion or to bizarrely exaggerated arguments about the rights of children to be free of their parents’ beliefs or commitments. In my opinion the real debate here has to do with the right of the Jewish people to be left in peace to practice our faith according to the dictates of our collective conscience and to raise up children so that “Judah shall forever endure and Jerusalem, from generation to generation.” Is that what this is all about? Speaking both as a rabbi and as a father, I think that it is!