You’ve probably heard about it even if you live far from the Bay Area. It’s been a subject du jour for the New York Times, Glenn Beck and the Huffington Post, which pretty much covers the bases of modern America media. I’m talking about the initiative on the San Francisco ballot this coming November that would ban circumcisions of boys under age 18, with penalties of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
When I was visiting my dad in New York recently, he asked how a city with such a history of open-mindedness and tolerance could ban something that is a standard medical procedure and a basic tenet of one of the world’s leading religions.
Well, first of all — San Francisco hasn’t banned anything yet. This is just a ballot initiative. I strongly suspect (hope!) voters will send it down in flames.
And second of all — San Francisco is tolerant but also left-wing. And while those characteristics often go hand in hand, sometimes they don’t.
There are certain issues where people veer so far left that they form a circle and end up in the same place as the right. Take the anti-vaccination movement. Driven by a reflexive fear of chemicals, scores of college-educated, eco-conscious moms ignore the medical literature and refuse to vaccinate their babies against deadly diseases like polio. Is this so different from the right-wingers who oppose fluoridated water as a Communist plot?
Now with circumcision, we have left-wing activists who see male circumcision as a human rights violation and a repressive attack on men’s sexual freedom and fulfillment.
Like the anti-vaccination activists, they have no solid scientific evidence to back up their claims — just emotion, personal opinion, and the echo chamber of the Internet. (Try a Google search for “circumcision,” and the top dozen or so sites will all be from anti-circumcision groups.)
And in their over-heated rhetoric — such as a recent comic book featuring a muscular, blonde “Foreskin Man” battling black-hatted Orthodox Jews — these left-leaning activists end up forming a circle with the worst right-wing anti-Semites.
I mean — look at this image and language from an anti-circumcision trading card! “Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy.” It’s hard to see this as anything but a 21st century version of the old European blood libel, where Jewish communities were slaughtered based on accusations of ritual murder of Christian infants.
But let’s step back from the overwrought rhetoric and imagery for a moment to talk about circumcision itself.
I’m admittedly ambivalent about it as a ritual. I remember the moment I first really thought about it. I was in Israel at age 18, visiting the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, which featured exhibits based on the phases of the Jewish life cycle. There, just beyond the entrance to the museum, was the exhibit on brit mila.
The opening display in a museum about world Judaism. The first ritual in a male child’s life. The key commandment underlying God’s covenant with Abraham — preceding the Ten Commandments, preceding any laws of kashrut or sacrifice or even Shabbat. The biggest symbol of the connection between Jews as a people and God.
And it involved cutting men’s genitals!
This struck me as unbelievably Freudian. Unbelievably primitive. And of course sexist — building a religion around an act that is limited to men. Couldn’t we have come up with anything more subtle, more metaphorical, less patriarchal?
And I suspect that almost every Jewish woman has flinched when it’s time for her son’s bris. Who can bear to see their beautiful, fragile baby face any sort of pain, let alone intentionally cutting some part of them? My mother-in-law tells me that she almost fainted at Sam’s bris.
If Becca had been a boy, I wouldn’t have fainted but I might have looked away. I might have had the circumcision done in the hospital rather than at a home ceremony.
But I would have had it done.
It is such a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Every Jewish man I’ve known has been circumcised. Even Reform Judaism — which has felt free to abandon kashrut and tefillin, which smiles on driving to services on Shabbat, which marries gay couples and ordains women — even Reform Judaism doesn’t challenge the brit mila.
This is perhaps the only commandment that Reform Jews accept without rationalization, without historical or ethical explanations: We do it because our God/our faith/our tradition tells us to do it.
It would be different if circumcision were unhealthy — if science had discovered that circumcision promoted cancer or if, like female genital mutilation, it left people with permanent pain and dysfunction. But medical studies show that circumcision in fact helps prevent the spread of AIDS, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases; reduces urinary tract infections; virtually eliminates invasive penile cancer; and may possibly lower the risk of vaginal infections among female partners.
And while some anti-circumcision activists say the procedure scarred them emotionally or sexually, those are just a handful of personal anecdotes. I feel sorry for whatever emotional pain they are in, but who knows what in fact caused it? I can marshall anecdotes too. Of all the circumcised men I’ve slept with, I’ve never noticed any — um, how to put this delicately? — deficit when it comes to sexual pleasure or performance. But those are admittedly just my anecdotes against someone else’s anecdotes. On a scientific level, there is no evidence that male circumcision impedes sexual pleasure or creates any health risk.
So what this comes down to is some people’s personal aversion to the concept of circumcision — and their attempt to impose that on everyone else through legislation.
I have no beef with parents who choose not to have their sons circumcised. That’s their decision, and I can understand the reasons behind it even if I don’t agree. Nor do I have a problem with people writing books or putting up Web sites presenting their arguments against circumcision.
But pushing for a law to ban other people from carrying out circumcisions? Making it a crime to carry out a procedure that is a key tenet of one religion (Judaism), a common practice in another (Islam), and has documented health benefits?
And then to promote that law through vicious anti-Semitic images and language?
Okay, I’ll stop ranting. Except for one more minor point. Think of all the truly serious problems in our world today. Poverty and hunger in the Third World. Climate change. Imprisonment of dissidents in China. Drug gangs that run entire cities in Mexico. Drug gangs that seem to be the only avenue of employment in many U.S. neighborhoods. Refugees, dictators, sex trafficking, terrorism, vanishing species, vanishing habitats, AIDS and cancer and malaria and diabetes…
And these people are spending time and money to make circumcision a crime?
One bright note: Confronted with charges of anti-Semitism, the supporters of a similar ban in Santa Monica called off their campaign earlier this month.
If only we didn’t need something so stupid to bring us all together.