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To Cut or Not to Cut…It’s a Private Matter

Sunday, 22 May 2011

By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "The_Grotto"

I have never paid much attention to the infant circumcision debate. As an observant Jew, there is no debate. Since Biblical times, our boys have been circumcised on the eighth day of life. When our sons were born, it was a given that each one would be brought into the Covenant just as their father, uncles, grandfathers, etc. had been. Each bris was a profound experience for me as a mother and for our family.

For centuries, outside governments and rulers have banned ritual circumcision as a way of severely restricting Jewish life. One of the freedoms guaranteed to all citizens in this country is the right to practice religion, free of governmental interference. The First Amendment prohibits the local and federal governments from passing a law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Which is why the upcoming ballot initiative in San Francisco is cause for concern. Though the ban does not expressly target the Jewish community, the notion that practice of our centuries-old ritual would carry with it a misdemeanor charge for the mohel, as well as payment of up to a $1,000 fine or serve a maximum of one year in jail, is extremely unsettling. No exemptions for religion will be accepted. And now, it appears that Santa Monica residents may have an identical measure on their ballots come November.

I cannot help but see this as a Jewish issue. For non-Jews, whether or not they remove the foreskin from their sons’ penises is their business. It is, and should remain, a private matter. For Jews and Muslims, however, circumcision is a societal and religious practice. As a Jew, I am equally concerned about the infringement of religious freedoms for my Muslim cousins. Because any society that is willing to suppress the rights of one religious group will have no compunction in limiting the rights of all.

For more on the subject, a thoughtful op-ed can be found here.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Sunday, 22 May 2011 11:59 am

    Thanks for writing this and for sharing the OpEd.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 22 May 2011 5:56 pm

      My pleasure. I was asked my take on this over Shabbos and figured it was a good topic for me to address here. I found the OpEd and thought the author raised some valid points.

  2. Amitzah permalink
    Sunday, 22 May 2011 12:03 pm

    If this passes there are so many grounds for appeal. I cannot think of any judge who could honestly say that this was constitutional. Do they honestly think that thousands of years of tradition can be ignored so easily?

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 22 May 2011 6:00 pm

      I have no idea. I think that our state has not figured out a better way to handle these issues than to allow a bunch of folks to gather several hundred signatures and get any crazy thing on the ballot. What a waste of time and money.

  3. zemirah permalink
    Sunday, 22 May 2011 4:05 pm

    Let me start out by saying I absolutely think parents should have the right to choose whether their son is circumcised or not. I probably don’t think it should be covered by public health care, but that is neither here or there really.

    One thing that has given me pause in this whole debate though, was a reference to female genital mutilation. Now, clearly FGM is WRONG and should not be permitted. It is also not comparable to circumcision for obvious reasons. The interesting bit though: some doctors in the US apparently started trying to convince their African clients that instead of taking the girl home and mutilating her on the kitchen table for example, that the doctors would do a ‘symbolic’ cut, that would leave no lasting pyschological or physical effects but would give the parents the continuation of cultural tradition that they were looking for. This ‘symbolic cut’, while not something that I think is particularly desirable, seems to be more or less equivalent to ritual circumcision. After months?/years? (sorry, I don’t have the article in front of me) of success in persuading the parents that this would be a better option than FGM, the courts ruled that it was illegal and forced the doctors to discontinue the practice. Presumably then, the parents went back to their homestyle FGM, though the after-effects were not covered in the article I read.

    Your thoughts?

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 22 May 2011 6:23 pm

      At the risk of being flamed, I share with you my misgivings about the courts getting involved in FGM. One of the things I learned in Rabbinical school is that when we regard rules and customs in the Torah, our understanding must not be limited by today’s cultural mores. Rather, we need to look through a lens that is contemporary with the time in which that particular document was written. I think that the same is true, therefore, when looking at cultural and religious practices that differ greatly from our own.

      We view Female Genital Mutilation as abhorrent. And what little I know about FSM, it appears to have its roots in some form of female subjugation in a male-dominant society. What I don’t know is if there is any religious basis for it. Additionally, a symbolic cut in no way mutilates the individual. If those indigenous groups were willing to permit a symbolic cut in lieu of, say, removal of the clitoral hood, I would think it very short-sighted to suddenly consider that illegal as well.

      Now, FGM is not equivalent to male circumcision. And, I think, those who connect the two are well aware of that. They draw this conclusion for the sake of being inflammatory.

      I don’t appreciate the government mixing in my religious affairs. Therefore, I don’t want them mixing in anyone’s religious affairs.

  4. Sunday, 22 May 2011 7:23 pm

    Thanks for this, Frume Sarah.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 22 May 2011 10:54 pm

      You are welcome. Any other thoughts you might have??

  5. Sunday, 22 May 2011 9:13 pm

    Nicely done. Thanks.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 22 May 2011 10:57 pm

      You’re welcome. Anything you’d like to add??

  6. Sunday, 22 May 2011 11:42 pm

    It is absolutely ridiculous that this will be on the ballot. It is clearly unconstitutional, and I can’t help but believe that it is rooted in anti-Semitism.

    I am not Jewish, but your religious rights are my religious rights (and are the rights of the non-religious as well). I think that people used to understand that a long time ago, but now, not so much.

  7. Monday, 23 May 2011 8:01 am

    This is so well-written and intelligent. I cannot, however, wrap my thoughts up on the matter to offer a cohesive comment. I flit from, “Yes, of course Frume Sarah!” to “But where do we draw the line?”

    For example, how do we justify inflicting avoidable pain on an unsuspecting child? Or even, how can we allow religious freedom to be thrust upon a child who has not yet reached the age to make a decision about his or her religion? And yet I understand that inherent in religion is the indoctrinating of the children–it is how we raise believers.

    Sadly, I allowed my first two boys to be circumcised simply because it was what boys in my family had always endured–no beautiful spiritual tradition and meaning. Years later, when I had my youngest son, we did not choose circumcision for two reasons: 1) I had heard my middle son’s screams and could not bear it again and 2)his father was not circumcised.

    So here I sit with these swirling and muddled thoughts. The clearest one is my conviction that religious freedom must be protected. Less clear is my resistance to allow innocent children to be physically altered in the name of this same religious freedom. I’ve landed again on, “Where do we draw the line?”

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