Circumcision, or “bris milah,” has long been the stuff of cheap jokes and comedy. But in recent weeks, what used to be nothing more than harmless fare has taken on a much more serious tone. So-called “inactivates” on the fringe left of American politics have pushed the radical notion that infant circumcision is an act of genital mutilation, so unacceptable, in fact, that it ought to be illegal, with “no account be taken…of any belief on the part of that person … as a matter of custom or ritual.”
That such a notion should have garnered enough signatures to have qualified for a popular referendum in San Francisco (and potentially elsewhere) is deeply troubling. For even if (as expected) it will be defeated in the end, that outcome will offer scant comfort to the millions of Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who for good reasons circumcise their sons at birth. It defies comprehension that in this land of liberty and justice serious consideration can be given to outlawing the fundamental practice of Jews since the beginning of Jewish history. We thought that we had left such things far behind in our journey through eras and lands of religious bigotry and cultural intolerance.
Proponents of the ballot issue argue that there is a state interest in opposing the consequences of circumcision. But only state interests of the highest order and greatest clarity should be permitted to override religious liberty claims. And given the substantial medical evidence that circumcision has positive benefits, that standard cannot be met here.
The referendum has been couched as a vote on male genital mutilation. To frame our age-old practice as genital mutilation is manipulative and misleading, as it precludes any other interpretation of circumcision. To portray the issue – as proponents have – via a cartoon featuring “Foreskin Man” battling “Monster Mohel” is worse than a bad joke. It is deeply offensive and beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
The concern, however, goes far beyond the right to circumcise Jewish or Muslim children.
Far more troubling, and ominous, is what would appear to be a gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state. There are many examples. There are growing efforts to forbid adherence by Muslims to Sharia law. Some hospitals and medical care facilities have adopted end-of-life policies that would violate deeply held principles of some minority faiths. Some corporate employment policies do not allow “conscience clause exemptions” based on religious beliefs. There are ongoing challenges to accommodation of practices such as Shabbat eruv construction. The list goes on.
Crucially such concerns should not be seen as merely parochial concerns of some Jews. To the contrary, like the First Amendment that so critically ensured every citizen’s right to free exercise of religion, they reflect the long tradition of recognizing that the price of liberty, as Andrew Jackson said, is eternal vigilance. As long as the practices of any minority faith are threatened, we are all of us – religious or non-religious – at peril of the loss of our fragile freedoms in a world of increasing homogeneity and conformity.
And thus, to ignore or downplay the significance of anti-circumcision activist groups that would presume to oppose others’ faith or practices, no matter how frivolous or outlandish it might appear, would be not just folly but a clear and present danger to all of our freedoms. And thus, the time to oppose them, in concert with all freedom-loving Americans, is now.
Basil Herring is executive vice president and Joel Finkelstein is vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America.