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In this Sunday, May 15, 2011 photo, Benjamin Abecassis rests on a pillow sounded by family members, immediately following his Bris, a Jewish circumcision ceremony in San Francisco. San Francisco voters in November will be asked to weigh in on what was until now a private family matter: male circumcision. City elections officials confirmed Wednesday, May 18, 2011 that an initiative that would ban the circumcision of males younger than 18 in San Francisco has received enough signatures to appear on the ballot. The practice would become a misdemeanor. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
San Francisco is poised to become the first American municipality to ban the circumcision of infant boys, and like most things associated with circumcision, it’s a very sensitive issue. In fact, as I write this, I know that whatever I commit to words here will be seen as brutal and/or betraying by at least many of those who read it.
Were I to begin with the fact that with the birth of each of our three daughters, I experienced not only profound joy, but a certain inchoate sense of relief at being spared the obligation to circumcise them eight days later, many readers would accuse me of betraying Jewish tradition for simply admitting my ambivalence. Were I to begin by saying that had we had sons, they would have been circumcised in full accordance with Jewish tradition, including the genuine celebration which accompanies the performance of this sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,000 year old tradition, I would be branded a barbarian by yet other readers.
Both propositions accurately reflect my feelings, and it is precisely that level of complexity which is rarely present in the ongoing debate about infant circumcision in America. Instead of admitting that the sensitivity of this issue is what makes it absurd to legislate and litigate, each side wraps itself in competing claims about the health, legality and morality of the issue in order to get others to see it their way.
In fairness, those opposed to circumcision are far more aggressive in the use of this approach, though I genuinely feel for people, especially Jews, who admit their ambivalence about circumcising their infant sons. Too often they are immediately lectured about the fact that if they do not do so, their kids will not be Jewish (not true), or that circumcision is clearly healthier and that failing to circumcise their kids endangers them (a matter of debate, though most evidence still suggests that it is).
Meeting genuine questions with questionable assertions is hardly the way to go. There are many good reasons to circumcise our sons, but they are not strengthened by failing to seriously address the questions which people have.
In fact, the intensity of the debate around circumcision, like so many issues in religion, is about much more than we let on. Anxiety about not circumcising, among Jews at least, is often about fear of assimilation as much as it is about the importance of one particular commandment. The same anxiety among non-Jews, for whom there is no such commandment, is often about the rights of parents to shape their children’s future. Those are big important questions – ones which deserve to be discussed openly, not fought over by proxy.
On the other hand, there is something truly wrong with people attempting to strip parents of their rights as guardians and undermining the free exercise of religion. The legal experts will battle over that one I am sure, but the fact that those seeking to ban circumcision don’t also pursue banning other medical procedures which parents elect to have performed because they believe it to be the right thing for their kids, indicates that the whole fight about circumcision is really just an expression of the opponents’ hostility to religion in general, or to the notion that parents have a legitimate right to make decisions which shape their kids’ futures because that too is a part of parenting.
It’s as if we fight about what to do with our kids, or worse, what other people should do with their kids, because of what was done to us by our parents. That strikes me as a poor way to make decisions about parenting, public policy, or the various spiritual paths we follow.
Instead, I suggest that we focus on the hopes and aspirations we have for our own children and pursue, as best as our consciences dictate, those practices which we believe will aid in their attainment. Sometimes we will get it right, sometimes not, but maximizing the freedom to give it our best shot – short of endangering the health or life of the kids involved, should remain, as it has for hundreds of years in this country, a sacred trust.