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.
Circumcision bans are a terrible idea. They undermine parental rights, they trample on the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims, they almost certainly contribute to poorer public health, and as we saw in the case of many supporters of this year’s attempts to ban circumcision in California, they are often motivated by deep hostility to religion in general and Judaism in particular.
For all those reasons, banning circumcision is wrong. But laws which ban such bans, like the one signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown of California, are also not the way to go. While both the impulse for creating, and the end result achieved by such bans on circumcision bans is positive, they also undermine the democratic process, our commitment to maximizing political participation, and the free exchange of ideas.
People, at least as much as possible, should have the right to argue for, and legislate in favor of, really stupid things, including banning circumcision. We preserve people’s right to be wrong as much as possible, for as long as possible. Like it or not, that is a truth upon which our form of government is based, and no matter how well-intentioned, we cut away at that principle at our own peril.
Ultimately, we trust that when popular initiatives, such as those which sought to ban circumcision, run afoul of larger legal rights which we trust our courts to uphold, those initiatives will be struck down. While it’s a messier process, and one which in this case is particularly upsetting to Jews and Muslims especially, it’s a process which protects the freedoms which we all cherish most deeply.
Furthermore, by banning bans on circumcision, California now drives the debate about this issue underground, where it will fester among the most hostile and deranged opponents of circumcision, instead of remaining a legitimate question of concern about which decent people can disagree. The fact is, it’s a sensitive topic and one about which people should feel comfortable sharing their concerns and objections without being labeled crazy, Islamophobic, anti-Jewish, etc.
In the short term, the new California law delivers a positive result, to be sure. Ultimately though, it does nothing to address either the legitimate concerns that some people have about circumcision or the blinding rage which this particular ritual provokes on the part of others. Both need to be addressed.
The long-term value of the new legislation, if there will be any, lies in its ability to lessen the anxiety felt by people who support the right of parents to choose to circumcise their sons — freeing them to engage those with legitimate questions and expose those who are simply motivated by rage.
As with so many such issues, when we substitute legislation for conversation, we find ourselves locked in inherently adversarial combat as opposed to engaged in asking important questions about how we want to raise our children, live out our most deeply-held values and protect the rights of others to do the same. That is something circumcision opponents fail to understand, and the rest of us should not follow them into that misunderstanding.