Opinion: Circumcision wars in California

The attempt to make circumcision illegal, including those performed for religious reasons, is spreading beyond San Francisco, which aimed last week to become the first American municipality to ban the practice. Now, residents of Santa Monica have filed a petition indicating that they, too, intend to get a similar measure on the November ballot for their city. While these are the two most aggressive attempts to curtail the practice of circumcision, they represent an increasing trend away from the practice, or at least away from the presumption of its necessity.

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 many 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 also 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 that accompanies the performance of this sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,500 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 that 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 its 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 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 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 that 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 those seeking to ban circumcision don’t pursue banning other medical procedures that parents believe are right for their kids to have. This indicates that the fight about circumcision is really an expression of the opponents’ hostility to religion in general or to parents’ rights to make decisions that may shape their kids’ future identities.

It’s as if people 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 people focus on the hopes and aspirations they have for their own children, and pursue, as their consciences dictate, those practices they believe will aid in their attainment. Sometimes parents will get it right, sometimes not, but maximizing the freedom to give it their 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.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” and is the President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.