California strikes bids to ban circumcision

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that prevents the state’s municipalities from banning male circumcision.

Brown announced Sunday that he had signed the measure, which takes effect immediately.

The state’s Legislature approved the bill early last month following attempts in two cities to place circumcision bans on the November ballot.

Anti-circumcision activists, or “intactivists,” in San Francisco had gathered 12,000 signatures in the spring to have a circumcision ban placed on the city’s ballot. If passed, the San Francisco initiative would have made the practice of circumcising a minor a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail, and offered no exemption for religious ritual.

A state Superior Court Judge in California had ruled in July that the anti-circumcision measure in San Francisco must be struck from the ballot because the city lacked the authority to regulate a medical procedure.

A similar measure was submitted to the Santa Monica municipality and later withdrawn.

In foreskin fight, even terminology is being disputed

According to the proponent of a ballot initiative to prohibit the act of surgically removing a male baby’s foreskin, the term “circumcision” is nothing but a euphemism.

“Having your foreskin amputated is probably more like it,” said Jena Troutman, a doula and mother of two sons, who initiated the process of petitioning Santa Monica to include the initiative on a future ballot.

On May 19, Troutman filed a “Notice of Intent to Circulate Petition” with the Santa Monica City Clerk aimed to prohibit what she called “medically unnecessary genital cutting of male minors.”

That language is being rejected by city officials. The official title, which was prepared by Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is “An Initiative Measure Amending the Municipal Code to Prohibit Circumcising a Male Under the Age of 18 Except in a Medical Emergency.”

To get the initiative onto the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, backers will need about 6,000 registered voters to sign a petition that includes that language. More than 12,000 people in San Francisco signed a petition that successfully put a measure aimed at prohibiting “male circumcision” on the November 2011 ballot.

The term “circumcision” was used on the San Francisco petition and will be included on the Santa Monica petition, in spite of each measure’s backers having initially referred to their initiatives as measures prohibiting “genital cutting of male minors.”

Already the language of the self-described “intactivists” has provoked strong reactions from Jewish community leaders. A coalition led by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council is working to defeat that city’s proposition at the ballot box. Because the measure has not yet qualified for inclusion on the Santa Monica ballot, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have been less vocal so far. At press time, a joint statement opposing the proposed measure was expected to be released in the coming days.

Jewish groups primarily are fighting the ballot measure on the basis that it infringes upon freedom of religion, however many are also accusing the measure’s backers of using misleading language.

“These people went out with a false approach, and they got this on the ballot by convincing people that they were signing something against genital mutilation, not something against religious circumcision,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the national liaison from Chabad Lubavitch to Jewish Federations of North America.

Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gil Leeds, a rabbi and certified mohel (ritual circumciser), called the language of mutilation used by the proposal’s backers toxic and deceptive. “The Hebrew word for ritual circumcision, bris, literally means ‘a covenant,’ ” Leeds wrote. “It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago.”

The language of the San Francisco proposition and the proposed Santa Monica ballot measure originates with a San Diego-based group,, which was initially intent on pursuing federal legislation prohibiting what it calls “male genital mutilation.” The language is based upon a similarly worded federal law, passed in 1997, that prohibits female genital mutilation.

Election law experts said that the actual language of the propositions that appear on each ballot could be contested. In both Santa Monica and San Francisco, city officials have to give “an objective title and summary” to the proposition, Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney in Santa Monica, said.

“If they don’t like it, they have an opportunity to litigate it,” McAndrews said. “If the court deems it ‘false and misleading,’ the court can strike the words or rewrite them.”

It appears likely that the ballots, like the petitions, will use the word “circumcision” and not “genital mutilation” or “genital cutting.”

“American society has always regarded male and female circumcision very differently,” Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at University of Toledo and author of the Religion Clause blog, wrote in an e-mail. “It has generally been felt that government has a compelling interest in outlawing female circumcision because of the physical, psychological and health effects on girls. On the other hand, the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the U.S. is not seen as giving the government a compelling interest in outlawing it,” Friedman wrote.

The medical benefits of circumcision — which are cited by opponents of a ban and disputed by backers — are sure to have an impact on the debate as it progresses.

The language used by each side is not likely to change anytime soon, however.

“There’s a baby male, and that baby male — either for medical ritual or religious ritual — is having its foreskin removed,” Suzanne Wertheim, a visiting lecturer at UCLA, said, illustrating what a neutral description of the act in question might look like.

But no matter what the courts or the voters decide, Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist, said that people on each side of the argument are unlikely to start speaking neutrally.

“There are people who say that abortion should not be legal and should not be an option for women, and there are people who say that abortion should be legal and should be an option for women,” Wertheim said. “That is a neutral phrasing of those stances. But no one ever discusses abortion that way.”

Circumcision Lite

An undeniable physical reminder of a man’s connection to Judaism, circumcision has been an important focus of the first days of a boy’s life since before we received the Torah. However, for almost as long, there have been people who question the act of circumcision and those who have rallied for eliminating the practice.

Modern times are no exception. In fact, through televised programs and numerous Web sites, the anti-circumcision movement is gaining increased exposure and coverage.

Though most Jewish families still choose to circumcise their sons, some parents are looking for alternatives to their baby boy’s tearful parting with his foreskin. Often, these parents are torn between sparing their child the pain of circumcision and maintaining a connection with Jewish traditions and commandments.

As central as the mitzvah of circumcision is to Judaism, some parents have created alternative rituals. One such ceremony is called brit shalom, or covenant of wholeness, during which parents might read Bible passages and recite the traditional blessing normally recited at a brit milah, but there is no circumcision performed.

Another procedure called hatafat dam brit is also being used in place of a circumcision. Usually only appropriate in the case of already circumcised converts or adopted babies, or when a baby is mistakenly circumcised at the hospital, hatafat dam brit is a Jewish ritual circumcision performed by drawing a drop of blood from the site of the circumcision.

Dr. Fred Kogan, a prominent mohel in the Los Angeles area, is concerned about the increasing number of requests he is getting for this ritual. “People don’t want to circumcise during this big anti-circumcision movement and are looking for something to take its place,” he says. “People have been calling me now, saying, ‘We think it’s barbaric, horrific, and we don’t want to do this to our child.'” He adds that, on the other hand, parents may want to placate grandparents, and many don’t want to exclude themselves from the Jewish world.

In reality, there is no alternative to circumcision, Kogan maintains. “Circumcision is a cultural, physical sign,” he says. “It’s something you have to go through if you want to be part of the team.”

Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, a Los Angeles Orthodox mohel, has not received many requests for circumcision alternatives, but he is quick to dismiss the appropriateness of hatafat dam brit. “It is totally invalid, totally meaningless. The only way that the drop of blood is valid is if there is no foreskin.” Otherwise, he says, “It is just a waste of a drop of blood.”

Rabbi Dennis Eisner, L.A. director of the Berit Milah Program (a joint project of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he is assistant dean, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is in contact with mohels throughout the world. Regarding invalid applications of hatafat dam brit, he says, “I don’t think it’s very widespread. … There may be people out there who are trying to appease parents, but those people are wrong. They are doing a disservice to the young men who are entering in the community. It is not what we’re about, not what we’re promoting, and not what we’re suggesting.” Though he recognizes that the once-asserted medical benefits of circumcision are now falling into doubt, Eisner does not see this as relevant to the Jewish act of brit milah. “There is some ambivalence about the medical act of circumcision, but we are not about the medical act of circumcision,” he says, but about entering into a covenant with God.

Leaders in the anti-circumcision movement say the number of Jewish parents looking for alternatives to circumcision is rising. Ronald Goldman, author of “Questioning Circumcision — A Jewish Perspective” and director of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, Mass., says, “The large majority of Jews are not aware of the religious reasons” for circumcision “and do so for cultural reasons.”

Goldman, who does not see his ideas as a threat to modern Judaism, says his book is not directed at traditional Jews. “We are not here to tell people what to do, but to provide an alternative. We’re here to support Jews who are questioning circumcision, to let them know they are not alone. … We have been contacted by hundreds of Jews who are questioning circumcision. We’re also here to clear up the myths and misunderstandings about circumcision.” Goldman calls into question whether one really needs to be circumcised to be Jewish, suggesting that one only needs to be born to a Jewish mother. He adds that circumcision is in direct violation of the Torah’s prohibition against self-mutilation.

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Temple Sinai in Westwood says, “These points are dealt with extensively by the rabbis.” While there are laws against self-mutilation, circumcision is considered the removal of something that is not necessary, he explains, comparing the foreskin to the unneeded parts of a fruit. “It’s important at one stage, but it is ultimately not part of the fruit, like the stem of an apple.” Fasman says, “Human beings don’t own their bodies; God owns their bodies,” adding that it is God who is commanding us to circumcise.

Fasman sees the modern hesitations about circumcision as partly due to our rights-based society. “Rights is a whole new language, and it is often at direct odds with standard Jewish thought. We are inheritors of the rabbinic tradition, which is [that] we best fulfill our obligations in this world. We best fulfill our obligation through the performance of mitzvot.”

According to Anita Diamant in “The Jewish Baby Book,” the Torah refers to the foreskin as the orlah, which, she says, “means not only foreskin but also any barrier standing in the way of beneficial results. The word orlah is also used as a metaphor for obstructions of the heart that prevent a person from hearing or understanding God. Removing the orlah is interpreted as a permanent, physical sign of dedication to the ongoing task of perfecting the self in order to be closer to the Holy One.”

All parents of Jewish boys feel anxiety about their sons’ discomfort during the bris, but most accept it as part of being Jewish and as something the baby gets through. While Jewish parents seeking alternatives to circumcision are few, Kogan fears it’s a growing trend. “When anything starts, people say, ‘Eh, it’s nothing.’ But if I had three people call me in the past three years, and none in the previous 14 years, there must be a lot more people out there.”