The sacred brit and other myths
The debate over circumcision and ritual slaughter in the U.K. forces us to take an honest look at our customs.
Here are three cliches about circumcision. First, that it is a sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people. The fact is that whether or not you believe in the biblical narrative of Abraham and his sons, this is hardly a unique Jewish custom. Every day around the world, thousands of babies, young boys and fully grown men have their foreskins removed in a wide variety of rituals and medical procedures. Only a small minority of them are Jews and even among Jews, most are not doing it out of religious conviction, but for reasons of social necessity, family and peer pressures and because it's a good excuse for having a big party.
Second, being circumcised is good for your health. While there is research that points to certain health benefits, there are opposing studies which purport to prove that tampering with male genitalia causes trauma, impaired sexual function and carries well-documented risks. This conflicting medical evidence is hardly surprising - doctors are also partisans, who are every bit as biased as newspaper columnists when it comes to marshaling the facts.
The third cliche is that circumcision is a hallowed religious custom and in a democracy, people should be allowed to observe their traditions without politicians or courts intervening. This is normally an argument for which I have a great deal of sympathy. I don't want the government telling me how to live my life. Except for the fact that it's not my life. None of my four sons were asked in advance when, at the age of eight days, intense, intimate pain was inflicted upon them, and their private parts irrevocably changed. Hardly a democratic act.
And now for good measure, three cliches about ritual slaughtering.
One: Millions of animals are butchered daily for human consumption, so the focus by animal rights groups on Jewish shechita or Muslim halal ritual slaughter is hypocritical. Well, perhaps in another hundred years humans will no longer be eating animal flesh. But while carnivorism is still socially acceptable, there is no reason not to make every effort to minimize the animals' suffering in the process. Organic free-range husbandry also produces healthier food for humans.
Two: Shechita is a humane method ensuring a minimum of pain to the animal. This one always make me laugh as it goes against the most fundamental tenets of halakha, Jewish religious law. The only reason for the laws of Orthodox Jewish ritual slaughter is the belief that they are divinely ordained. Therefore, these rules are never to be changed, even if it is clear that more modern "animal-friendly" methods exist.
Three: Animal-welfare campaigns against shechita are actually thinly-veiled anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish customs. After all, wasn't a prohibition on ritual slaughter one of the very first restrictions the Third Reich imposed on German Jews? True, Jew-haters have traditionally used shechita in their propaganda to prove the Jews' bloodthirstiness, and indeed you can find it on neo-Nazi websites to this day. But equating all opposition to shechita with judeophobia is about as accurate as saying that every vegetarian is a Nazi, just because Hitler had a fetishist revulsion to eating meat.
And here's another cliche that applies to both issues: Jewish and Muslim communities share the same concerns regarding legislation against circumcision and ritual slaughter and this can be the foundation for interfaith cooperation. I would love to see closer, more harmonious relations between Jews and Muslims around the world, but I get frightened whenever I see fundamentalist rabbis and imams making common cause. The next step is joint lobbying for censorship laws against the "defamation" of religious icons by the media and popular culture, and muzzling democratic discourse by labeling it as "hate crime."
Cliches all have at least some element of truth to them but their overuse renders them obsolete. We are living in an age of increasing scrutiny of both well-established religions and newer cults. Serial sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups engendered unprecedented degrees of suspicion toward the Catholic church, while celebrity atheists such as Professor Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens hoisted antitheism to new heights of respectability.
Muslims in the West are subject nowadays to increasing levels of interference, while the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney and the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce have redirected hostile spotlights on Mormonism and Scientology. Much of this attention is justified and has highlighted scandalous affairs in new and old beliefs alike. At the same time, there has been a lot of unwarranted hysteria and erroneous reporting. This is the nature of mass media and Jews cannot think they will evade similar attention for long.
While some journalists and other critics may be more restrained when dealing with a people that has undergone centuries of murderous persecution in the past, others if bothered at all by history, will make the valid argument that Jews are no longer an endangered community and deserve no special treatment. Indeed, many of those critics may well be Jews themselves.
Defenders of circumcision frequently remind us that this is the one custom that the overwhelming majority of Jews, religious and secular, adhere to. You could also argue that the majority of Jews who do not observe kashrut still want kosher meat to be easily available for their relatives and friends who do. These are valuable rallying points and they should spur liberal and secular Jews who want to continue celebrating their tradition - even if they don't keep mitzvot or believe in God in the Orthodox fashion - to take an interest in these issues and not leave them to the rabbis. We have to be clear that these are religious rituals which are often hard to defend, and to do so, we have to take all these concerns into consideration, not simply as lip service.
I will not live in a country that forbids Jews to perform their ancient customs. But I want circumcision and ritual slaughtering to be carried out utilizing all the benefits of modern medicine and technology and I want the government to have the power and political willpower to act against those who use unhygienic and dangerous methods. I want mohels to be licensed and trained by doctors and ritual slaughterers to be licensed and trained by veterinarians.
And I want them and the rabbis who endorse them to fully recognize medical concerns and the importance of animal welfare. To effectively defend the Jewish practices of circumcision and ritual slaughter, we have to ditch our cliches and make sure the practitioners clean up their act. Only if this is done seriously, will the majority of Jews feel they can continue supporting these practices in the future.
Above all, I don't want the battle for religious freedom to be hijacked by those who have scant respect for the values of democracy.