Circumcision Under Knife


Jews are beauts about fighting the last war. Let one of us discover that ìMein Kampfî is on sale in a back alley in Prague, and we start faxing. Let it be known that a century-old fraud, ìThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion,î is being sold on the Internet and thousands of Jewish e-mails thunder like the hooves of Paul Revereís steed. Of course, neither of these books might ever again influence anyone other than the lunatic fringe, but thatís not the point, our defenders cry. We have to be ever vigilant.OK, but how do we react to the anti-Semitism inherent in the defamation of brit milah, one of Judaismís most pivotal moments? The brit milah ceremony ó the lowest common denominator of who is a Jewish man ó is infused with references to Moses, the Red Sea and Elijah, which makes Passover the time to point out that traditional Jews are in trouble on this one. Over the last year, an increasing number of articles and books against brit milah have been published, not by Hitler or boogey men with basement printing presses, but by respectable writers in Esquire, The Jerusalem Report and elsewhere. There have been defenders of our faith, too, but what should be troubling is that our defenders are on the defensive.As with the campaign that gave homosexuality legitimacy, the brit abolitionists have come armed with medical and psychiatric evidence, as well as reinterpretations of biblical text to prove that circumcision is antiquated, a useless cultural appendage, and most dangerous of all, a threat to a childís well being.Last June, for example, the leadoff article in Esquire offered medical evidence that circumcision ìshatters the trustsî between parent and child; quotes a poem ìIn Memory of the Sexually Mutilated Childî; dumps on ìthat old bugaboo, tradition,î while adding that, oh by the way, families with ìperfectly acceptable cultural differences like to make a party out of hacking off foreskins.î

The word ìJewî does not appear in the article but the only artwork is an improbable photo of a chasid at the wheel of a Mustang convertible.Over in the Jewish state, The Jerusalem Report (Nov. 22, 1999) prefaced a debate on its back page with the note that ìin recent years opponents to the ritual have become more vocal in arguing that it is cruel, dangerous and primitive. Has the time come to reconsider the practice?î The first debater calls the mitzvah ìperverse,î the custom ìwe should least be proud of.îA New York Times (April 3) book review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gives legitimacy to ìA History of the Worldís Most Controversial Surgeryî by David L. Gollaher (Basic Books), a book as demeaning as the ìProtocols.î Gollaher brings Maimonides himself as a hostile witness. Maimonides, writes Gollaher, says the reason for the brit milah is ìto dull sexuality so as to promote spirituality,î which is a dull translation of Maimonidesí point that the brit reflects Judaismís attempt to give focus and sanctity to sexuality. What Maimonides sees as divine, Gollaher sees as ìdull.î

Israel Line (April 6), the Israeli consulateís daily summary of the Israeli media, reports that the Reform movement has aligned with the secular camp, petitioning Israelís High Court to permit non-Orthodox circumcision, particularly for those who want doctors rather than a mohel to perform secular circumcisions.In Commentary (March), Jon D. Levenson points out that ìattacks on circumcision are not only increasing but becoming increasingly harsh.î He writes that at least a half-dozen activist organizations ìare not content to limit their efforts to public persuasion but seek nothing less than to make the practice a criminal offense.î

These groups, he writes, were a subject of a sympathetic article in GQ (February), which also observed that many Jews ó including some Reform rabbis ó are sympathetic to the abolitionists.Levenson observes that circumcision might recover its function as a demarcation of Jews from gentiles, with history showing that whenever there is a clear demarcation between Jews and gentiles, the smaller group is obviously more vulnerable. ìThe whiff of anti-Semitism (and/or Jewish self-hate) that one occasionally picks up in the literature of the anti-circumcision movement may be a harbinger of much stronger odors to come.îLevenson sets the battle lines: ìWhere [contemporary] culture speaks in terms of human rights and the supremacy of personal choice, the ancient sources of Judaism speak powerfully of human duties (and of more duties for Jews than for Gentiles). Ö Where liberalism has embraced the interchangeability of sexual roles, Jewish sources see men and women as different by nature and by the plan of natureís divine Author. Where much of contemporary American culture now places the highest valuation on pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, and on the avoidance of any sort of pain, the classical Jewish texts value the willingness to suffer for a worthy cause. …îAccording to Gollaher, as quoted in the Times, circumcision was so accepted in the United States because this is, at root, a religious country: ìIronically, circumcision, converted more than a century ago from a religious tenet to medical wisdom, has marked generations of males born in the United States not as the children of Israel but, in Lincolnís astute phrase, Godís ëalmost chosen people.í îIn the National Review (April 3), Norman Podhoretz notices that our best ally in this and other issues may be the good olí American Christians, Godís almost chosen people, not the liberal-secular Jews or Christians. After all, when ìself-proclaimed atheists or agnostics think of religion, what comes into their minds is … irrationality and superstition … intellectual and cultural backwardness. So far as they are concerned, nothing has really changed since their great hero Clarence Darrow and the buffoon William Jennings Bryan crossed swords at the Scopes trial in the 1920s.î