It’s easy to dismiss the supporters of a November initiative in San Francisco to make it illegal to circumcise children. Like all true believers, these “intactivists” engage in junk science and exaggerated rhetoric about “male genital mutilation.” Further discrediting their cause, the movement’s leadership peddles virtually anti-Semitic propaganda, such as the comic book “Foreskin Man,” which reads like a sophomoric plagiary of a superhero cartoon, a racy Penthouse fantasy and Der Sturmer. One could imagine that the intactivist movement will quickly pass from center stage. But it would be a mistake to think so.
Circumcision is unsettling. As the actor Russell Crowe wrote on Twitter: “I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats but stop cutting yr babies.” Despite the politically incorrect tone, Crowe reminds us why the anti-circumcision movement is here to stay: circumcisions are bloody and make babies cry. Even the committed among us are uncomfortable, and we look down nervously when the mohel begins the ceremony. It’s painful to enter the Covenant of Abraham.
In the past, circumcision was attractive to a majority of Americans because of its health benefits. Today, it’s become debatable if circumcision’s health benefits warrant it being a standard procedure. Without a clear medical rationale, non-Jews will stop circumcising their children, and unaffiliated Jews are sure to follow. The Jewish community can no longer rely on doctors to do the mohel’s job, and regardless of the outcome in San Francisco, it will be a lot harder to convince apathetic Jewish parents to perform circumcisions. Why would any parent want to endure the blood, pain and tears of their baby’s circumcision?
In short, circumcision is a marketing nightmare; outside of a deep commitment to Judaism, based on a biblical command, there’s no good reason to do it. This point is significant, because the Jewish community is intoxicated with marketing. Federations commission countless surveys to find out what young Jews want. Jewish professionals search for ways to make their programs “hipper.” The almighty “social media” must be deployed in the battle for the hearts of the younger members of the Tribe. Grant money flows liberally to market driven, cutting edge, jargon-laden programs with a social media presence.
I can’t argue against good marketing; representatives of a religion that has prized ideas should be able to communicate well. But there’s a thin line between marketing well and being “market driven.” The market-driven vision believes that the customer is always right. So if it’s Yiddish or yoga or Jewish jokes that turn young Jews on, let’s pour community resources into a Yiddish Yoga Yukfest. Instead of challenging young Jews, a market-driven vision of Judaism just wants to make our customers happy.
But here’s the problem. Aspects of Judaism like circumcision won’t win popularity contests. If we leave the future of Judaism in the hands of marketing experts, challenging rituals like circumcision or Yom Kippur will be ignored, and we’ll end up with a smooth syncretistic mumbo jumbo that has no resemblance to our 3,000-year-old tradition.
I’m a Modern Orthodox rabbi who talks a great deal about the place of Judaism in the 21st century. But increasingly I’ve come to realize that circumcision is incompatible with the times, as is much of Judaism. But that’s fine; Jews should be proud of how different we are. In an era of unprecedented individualism and hedonism, Jews declare that community is critical, even for an eight-day-old baby. We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion. When others seek endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it’s still worthwhile.
Over the years, I’ve met inspiring people from the former Soviet Union who performed circumcisions under heroic circumstances. Defying the Communist dictatorship, they would huddle surreptitiously and perform the covenant of Abraham on children of varying ages. The amazing thing is that these Jews in the FSU had no Jewish education whatsoever. But even with only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, they understood that being Jewish means going against the current, and being Jewish requires personal sacrifice.
Even though Jews now enjoy freedom and prosperity, we still need to explain to young Jews that they, too, have to be willing to defy the spirit of the times to be Jewish. After all, Judaism is more than apples, honey and funny little hats.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal.