“There are things that no morally normal person would think of doing, if it wasn’t that they believed in religion or in divine instruction.” -Christopher Hitchens
In any debate on the topic of religious circumcision, a Rabbi will wield his only defensive tool by measuring the compulsory mutilation of the infant boy’s penis against the barbaric practice of Islamic female genital mutilation. There is no wonder as to why the Rabbi has chosen this route. Next to the Islamic practice, Jewish circumcision seems rather tame. To the rabbi I say this: The Muslims have really thrown you a bone here, haven’t they? But before we proceed with the arguments about circumcision, I suggest taking a step back to consider the conversation we are having and why religion forces us to have it.
If, in an ideal world without religion, my friend were to ask me how I felt about mutilating the genitals of a child, I would certainly think my friend was disturbed on some level. But let us say, for some unfathomable reason, I was obligated to answer. I am sure I would simply say nay to mutilating anyone’s genitals at any time for any reason. With that I would hope to move on to more sane and relevant conversation.
Under no circumstances would we entangle ourselves in the conversation that religion requires us to have. We would not discuss the various methods of mutilating genitals, likewise, we would not discuss which method is more brutal and painful than another. We would not talk about which method of mutilating the genitals renders the components completely useless, merely inhibited, or still fully functioning. We would not discuss the effects each method has on the ability to experience sexual pleasure. We would not discuss age limits and whether a victim can remember the horror of the episode when they are older. Under no circumstances would we endeavor to parse out these issues. Taking a blade to a child’s genitalia is immoral, considering it is ludicrous, and attempting to ascertain the least painful and damaging way of actually going about it is only worse.
But this is a conversation that religion, “the source of all morals”, requires people to have. When fifteen minutes of a debate are dedicated to this insanity, it is another fifteen minutes that religion steals away from considering important questions of morals and humanity. It is no wonder that, right before or right after this discussion, another fifteen minutes is wasted on questions of who is allowed to love and have sex with who, whether condoms are truly more evil than the diseases they protect against, and, of course, what to make of menstruating women.
That being said, I regret having to make the following points against circumcision, and resent religion for holding up ethical progress in this way.
If a grown man were discovered with a knife to a child’s genitals as in circumcision, or his mouth on a baby’s penis as in the post circumcision ritual metzitzah b’peh, that man would be arrested. How can there be circumstances in which a man can do both of these things freely and legally, particularly when it is not a necessary medical procedure? What allows this man to hover above the law? The answer is, simply, that he has a book that says he should, and society seems obliged to respect that. He believes that he was given this instruction by an infallible omnipotent. What if a pedophile, upon being caught with his mouth on a baby’s penis, was to say that he believes god has told him to do it? (If this question has made this discussion uncomfortable, the reader has merely realized my above point.) We would certainly ignore his claim to religious freedom. He would be discounted since his claim is not associated with an established tradition. What is the difference between his claim and the Torah’s? The Jewish people have an established tradition of this vile behavior, going back to a time when little abuse of this sort was considered vile, and are therefore grandfathered into the norm. In other words, “We’ve been doing this longer than you, crazy man; pay your dues.”
Everyone in America is subject to laws against sexual crimes, except for a small group of people who have been granted special treatment because they believe they were given divine instruction to commit sexual crimes (and, it’s worth a mention, they make up a formidable voting block). The Jewish community should be held to the same moral and legal standards as the muslim community was in the recent arrest of two doctors in Michigan for female genital mutilation, and in light of the passage of related laws in various states. They should be held to the same standard as the radical Christian and Mormon leaders who have been arrested for marrying and sleeping with underage girls. And as we’ve continually said no to these communities, while saying yes to the Jewish community, there have been nearly 24 cases of herpes contracted via the Jewish ritual and two deaths since 2000.
If you are thinking that the rabbi is, at least, not trying to cover up sexual intentions with this tradition, and that it is not a sex crime in the same way as a pedophile who engages in similar activities, we would be led to the question of whether intentions matter in a case where the outcome is the same, and equally heinous. Practically speaking, I don’t see how intentions change the urgency of what is happening here, but I do accept that the intentions are not quite the same, because religious Jews truly believe that god has commanded them to do this, and millions of Jews would not be doing it otherwise. I say “not quite” because, before we get carried away, I must defer to Maimonide’s The Guide to the Perplexed. He writes in Part III, Chapter 49, as follows:
“Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible.”
Aside from the fact that circumcision does not actually have this effect at all, this is a violent sex crime, with a sexual affects serving as the motivation.
Maimonides continues, it is worth pointing out, to defend the practice of inflicting this sex crime on infants who have no ability to voice an opinion about their genitals or the reception of their parent’s beliefs in general. Maimonides says in the same chapter as follows:
“The third [reason] is that the parents of a child that is just born take lightly matters concerning it, for up to that time the imaginative form that compels the parents to love it is not yet consolidated. For this imaginative form increases through habitual contact and grows with the growth of the child. Then it begins to decrease and to disappear, I refer to this imaginative form. For the love of the father and of the mother for the child when it has just been born is not like their love for it when it is one year old, and their love for it when it is one year old is not like their love when it is six years old. Consequently if it were left uncircumcised for two or three years, this would necessitate the abandonment of circumcision because of the father’s love and affection for it. At the time of its birth, on the other hand, this imaginative form is very weak, especially as far as concerns the father upon whom this commandment is imposed.”
Maimonides admits that the more you love your child, the less likely are to mutilate their genitals. Recall this, when you are asked to believe that the commandments of god are good and just, and executed with love. This one is executed when your child is so young you’re not meant to care about them yet. The above quote is another example of how the religious insistence on ancient morals restricts moral progress in our modern world. And just as a FYI, I loved my child illimitably the first second I knew her, and even before. I can forgive the medieval intellectual his primitive attempt to map the cycle of a parent’s love for their child and other philosophical issues in their time. I cannot forgive the reliance on medieval philosophy in the 21st century. The great void of what they did not understand is much too dangerous to abide. The following is one example of what happens when the modern world tries to.
The New York City Health Department claimed recently to have identified two of six mohels they believe are responsible for giving herpes to babies while practicing the ritual of metzitzah b’peh. This ritual is comprised of sucking blood from the newly circumcised penis with a mouth full of wine. There have been nearly 24 cases of mohels giving herpes to babies since 2000, including two deaths. Although herpes is known to be a hassle for adults, it can easily lead to irreparable brain damage or death for an infant. I recall scanning the articles to find the names of the “identified” mohels only to find that the city will not be releasing them. Any other man would have his face on the front page of the Post but the city will protect the mohel, and their reason is more than suspect. The city claims that releasing information about the perpetrators would mean releasing information about the victims, and so they are keeping all information under lock and key to protect the privacy of the victims. Of course, anyone who reads the paper knows this isn’t true. The name of a criminal, especially one who is still a threat to the public, can be identified without printing all information about the related parties. But how is the city protecting those victims and at who’s expense? How many Jewish children will be born in Brooklyn, NY this year and are at risk because the parents have not the proper information to protect their children? And this question is especially important when the city feels no responsibility to protect their children from criminals they’ve already identified. Not only have the men not been arrested, any agreed upon testing will not be actively enforced by the city and it is unclear whether they will continue practicing in their communities. The Mayor, in an attempt to hold onto the massive voting black that is the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, took up the task of desperately defending the city’s position. A question was asked by a reporter, and later repeated online, that I can only describe as the greatest most satisfying line I’ve ever read. Erin Durkin who reports for the DailyNews wrote,
“Asked directly if it was ever appropriate for an adult to suck the penis of an infant, the mayor demurred.”
It is one thing for the religious community to lament, as they have, that restricting the practice of cutting and sucking an infant boy’s penis is an infringement on their freedom of religion (and not rather an infringement on the freedom of a defenseless baby), but it is entirely another thing for the City of New York and surrounding communities to facilitate this crime in the way they have.
Circumcision is a hot topic in my house. My wife and I are constantly considering how to compromise if we are ever to have a baby boy. If a compromise is reached, and a circumcision must take place, how could we in good conscience choose a mohel, when the city knows that some are dangerous but won’t tell us which. Luckily my wife and I agree that the ritual Metzitza b’peh is unacceptable.
As I write this I try to recall the defense my once religious mind would have summoned on the topic of circumcision. 3. It is not as bad as the Muslims. (Classic). 2. It doesn’t hurt and the baby has been dispossessed of the memory moments later. Of course, these are all secondary to the one true reason behind circumcision. The honest answer is: 1. God commanded it. If we were commanded to circumcise in a more barbaric way, that would be the practice. If we were commanded to circumcise at an older age and without anesthesia, that would be the practice. Everything that god commands is good simply because he commanded it, and therefore, in the world of religion, anything truly goes. All religious violence, from taking a knife to a baby’s penis, to taking a sword to a man’s head, is a testament to the inherent dangers of belief.