Although this is my third circumcision blog post in a row, I maintain that I’m not obsessed with penises. I’m obsessed with leaving them alone.
There was an encouraging article in the Telegraph on 22 July 2012, “How could I inflict the pain of circumcision on my son?”, in which Jake Wallis Simons explained how he and his wife chose to ignore a fundamental tenet of Judaism by not circumcising their son, Isaac.
The final sentence of the final paragraph sent a shiver down my spine:
“In the Bible, Isaac was placed on a sacrificial altar by his father Abraham, who was under filicidal instructions from the Lord. In the event, an angel stayed his hand; it had all been a test of faith. Had I been in Abraham’s place, I would have willingly failed the test, and I would have taken pride in having done so. God, hear this: when my Isaac grows into a man, I will be able to look him in the eye.”
The story of Abraham (the father of the three ‘great’ monotheistic religions, lest we forget) perfectly encapsulates the harm religion can do by coercing people to act – or to be prepared to act – against their better instincts and against everything they would otherwise know to be wrong. For me, the bedtime story of Abraham and son is the story of religion at its most terrifying.
I didn’t have a religious upbringing and so I’m not burdened with the pressure of bequeathing morally questionable religious practices to my children. To that extent, I cannot personally identify with the difficulty faced by Jake and his wife. The scale of that difficulty represents the scale of religious power; a power with which I am not familiar. A power with which I don’t want to be familiar.
Taking nothing away from the strength of character of these parents, at the same time I find it disturbing that what should have been a perfectly straightforward decision for two presumably well-adjusted adults should have caused them so much anguish.
The choice is a very simple one: deciding whether the rights of a child or the ‘rights’ of a tradition ought to take precedence. As soon as one acknowledges that a child is a helpless, sentient being with a nervous system and inalienable human rights and that a tradition clearly isn’t, the moral dilemma ceases to be anything of the sort.
I have a powerful memory from my legal training years ago which should serve as a useful parallel of moral clarity. I was reviewing a residential lease and I came to the ‘alienation’ provisions, whose purpose in such a document is to record what rights a tenant has to part with possession of the premises.
The clause went something like this:
“The tenant shall not assign, underlet, share or part with all or part of the premises to or with any person of colour.”
This lease was no ancient legal artefact demising property in a distant land: it was from the 1960s and it concerned a flat in west London. Thankfully, enlightened equalities legislation had since stripped the clause of its legal potency whilst leaving the non-offending clauses intact, but it was still strange to see such wording in an otherwise legally enforceable instrument. In fact, my instinctive reaction when I read the wording was to laugh because it was so unlike anything I expected to see. I remember thinking, “how did we [humans] get something so simple so wrong, so recently?” My hope is that circumcision will be viewed in the same way before long.
Although it’s important that Jews themselves speak out against circumcision, the case against circumcision doesn’t depend on individuals like Jake and his wife swimming against a strong tide, just as the case against apartheid doesn’t depend on blacks speaking out, just as the case against Sharia law doesn’t depend on Muslims speaking out, and just as the case against female genital mutilation doesn’t depend on mutilated women and girls speaking out.
The case for whether something is harmful or not depends on the merits of the arguments and not who is making them (oh, how religion forces us time and time again to articulate such obvious points as this).
Very often it’s actually unrealistic to rely on those within a ‘community’ to speak out because they’re the very ones faced with the highest hurdles: the indoctrination over generations, the shunning, the guilt, even the danger to their personal safety. It’s therefore also up to those outside the community to speak out, in order to act as pathfinder for those within the community to help themselves. The very last thing those within a community need is for those outside it to defend the wrongs taking place and to place barricades reading, “That is your culture. Your rights are different to our rights. That is all you are good for. Celebrate your differences. Go back to your community. Maintain these traditions whatever the bloodprice may be.”
But for Jews to speak out against circumcision is certainly a good thing because there are only so many bogus accusations of finishing off Hitler’s work that the rest of us can handle. Actually, no there aren’t! We will speak out against circumcision for as long as circumcision continues.
I don’t agree with every word of the article. For example, I wasn’t too keen on the distinction between anaesthetised and unanaesthetised circumcision (“And isn’t cutting off part of an infant’s body without pain relief a criminal act?”) but this seems to be resolved later with the focus on consent (“I am proud that my wife and I have…allowed him the freedom to decide”).
There were many Jews at my school and I am still friends with some of them. My main recollection is that they practised their faith in a very similar fashion to people of other religions. It was a highly selective buffet: an extra few days’ holiday from school here, home early on some Fridays there, a juicy bacon sarnie on the sly here when out of sight of mum, dad and rabbi.
Since leaving school, though, I’ve observed with fascination as many of them have become much more religious as they’ve grown up – in many instances, more religious than their parents. That’s their right, but I just hope their increased religiosity isn’t at the expense of a diminished ability to think critically or to act in their loved ones’ best interests. I admit that I don’t have faith.
Jake Wallis Simons expresses regret that he has “allowed this ancient covenant to die in my hands”, but obviously he needn’t feel that way. He should be proud that as far as his own bloodline is concerned, this destructive meme has most probably met its evolutionary dead end.
Isaac, hear this: one day you will understand how fortunate you are to have parents who elevated the emotional and physical well-being of their son high above petty village gossip and millennia of relentlessly uncompromising religious ideology. Let that now become a new covenant that lasts thousands of years, and let that not die in your hands.