NEW YORK — Circumcision, or brit milah, has long been the stuff of cheap jokes and comedy. But in recent weeks, what used to be nothing more than harmless fare has taken on a much more serious tone. So-called “intactivists” on the fringe left of American politics have pushed the radical notion that infant circumcision is an act of genital mutilation, so unacceptable in fact that it ought to be illegal.
That such a notion should have garnered enough signatures to have qualified for a popular referendum in San Francisco (and potentially elsewhere) is deeply troubling. For even if, as expected, it will be defeated in the end — like most such California ballots — that will offer scant comfort to the millions of Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who for good reasons circumcise their sons at birth. For to them — to us — it defies comprehension that in this land of liberty and justice for all, serious consideration can be given to outlawing the fundamental practice of Jews since the beginning of Jewish history.
We thought we had left such things far behind in our long journey through eras and lands of religious bigotry and cultural intolerance.
Proponents of the ballot argue that there is a state interest in opposing the consequences of circumcision. But to carry any weight, only state interests of the highest order and greatest clarity should be permitted to override religious liberty claims. And given the substantial medical evidence that circumcision has positive benefits, that standard cannot be met here.
The referendum has been couched as a vote on male genital mutilation. To frame our age-old practice as genital mutilation is manipulative and misleading, as it precludes any other interpretation of circumcision. To portray the issue, as the intactivists have, via a supposedly humorous cartoon featuring Foreskin Man battling Monster Mohel is worse than a bad joke. It is deeply offensive and beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
The concern, however, goes far beyond the right to circumcise Jewish or Muslim children. Far more troubling and ominous is what would appear to be a gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state.
There are many examples: There are growing efforts to forbid adherence by Muslims to their Sharia law. Some hospitals and medical care facilities have adopted end-of-life policies that would violate the deeply held principles of minority faiths relating to life and death. Some corporate employment policies do not allow for “conscience clause exemptions” based on religious belief. There are ongoing challenges to accommodation of religious practices such as Sabbath eruv construction.
The list goes on.
Such crucial concerns should not be seen as merely the parochial concerns of some Jews. To the contrary, like the First Amendment that so critically ensured every citizen’s right to free exercise of religion, they reflect the long tradition of recognizing that the price of liberty, as Andrew Jackson said, is eternal vigilance. As long as the practices of any minority faith are threatened, we are all of us — religious or non-religious — at peril of the loss of our fragile freedoms in a world of increasing homogeneity and conformity.
And thus, to ignore or downplay the significance of anti-circumcision activist groups that would presume to oppose others’ faith or practices, no matter how frivolous or outlandish it might appear, would be not just folly but a clear and present danger to all of our freedoms. And thus the time to oppose them, in concert with all freedom-loving Americans, is now.
Rabbi Basil Herring is the executive vice president and Rabbi Joel Finkelstein is vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox association.