Circumcision is a procedure for cutting, and sometimes permanently removing, part of a person’s genital organs. Sound appealing? Something you’d rush to sign up for? Well, you can – and no one, in San Francisco or elsewhere, proposes to stop you. If you want to inflict this insanity on another person, though, that’s different – especially when the other person is a child entrusted to your protection. The San Francisco referendum would ban the circumcision only of minors, allowing adults to choose for themselves.
In fact, circumcision of children is already flatly banned by federal law in the United States, for half the population – the female half. Nonetheless, thousands of American girls have suffered through the procedure, as have 140 million women around the world. For boys, though, anything goes. Is this because boys are tougher? Is it because male circumcision is less severe than female circumcision? Not really. Just last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics approved, then quickly rescinded, a proposal by “moderate” Muslims to achieve the religious benefits of female circumcision by means of a small nick to a girl’s clitoris, that would quickly heal – a far less intrusive procedure than whacking off an entire part that will never grow back. In a burst of common sense, AAP said no, that’s still outrageous, and no doctor should ever do it. The whole idea that a particular variety of mutilation is ok because it is “less severe” than some other variety is ludicrous: punching a stranger is less severe than shooting him, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.
But what about the rights of parents? Those rights are broad, but not infinite – and they terminate abruptly when the physical well-being of children is involved. It is now well-settled in most jurisdictions, even Oregon, that religious parents may not rely on prayer rather than medicine when their children are sick. What, then, gives parents the right to slice off their children’s body parts? Nothing at all – other than a chorus of experts telling us all about God’s will. Circumcision, they say, is an ancient religious practice, mandated by the Book of Genesis itself.
Well, so is slavery. So is genocide. Humanist common sense prevailed against those barbarisms – now it’s circumcision’s turn.
Female circumcision is an ancient religious practice as well, mandated today by Al-Azhar University, the closest Muslim equivalent of the Vatican. If the law can protect girls from religious circumcision, why can’t it protect baby boys? I even dimly recall something or other in our Constitution using the phrase “equal protection of the laws.”Cutting fans are now claiming that circumcision is justified by health benefits, even that it prevents the spread of AIDS. How thoughtful of God to command the maiming of infants for thousands of years, just so there would be a handy tool available once he decided to inflict AIDS on the world in the 20th century. In fact, the health benefits of genital cutting are minuscule, and offset by the risk of infection – as medical organizations around the world agree.
Opposition to the referendum comes not just from Jews and Muslims. Catholics like the Archbishop of San Francisco and Protestants like the National Association of Evangelicals are in full howl – despite the fact that Saint Paul unambiguously warned that “if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” One more case of “pick and choose” theology, where God experts plump for the Bible commandments they agree with and ignore the ones they don’t.
For their efforts, San Francisco’s child protection advocates are being likened – naturally – to the Nazis of the 1930s. This is par for the course whenever someone challenges the prerogatives of Jewish God experts. Somehow, the desire to protect Jewish boys from irreversible harm strikes me as being the 180-degree opposite of anti-Semitic. The Nazis never attempted to protect Jewish boys by banning circumcision – they’d just as soon have the whole thing cut off.
Where did the whole monstrosity of circumcision come from, anyway? If you guessed it came from Genesis, you’d be wrong. It was practiced by the Egyptians long before the Torah was dreamt of, and was one of many ideas (along with not eating pork) borrowed by the fertile minds who pasted together the Jewish religion. Some historians speculate that the original symbolic point of circumcision was a ritual castration to make boys more like girls, which seems a little farfetched. Others speculate that circumcision was intended to be a “less severe” substitute for human sacrifice. But Jews kept right on sacrificing humans long after circumcision was introduced, so that seems farfetched as well.Maimonides, the 12th century sage who imagined rationalizations for all 613 laws of Judaism, perhaps came closer to the truth:
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. … The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its coverings taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened.
Maimonides went on to address today’s issue in San Francisco, of why circumcision must be performed on infants rather than limiting it to persons old enough to make up their own minds:
If the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. … 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.
Jews have not always practiced circumcision. Around the turn of the 3rd century BC, Israel was ruled by the secular Tobiad faction, that sought to bring society more in line with the humanist practices of the surrounding Mediterranean world. Circumcision, among other things, became verboten. One of the popular pastimes back then was to hang around naked in the public baths, where everyone could check out whether you were circumcised or not. Circumcision became so unfashionable that clever Jewish doctors developed a procedure to reverse it, to make it appear to your buddies that you were one of the cool modern guys rather than one of the circumcised hicks. Amazingly, this was even before the invention of duct tape. The Tobiads didn’t last, though; they were soon overthrown by the God expert Maccabees, who busied themselves whacking off every foreskin they could find.
My take is that circumcision isn’t really about demasculinization, human sacrifice, or libido repression. It’s about power. It’s about God experts permanently branding new members of the community, in the most intimate manner, with the message that “You count for nothing as an individual. You’re here to serve an invisible spirit, who communicates to you through me. So stay in line.”
This is why God’s commandment in Genesis was to circumcise not only your sons, but your slaves. This is why the Maccabees forced the circumcision of the neighboring Gentile peoples they conquered. It’s why Christian God experts, anxious to protect their own power against humanist common sense, are so quick to jump to the defense of a Jewish and Muslim practice. It’s why even in modern times, Israeli burial associations, who have a monopoly over the burial of all Jews except kibbutz members, circumcise the corpses of non-circumcised Jews before burying them (and without asking the family’s permission). And it explains the great romantic story of the book of Samuel, about how young David won the hand of the girl he loved:
And Saul said, Thus shall ye say to David, The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies … Wherefore David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale to the king, that he might be the king’s son in law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.
Back in college, many decades ago, I developed a crush on a beautiful Jewish girl, whose name I cannot for the life of me now remember. What I do remember is that she only grudgingly acknowledged my existence. If only I had thought to read my Bible! If I had just brought her father a gift of two hundred enemy foreskins, she might not have loved me, but she surely would have noticed me.