East versus West: Circumcision Wars
Circumcision has been a highly contentious issue throughout history. The practice has been and continues to be a flashpoint for culture and real wars. It is a nexus where the values of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ collide. Post-holocaust it has been a taboo subject.
Suddenly circumcision is all over the news. In June, the district court of the city of Cologne, Germany banned ritual circumcisions citing health and human rights concerns. The City of New York is requiring couples to sign a written consent form before a circumcision can be performed. In dour Finland, the third largest political party, True Finns, has introduced legislation to make ritual circumcision of a minor a criminal act.
In all cases, civil government is going after ritual circumcision performed by self-selected religious practitioners for health and, in some cases, moral reasons. In Cologne, a four-year Muslim boy nearly bled to death after circumcision by a self-appointed man. In New York, health officials are trying to stop the disturbing practice of a small sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews; this practice calls for the mohel, the religious official who performs circumcisions, to suck the blood caused by the incision from the child’s penis. The practice has led to herpes infections in a number of cases that have led to the death of the child. Plus the practice is sacrilegious to 99.9% of Jews and smacks of pedophilia. If Jerry Sandusky had done such a thing he would have gotten another 100 years in jail.
The German ruling is perhaps the most interesting in that it doesn't hide behind mundane health concerns. The ruling states that circumcision is a ‘a permanent mutilation of the child’s body” and as such, violates the child’s freedom to choose a religion upon reaching maturity. The German court has decided to protect the future religious freedom of the child from an irreversible physical disfigurement and limit the religious rights of his family to impose the rite on the child. This is a curious verdict emanating from a Catholic city that is known for its violent opposition to ‘Anabaptist’ theology, i.e., the denial of original sin and infant baptism in favor of voluntary, adult baptism (as does the Mormon Church). [Modern day Anabaptists include the Mennonites, Amish and Unitarian/Universalists, most of whom now live in American having left Europe to escape persecution.]
One also gets a sense that the anti-circumcision movement is more a reaction to Islam and its later stage circumcisions than Judaism. Circumcising an eight-day old infant as stipulated by the Jewish tradition in Genesis 17 is a lot easier to stomach than circumcising a four-year old boy without anesthesia , let alone circumcising a conscious 13-year old as is the tradition in Egypt.
Looking at the flip-side of the issue, ritual female circumcision of minors is outlawed entirely in the United States under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, Title 18, Part 1-Crimes, Chapter 7 – Assault, Section 116 - Female Genital Mutilation. This law passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton states in its footnotes “the practice of female genital mutilation can be prohibited without abridging the exercise of any rights guaranteed under the first amendment to the Constitution or under any other law.” The law prohibits, “whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both”. It would be interesting to see if the United State Supreme Court would find this law constitutional. Apparently, no one has challenged it. If female circumcision is illegal, then why not male circumcision? Or both should be legal to be consistent. [though, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882.]
Circumcision has been flashpoint for centuries. The Macedonian successors to Alexander the Great tried to ban circumcision in BC 166 which led to the Maccabean Revolt and the Hanukkah Festival of Lights. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, tried again in 130 AD only to start the Bar Kokhba Revolt that ended in tragedy for both sides. Accordingly to Wikipedia, 580,000 Jews died in the conflict and some say that an entire Roman Legion, XXII Deiotariana, was annihilated in the heavy and bloody fighting.
At issue were conflicting ideologies. The ‘Western’ thinkers considered the human body to be perfect and celebrated it in athletic games, The Olympics, and in art. The Westerners viewed circumcision as a barbaric mutilation of a Gods-given, perfect object. The Greeks also considered the glans, the head of the penis to be obscene, and therefore a body part that needed to remain covered in public. Since athletic games were performed nude, exposing the glans through circumcision, would have made the games obscene and impossible.
On the other hand, the ‘Eastern’, Semitic/Hamitic or Jewish tradition viewed circumcision as a central facet, if not the central facet, of religious identity. The requirement to circumcise is clearly stated in the Torah “Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.” This condition of the covenant with God makes it impossible for a practicing Jews to forsake ritual circumcision, hence the repeated source of conflict.
Many ‘Eastern’ cultures practice or practiced circumcision. It is a widespread cultural phenomenon amongst Semitic and Hamitic language speakers throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, including Egypt. [Apparently, the Hamitic language group – named after Noah’s disgraced son, Ham -- that includes ancient Egyptian and modern Coptic has been renamed Afroasiatic, since I was in school for political correctness reasons. ] But circumcision is not a clear cut requirement of either Muslim or Coptic Christian theology. Circumcision is not mentioned in either the Koran or the Coptic Bible. So for Muslims and Copts, circumcision is a cultural phenomenon, handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, not required by the ‘book’. Female circumcision in all cultures is also an oral tradition.
And therein lays the clue to consistent treatment of circumcision in Western liberal society.
In fact, Federal law and precedent point the way to a rational solution for our allies in Germany, Finland and New York City who are grappling with this child protection conundrum.
If ritual circumcision is required in writing by the sacred texts of a person’s religion to be performed, then ritual circumcision is allowed, legal and protected by the First Amendment. But circumcision of a minor – male or female – that is related to a cultural or oral religious tradition is banned and a criminal offense. Such a consistent treatment of the issue would protect the religious rights of Jews while banning the unacceptable and unpleasant practices of Muslims, Coptic Christians and other less influential ethic groups. In no circumstance, however, is a Jew permitted to suck the blood from the penis of an infant.
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