The circumcision ban is off the November ballot in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Examiner, a judge ruled that “state law expressly preempts local jurisdictions from regulating health care professionals.” (Side note: Why is it that whenever judges rule on something, they never give a simple reason like, “The judge realized this was a stupid law that made no sense whatsoever. What-so-ever.” It’s always very complicated and involves “jurisdictions” and “preempting.”)
Anyway, the San Francisco Jewish community is certainly breathing a sigh of relief.
Although not for the reason I originally thought. Apparently, the Jewish organizations were less concerned that the bill would actually pass, and more concerned about all the negative attention it was focusing on male circumcision.
So the outcry from the Jewish community wasn’t about fear of having to perform a brit in an underground bunker, it was about not wanting the world to think badly about our brit in the first place.
Now I am all for protests, especially when one of the most important mitzvot is at stake. Even if the Jewish community was fairly certain the ban wouldn’t pass, there was still a chance that it would, and then we’d be all up the creek without a paddle. So protests and signature-gathering and op-eds are of the utmost importance.
But in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “I couldn’t help but wonder…” about how we worry about what other people think about us. I mean, we do some pretty strange things, as a people. Shaking palm branches on Sukkot? Refraining from flipping a light switch on Shabbat because it’s “work?” Mikvah, kitniot, wine that must be poured by a Jew? But should it bother me if people think my religion is strange and bizarre? What if they think it’s barbaric? Should it bother me, then?
Many years ago, when I was in high school, a reporter for the local paper decided to do a series of articles about the Orthodox Jewish community. I enjoyed his unique, non-Jewish perspective. But many people inside the community were not happy about his coverage. When we debated the issue in class, I said it was interesting that he was explaining our rituals and practices to the outside world, and doing so in a positive light. My teacher responded, “Why is that necessary? These are our rituals and practices. We have no obligation, certainly, and perhaps even no right to try and make the outside world understand them.”
So where do we draw the line? When a city tries to ban one of our fundamental religious practices, you definitely want to get involved and do everything in your power to make sure that it doesn’t happen. But if the brit issue had only been raised in the blogosphere, and there was no danger of an actual ban, would we have an obligation to defend it and try to get people to see it in a more positive light? There are a lot of hateful comments out there. If someone thinks brit milah is tantamount to sexual abuse, it’s going to be nearly impossible to convince them otherwise. So do we bother trying?
At first I thought, maybe we should just sit tight and wait till it blows over. But then I thought about our mission as an “אור לגוים,” a light unto the nations. This means that we are supposed to be morally upright and live up to high ethical standards. We should be the “example” nation that the others look to and say, “Yes, that’s it! That’s the way to live properly.”
But maybe it also means that we should also “shed light” on our own nation. We shouldn’t hide or be embarrassed about our religion. We should show the world we are proud of our mitzvot and rituals, our practices that date back thousands of years. If someone wants to say that a brit is barbaric, we do have an obligation to speak up:
“No, not barbaric. This is a commandment which has been observed since the time of Abraham. And we are going to continue to perform this mitzvah, and all the other ones which may seem weird or outdated or even cruel to you. These rituals tie us to our people and create an unbroken tradition, which is why we are still around today.”
We shouldn’t try to explain everything we do to the outside world. But when it comes to defending our way of life and counteracting some of the negativity out there? Then I vote a definite “yes.”