The organization Jews Against Circumcision was established to protest what its members believe to be genital mutilation and a procedure that leaves emotional scars as well as physical ones. Unlike the ancient Jewish Hellenists who avoided circumcision or tried to reverse it, these modern opponents of circumcision are not motivated by a desire to fit in to the majority culture. Theirs is an ethical objection. The claim is that the procedure is medically unnecessary and is tantamount to any other form of intentional injury to a defenceless infant. Parents, on their view, should be protectors of their children rather than instruments for their injury.
Some Jews defend circumcision on the basis of recent medical reports that link circumcision with a significant decrease in penile and cervical cancer and the transmission of AIDS. But this defence is flimsy. Medical reports seems to change: some years doctors advocate circumcision and in other years dismiss it. Besides, Jewish practice ought not be contingent on current scientific opinion which then gives ultimate authority to external experts in determining how Judaism is to be observed. If, for example, nutritionists claimed that kashrut is unhealthy would Jews then be compelled to abandon kashrut?
Interestingly, even those Jews marginally connected with Jewish living still insist on circumcision. It is as much a statement of Jewish identity as it is a mitzvah. So while there will always be some Jews who repudiate circumcision, I do not believe the practice is in jeopardy.
The question that you raise is far more significant. Given a climate in which society has taken a special interest in protecting children from pedophiles, corporal punishment, and other abuses, it may come to a point in which legislation may be proposed to prohibit circumcision. In that case, Jews would be faced with the choice of violating civil law or rejecting Jewish law. First, I do not believe that this will ever happen in the United States or Canada. But in jurisdictions where it might, we may take a cue from the answer given by Moses Mendelssohn to the question of what to do after the Prussian government legislated that burial must be delayed until 72 hours after death. Apparently, a funeral was interrupted when the “deceased” demanded to be released from the casket. He had been in a come and not dead but his pulse was imperceptible. Mendelssohn ruled that the government policy be followed in that it had the function of protecting human life. Thus the Jewish imperative to bury within 24 hours was to be set aside. Jewish boys who are not circumcised are still Jews. And circumcision, if not on the eighth day, may be performed later. Should some government pass anti-circumcision laws, those who go uncircumcised could follow civil law and wait until such time that the government changes its view of the Jews affected move elsewhere.
I think that proposals for a ban on brit milah, circumcision – – or the fear of such ideas – are the stuff of dystopian science fiction, or zealots run amok. Then, again, the city of San Francisco has banned toys in fast food products if the food does not meet certain nutrition criteria. This fast food proposal is not, in my opinion, such a bad thing, but with a track record of – shall we say – unique ideas, there is no telling what might happen in that city by the bay.
As for us, the Jewish people has survived for many years while facing many challenges. Here is only one example: When our Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 C.E., we survived without the obligatory sacrifices, instead transmuting them to obligatory prayer. So I would not believe that such a proposal, if enacted, would hurt the Jewish people, or change to any great extent its essence. We would find a way to have our traditions survive despite the inability to circumcize our sons.
It is unlikely that this kind of law would be confirmed by higher courts. Such a proposal would engender countless church-state separation protests and lawsuits, as Jews and Muslims – and perhaps others – would attempt to block the law’s implementation.
So I am not fearful that a ban on circumcision would be enacted. However, if a ban on brit milah were ever to become part of enshrined law, I can only predict that some Jews would honor the ban, and others would circumvent it. Regardless of what one might feel about circumcision, and there are many Jews who have not followed this mitzvah (today it is estimated that the percentage of Jews circumcising their sons is about 70%), the Jewish tradition of brit milah would continue, among both the more and less observant. Jews would find a way to persevere in the face of such a restriction.
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