I wonder how to label this note: as concerned with an issue as profound as Iran's nuclear program or Palestinians' desire for gaining a state with minimum concessions, or as just another annoyance on our Jewish road through history?
What various ancient Greeks and Romans viewed as repulsive and barbaric, and banned on penalty of death, modern Europeans and Americans view as potentially dangerous and as a violation of individual rights.
The Council of Europe has decided that circumcision for anything other than a valid medical reason is "a violation of the physical integrity of children". It has called upon its 47 member states to "initiate a public debate, including intercultural and interreligious dialogue, aimed at reaching a large consensus on the rights of children to protection against violations of their physical integrity according to human rights standards
Such legislation, advisory though it is, has provoked campaigns with predictable Jewish and Muslim cooperation against what they treat as anti-Semitism in the largest conception of that term. However, a controversy in Jew-heavy New York City might provoke some questions by anyone hearing the equally predictable charges of anti-Semitism coming from an often loud sub-community of our people.
The issue there is the way of doing the job, via oral suction of the blood associated with the rite, which is followed in some ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities. The practice has been associated with the passage of disease from the circumciser to the circumcised, and some deaths.
Oral suction is a practice that appears to be more problematic than a post-operation cleaning of the results with cotton and alcohol. Yet one must concede that circumcision in the best of circumstances is not 100 percent safe. There are slips that cause embarrassment or worse to the victim.
New York's Jewish mayor has been pressing against the ultra- and Orthodox communities to stop the practice of oral suction, while community leaders have been saying it has been tested over the course of 5,000 years, and will continue underground if the city tries to regulate it
Scholars concerned about history might challenge the defenders of oral suction for exaggerating by a millennium or two.
To do or not to do has also spread to the Jews of Israel. Recent news about the action of the Council of Europe has produced a flurry of talk show debates, with opponents and traditionalists expressing contrary views of the findings about health, sexual pleasure, and the social pressure likely to be felt by the sons of parents who say no. Last year Ha'aretz
devoted a lengthy article to the controversy, noting that a movement has been formed among the doubters, and demonstrating that the controversy has been around for a while
It is common to hear expressions of doubt along with the singing and dancing that erupts from the crowd at a circumcision when the circumciser pronounces that he has finished his work. Typically the new mother will have been been taken aside by her mother or friends, saying things like "it will be all right," while the men gather around the little one for a close look at what is going to happen.
We hear of some fathers who insist on the ritual of circumcising their sons. Yet the vast majority accept the ritual in which they assign the task to a professional who has been trained and licensed by the state.
I once mentioned during a class on religion and politics that while I knew Jews who avoid Bar Mitvah, I had yet to encounter any who avoided circumcision.
"Here's your first" said one of the students. He went on to say that he and his wife were divorcing, but the one thing they agreed upon was not to circumcise their new born son. The decision was not final, insofar as there were grandparents united on the other side, and the eighth day had not yet arrived.
Ritual slaughter comes along with circumcision as an issue between traditionalists and moderns who call themselves humane, who might also be anti-Semites, and seek to use the power of their states to ban practices important to sizable numbers of people. As in circumcision, the issues are not without dispute. People claiming to know argue whether the animal suffers more or less by being killed immediately after being stunned, or by a knife that is examined for its sharpness and wielded by a man who most likely has been trained considerably more than those employed in a conventional slaughter house.
That both circumcision and ritual slaughter serve to join Jews and Muslims on the same side is a point not to be overlooked at a time when other problems involving us produce no small amount of anguish.
Both Jews and Muslims should admit to practices that are, to a degree, primitive. Altering a little boy for the sake of tribal identity and insisting on a ritual killing of livestock puts us outside of what has become Western civilization. Yet here we are. That's us. Jews have contributed no small amount to the knowledge, science, and culture of what we call Western civilization. Whether what most of us do when our sons reach their eighth day, or what fewer demand from butchers contributes to our community or detracts from civilization are matters that are far from clear.
Given their lack of clarity, it seems more hateful than enlightened that others would employ the power of the state to demand that we stop.
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