Monday, June 25, 2007

Circumcision Letter to Sullivan

[Background: Andrew Sullivan thinks circumcision is just awful. He calls it MGM - Male Genital Mutilation. I don't know if there's a broader connection between his antipathy and his being a gay European - America circumcises all male babies as a matter of course and gay men probably venerate that organ more than others do. Whatever the reasoning, I don't like his position and wrote him this letter, to which he has not responded, neither to me personally or on his blog. Score another against him.]

Dear Andrew,

I've been reading your blog steadily for a few years now (and even subscribed to the print Atlantic because I was impressed that a magazine would the guts to have both you and Yglesias as bloggers) and I enjoy reading your perspective, especially because I do not agree with much of it.

It's in this context that I wish to comment about your on-and-off again criticism of circumcision. I am an Orthodox Rabbi and whenever I read a particularly intense post of yours attacking circumcision, I get a chill of fear. In Jewish history and tradition, to attack circumcision is to attack the heart of Judaism. It is the symbol of the Jewish male because it is the symbol of the covenant of Abraham.

(These articles, one from the Jewish Encyclopedia and another from the Christian Easton's Bible Dictionary give a good overview).

Naturally, I'm not positing that it's off-limits to criticize Judaism; Jewish law very well may be antagonistic to many of the things you hold dear. The fear I feel is from the historical linkage between those who attack Jewish practice and anti-Jewish violence. Some of the anti-Jewish edicts have been or are against kosher slaughter (cf. the Nazis) but traditional Jewish education emphasizes that our enemies have taken a special target
against circumcision.

For example, the holiday of Hanukkah (your mate Chris Hitchens' favorite, or so I'm told), is based on the rebellion against an evil government that prohibited circumcision:

From the Jewish Encyclopedia about "Antiochus":
"[Antiochus'] royal decree proclaimed the abolition of the Jewish mode of worship; Sabbaths and festivals were not to be observed; circumcision was not to be performed; the sacred books were to be surrendered and the Jews were compelled to offer sacrifices to the idols that had been erected. The officers charged with carrying out these commands did so with great rigor; a veritable inquisition was established with monthly sessions for investigation. The possession of a sacred book or the performance of the rite of circumcision was punished with death. "
The Hadrianic persecutions, of those fun-loving crucifixion happy Romans,
also forbade circumcision:
'Circumcision is one of the commandments which, having been accepted with joy, are ever obeyed with joy, and, because the people gave their lives for them, are observed with steadfast loyalty" (R. Simeon b. Eleazar, in [the Talmud]). This refers to the martyrdom which the Jewish people underwent during the Hadrianic persecution, which was especially directed against circumcision."
A modern enemy of circumcision was the Soviet Union
(see this page from an organization trying to reverse that history) - as part of their assault on religion, I would suppose.

Circumcision is thus both part of Jewish identity, a symbol of our commitment to God and a litmus test for a government's tolerance of freedom of religion and of Judaism.

Note, I don't think criticism of circumcision is invalid. Jewish law dictates that the life of the child comes before circumcision. For an example from my rabbinate: a congregant's child, born three weeks ago, has a medical condition and can't undergo circumcision until the doctors say the procedure will be risk free - which may be never. The circumcisions you are decrying are, for the most part, against Jewish law. As such, I agree with you that circumcision, were it to be done in a way that risks a boy's life, is evil.

Yet when you get into the deeper ideologies against circumcision you need to know about which alarm bells you are inadvertently ringing. For me, I hear the alarm bells of the Greek persecution, the Roman slaughter, and the Soviet Union.

And just as being anti-Zionist does not make someone anti-Semitic; the anti-Zionists who are *not* anti-Semitic need to know that they share odious company. So too with those who oppose circumcision: there may be good reasons to do so but you need to work hard to make sure you're not lumped in with the wicked historical bedfellows.

Thank you for all the work you do on your blog
All the best,
The Styx

P.S. Two professional mohelim (circumcision rabbis) who may be effective in answering questions you have about how a proper, healthy, circumcision is done are Rabbi Phil Sherman and Rabbi Pinchas Katzenstein

Sept 7 Postscript: The boy mentioned in my letter will, BE"H, have his bris this Sunday.

2009 Update, picture is a sculpture of Hadrian killing a Jew, according to here. Backpost finished 9/7/07.

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