Circumcision, liberalism and Judaism
As news filtered over the Atlantic of the impending referendum in San Francisco, my initial reaction was one of angry bewilderment. Who, of all the people on this mad planet, are San Franciscans to pontificate about health and hygiene and tell respectable people what not to do with their genitalia? How can it be that liberals who are comfortable with squishing up an unborn child and throwing it in the bin if its existence interferes with their career or social life, think it’s morally unacceptable to clip a piece of skin should the tyke be lucky enough to make it out of the womb alive? There are even worrying indications that the inactivists, as they call themselves, are willing to use anti-Semitic imagery to make their point. All that being said, though, my final response is: what terrific news.
That’s not just because I enjoy being perverse. I do, but I have reasons as well.
I’ll start my explanation with a few observations about liberalism. On the face of it liberalism would appear to be nothing much more than a tissue of obviously contradictory and unsubstantiated moral convictions, furiously elicited by self-righteous ignoramuses who paper over the giant logical chasms in their arguments with some combination of ‘you are racist/sexist/homophobic’ and ‘you are living in the past, times have changed’. This is, indeed, precisely how it functions in the day to day political sphere, but beneath Debbie Wasserman-Schultz bleating about whatever, lies a perfectly consistent and, in a certain sense, magnificent philosophical system that has to reckoned with and very seldom is.
The essence of liberalism is the conception of man qua man (or rather, qua person), abstracted from any secondary considerations be they cultural, religious, ethnic, gendered or anything else, which are considered unnecessary and unnatural. Ideally, this man should be free from such constraints to pursue only his or her ‘enlightened self interest’ and be in possession of his or her ‘universal human rights’, which will mean the end of wars, sectarian hatred, oppression and what not. ‘Man’ in this sense has never existed, at least in so far as anyone knows, so liberalism has spent the last few centuries trying to create him. The exact means of doing so vary from place to place, but the common theme is the eradication of institutions and ways of life that differentiate various persons both from each other and the idealized liberal norm. Since the world is a mixture of good and bad, it started off on institutions with very little to recommend them, like African chattel slavery, and was able to co-opt or enlist basically non-liberal movements (like evangelical Christianity) to help in its endeavors. But times change and liberals ran out of such easy targets a long time ago.
Two further observations here are important. First, liberalism necessarily abolishes all ethical systems more complicated than pursuing one’s desires, since these are invariably the products of specialized and particularized cultures, and replaces them with the cause of advancing liberalism itself. For that reason liberalism can never just stop and decide that, say, the abolition of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is the final reform beyond which no more are really necessary because to do so would be to succumb once and for all to nihilism and emptiness. Liberalism is, then, necessarily an accelerating train that can never rest, let alone cease, from its endless revolution of human values, at least until there are nothing left of these to revolutionize. The second is that most liberals are only very dimly aware of exactly what they are doing. All of them (or at least most of them) are human beings and – contrary to liberalism’s founding principle – to be a human being is to cherish particular and special things that connect you to certain human beings and so, unavoidably, divide you from others. Liberals solve the basic irreconcilability between what they cherish as humans and what their liberal weltanschauung dictates by the simple expedient of not thinking about it. As a strategy for individual happiness this works perfectly well, but on a social level there’s only so long you can avoid the elephant in the room before it tramples on you, and time is always running out.
A few conclusions suggest themselves. First, it is inevitable that most western countries will eventually follow Finland in banning infant circumcision, probably within a few decades. It involves making decisions about what culture, religion and social group and baby will join before it has any choice in the matter, it is based upon ancient religious texts, it implies that male humans are born imperfect in some fundamental respect, it may very well restrict one’s ability to pursue unrestricted sexual pleasure and it is riddled at every level with connotations of restraint, ritual, discipline and tradition. It is, in short, an institution so obviously contradictory to liberalism that the only conceivable reason it has taken so long for it enter the cross-hairs of progressive reform is because so great a proportion of prominent and articulate liberals happen to be Jewish.
The next is that the vast majority of Jewish liberals will end up supporting the ban. This isn’t to allege that they are not heartfelt in opposing it now, or even that they are simply deluding themselves, but only that they do not fully grasp the implications of their philosophical predilections. Most western Jews have unfortunately adopted liberal ethics in so wholesale a fashion that they confuse them with Judaism itself This is not just true in heterodox movements, but much of what describes itself as modern orthodoxy; this is evident, if I may be so bold as to say so, simply by flicking through the pages of this august newspaper. I have no real doubt that as the years roll on, Jew after Jew will become convinced that a deeper understanding of ‘Jewish ethics’ prohibits infant circumcision, since, after all, it is all about equality and human rights.
I’m no prophet, but I suspect that the prohibition on tattoos (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:28) will be used to argue that Judaism endorses contemporary notions of bodily integrity and the circumcision performed by Joshua after crossing Jordan (Joshua 5:2-9) to show that the Tanach ideally considers it to be a choice freely taken by adults and this will quickly become the dominant position within the Reform world. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis will earnestly implore their congregants to stick to the traditional way, whilst their congregants earnestly ignore them until finally The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, recognizing the fact that bris milah has fallen into abeyance and in order to combat the assimilation and intermarriage crisis, will allow ‘Brit Shalom’ as a valid alternative in ‘our evolving and living tradition’. Finally, at the outer edges of orthodoxy, someone will produce a heter out of left field based on a child being considered a choleh sheain bo sacanah until the age of 18 (or something) and though the bulk of the orthodox world will reject this, the rest of world Jewry will convince themselves that these are just ‘ultra-orthodox’ fundamentalists, clinging to outmoded practices because they are unwilling to accept that Judaism changes. All this will, of course, be childish and absurd gibberish, only plausible through either total ignorance of the corpus of Jewish ethical and legal writings or by willfully perverting or suppressing them. But so what? So are all the ‘Jewish’ arguments for abortion on demand, gay marriage, the two state solution and whatever else is preached at the local temple. Why should things be any different this time around?
When I say that liberalism and Judaism are incompatible, I make no special claims about Judaism. I’m not a Rabbi or anything so you shouldn’t listen to me if I did. Rather liberalism is incompatible with Judaism for the simple and inarguable reason that Judaism is a system that involves literally thousands of restrictions and obligations that enlightened and self-interested liberal man wouldn’t consider doing for a second. Liberalism is incompatible with everything that is not itself and Judaism happens to have quite a lot of that.
So that is why I would like to offer the crazies of San Francisco a hearty thanks. Liberalism works by ever so slightly turning up the temperature through the drip, drip, drip of education and the media until the extremism of 30 years ago becomes the common sense of today, which in turn becomes the ultra-reactionary conservatism of a further 30 years on. Hopefully by jumping the gun by about two decades the fundamentalist hedonists of San Francisco will awaken at least some Jews to the long term collision between the Judaism they cherish in their heart and the liberalism they believe with their head. Some will, no doubt, choose liberalism, but others will get off the liberal train before it’s too late to make a difference and make the difficult journey back to a philosophical mindset compatible with preserving the Jewish faith. I have up till now been using the term ‘liberalism’ without specifying exactly who I am referring to, so I should make clear that it includes not only self-described ‘liberals’, but all neoconservatives, most libertarians and not a few garden variety ‘conservatives’. There are a lot of Jews in all these camps and Jewish apologetics usually focuses on explaining why ancient Jewish tradition is magically (and highly implausibly if you stop to think about it for two seconds) compatible with these modern ideologies. It’s time to start doing the exact opposite.