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June 6, 2011 11:49 am

Circumcision, liberalism and Judaism

avatar by Gabriel Martindale

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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.

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  • Haim Shalom

    You are a genius – and in this case very close to being completely right. Of course “Liberalism” and “Judaism” are two separate ideological traditions which as a rule have nothing to do with each other, but seem to have been joined in the heads of many American Jews. This is a rather ham-handed (but hilarious) way of pointing it out. Of course the ham-handedness ruins your chances of gaining any followers – by insulting us all, we will continue to disagree with you, even if we think you are right! Of course, you haven’t actually made any socio-political arguments against liberalism (which you have defined in a rather bizarre manner, based on how it is used in American politics today – which is odd for an Oxford educated man). Equally you have made no arguments for the pre-liberal Jewish tradition.
    But most of all, by simply stating the obvious (Liberalism does not equal Judaism) then you have opened yourself up to exactly the same claim in reverse: Nothing apart from Judaism equals Judaism. Conservatism also doesn’t equal Judaism and conservative Jews think their social politics are Jewish just as Liberal Jews do – you’re just pissed you’re in a minority.

    I might counter that “Orthodoxy” is equally as anti-Jewish an ideological position as Liberalism. Orthodoxy is the reactionary concept that things shouldn’t change – something which we see is completely against the flow of Jewish history and practice. Jewish tradition was in constant flow until the Hatam Sofer plucked a random misquotation out of thin air and made it a motto (The new is forbidden according to Torah: the original quote being about crops after Pesah). So I assume you would admit that their is no such thing as Orthodox Jewish values as Orthodoxy is the opposite of Judaism, in that it rejects all that does not agree with it and “Judaism” doesn’t agree with it. No?

    • Gabriel

      First, I explicitly included “all neoconservatives, most libertarians and not a few garden variety ‘conservatives'” within the liberal tradition and, if anything, my definition of liberalism is more slanted towards mid 19th century British Millian liberalism (in my opinion the most intellectual defensible manifestation of the tradition) than the modern American version, which, frankly, I regard as just a big joke.

      Secondly, it is false that Orthodoxy says that “things shouldn’t change” and it would still be false if the Chassam Sofer was the sole definer of orthodoxy, since you misinterpet his “misprision” of “col chadash assur min haTorah”. The degree of continuity and change from pre-modern Judaism to contemporary orthodoxy is an interesting topic, as you will find if yo,u ever decide to study the matter seriously,

      Thirdly, my intention was simply to shock people into realising the contradition between their liberal worldview and the scraps of Judaism that they maintain. I’m perfectly aware that the majority will plump for liberalism; in the long run they will do so anyway. However, a minority will realise the contradiction and return to their ancestral faith.

      Fourthly, I apologise that in a single blog post I failed to make all the arguments you require of me. Perhaps I will make up for it at some later point. In the meantime I would refer you to ‘Liberalism Ancient and Modern” by Leo Strauss.

      Fifthly, fast well tomorrow.

  • A few Jews are even on record for supporting or even endorsing the San Francisco circumcision referendum.

    Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews? by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, The Forward, 5/20/11

    The Circumcision Referendum: A Liberal Jewish Perspective by Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

    Howard Stern: Jewish Intactivist by Rebecca Wald, J.D.

    Questioning Circumcision: Op/Ed by Rebecca Wald, J.D.
    The Jewish Reporter, 6/2/11

    • Gabriel

      Thankyou for proving my point.

  • Bob

    “First, it is inevitable that most western countries will eventually follow Finland in banning infant circumcision…”

    Makes me proud to be a Finn! 🙂

  • Jane

    You had better be careful here with your anti-liberalism arguments, because what you are advocating, ultimately, is fascism.

    Virtually everything you have to say here about liberalism can be said, in reverse, about conservatism, fascism, “faith” or whatever you are calling it.

    If liberalism is the runaway train of individual desire, conservative religio-fascism is the runaway train of obedience to authority – and we all know what happens when people start “just following orders”, like herd people into gas chambers and chop off children’s genitals because it is commanded or written down somewhere that they “must”.

    Your arguments fail to take into account that one of the major components of 19th century liberalism was the willingness to listen to individual feelings and intuitions, irrespective of what any official “authority” (such as Rabbinic laws interpreting the Torah, or Canon law) had to say about it. This is the spark of individuality that enabled some Europeans to rescue their Jewish neighbors from the authorities, and indeed enabled the Rabbis to rule in total opposition to much of the Biblical law code. Without it we are all in very big trouble.

    • Gabriel Martindale

      What you appear to be saying is that you agree with me. Liberalism is incompatible with Judaism and that from the perspective of liberalism Judaism and fascism are indistinguishable. Fine. You are entitled to pick your side and I am entitled to pick mine, hopefully both my post and your response will throw the situation into sharper relief for the benefit of smug Jewish liberals.

      I would only take issue with your equation of my position with fascism. I support the maintenance of pre-liberal traditions of human social organization and culture (like e.g. the family). Fascism, on the other hand, is a post-liberal cartoonish inversion of liberalism, which is only possible after liberalism has advanced to a great degree already. Indeed, there is a very great danger that as hedonist individualism gathers pace, people will flee for the nearest available exit in a desperate attempt to preserve their distinctive humanity. This has, of course, happened before and with unhappy results. My goal is to see that this never need happen because people are happy and fulfilled in pre-liberal traditions.

  • RebZ

    So, if I understand this properly: it is permitted for women to have rights regarding choices fofr their unborn children, but Jews will not have the right to make religious/riyual decisions for their living children?

    If we liberals can be pro making choices regarding whether or not a foetus should be brought to life or not, why can’t we be pro choice re:circumcision?

    • Jane

      The question is whether a fetus is the same as an independent, fully developed child. There is really no logic to making this comparison. Either you accept this belief or you do not. If you don’t, then there is no “conflict” at all.

  • Robert Samson

    Actually the most basic point is about human rights–the right to ownership of one’s own body parts.

  • tay Seigel

    The sadness of reality has brought about this radical situation. If our government were really paternalistic protective, the opposite would be demanded. How so? It was proved in Africa, back in 2007, that male circumcision stops the transmission of the HIV which without medicine leads to AIDS; therefore we need to have circumcision before sexual activity. The only debate is what age?

    I sadly admit that your religious debate does lead one logically to the opposite view of the religious texts. The demand of the G_d of Tanach is to follow his rules, all of them.

  • The real issue here isn’t religion, it is sexism. The US protects girls from genital insult, and rightly so. The Federal female genital cutting law, which has no religious exemption for Muslims, prohibits even a pinprick to extract one drop of blood. Male genital cutting–aka circumcision–is certainly worse than that. We’ve come a long way with gender rights; let’s not perpetuate this harmful double standard.

    These males are not permitted to have a say in how their body looks, works, and feels, making the forced genital cutting of boys a human rights violation. This is doubly important because it effects their sexuality, too.

    • Gabriel Martindale

      I agree, if you believe that gender equality is a normative moral goal (presumably as part of an idelogy that privileges equality, i.e. liberalism), then it is logical to support the prohibition of infant circumcision. Consequently, I think that Jews should not support this ideology.

    • Katie

      To compare circumcision with genital mutilation is unfair and vilifying. Its a bit like comparing a beneficial minor surgical procedure with malicious stabbing and cutting of another person, leaving life- long damage.

      In an article originally posted in the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby reports, “The two are not remotely comparable. “Female genital mutilation has no known health benefits,” the World Health Organization and nine other international organizations stressed in a 2008 report on the scourge, which persists in much of Africa and the Middle East. “On the contrary, it is known to be harmful to girls and women in many ways.” It is painful and traumatic; it makes childbearing “significantly” more risky; and it leads to higher rates of post-partum hemorrhaging and infant death. Long-term consequences of female genital mutilation “include chronic pain, infections, decreased sexual enjoyment, and psychological consequences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

      By contrast, the WHO report emphasizes, “male circumcision has significant health benefits that outweigh the very low risk of complications.” Of particular importance in regions ravaged by AIDS, “circumcision has been shown to lower men’s risk for HIV acquisition by about 60 percent.” Precisely because circumcision is so benign, WHO and the other agencies are at pains to distinguish it from female mutilation, which is always dangerous.”

      • Jane

        You are extremely, extremely mistaken if you think circumcision is in any way “benign” or “minor”. It is not only the slow, excruciatingly painful cutting away of the most sensitive part of the body after the eye, without anaesthesia.

        The arguments about HIV are nothing less than ludicrous. Amputating a girl’s breasts at puberty would totally eliminate breast cancer too: does anyone here wish to advocate that? How about doing it without anaesthesia? Mutilaing the body is NOT good preventative health practice.