Friday, May 20, 2011

Only in San Francisco: Ballot Measure to Ban Male Circumcision

On November 8, 2011, San Francisco voters will go to the polls to decide whether to ban a fundamental religious practice of Jews and Muslims. Jews circumcise their baby boys at the age of 8 days, following the commandment given by God to Abraham in the Torah, to circumcise his son Isaac when the boy was 8 days old. Abraham also circumcised his son Ishmael on the same day. Since Ishmael was 13 years old at the time, his spiritual descendents, followers of Islam, circumcise their male sons at age 13. The San Francisco measure would ban penile circumcision unless the person being circumcised is at least 18 years of age and has given his written consent.

Judaism calls its ritual circumcision "brit milah," the covenant of circumcision, because it marks the entry of the child into the covenant with God of our forefather Abraham. As Rabbi Gil Leeds, a certified mohel, trained in the medical procedure and religious practice of circumcision, writes in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

It is a covenantal act that Jews have practiced since the time of the Patriarch Abraham more than three-and-a-half millennia ago. It reflects a commitment to monotheism that reaches back to the dawn of observance practiced even under religious oppression. The holiday of Chanukah emerged after the Greeks banned circumcision, which led to a bloody revolt. The Romans banned circumcision after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Defying death, Jews secretly followed their tradition.

The ancient Greeks opposed male circumcision because they considered it a mutilation of the perfect male human form. Is it coincidental that this modern attempt to ban circumcision is occurring in a city where homosexuality is more integral to the popular culture than in almost any society since ancient Greece? I would say not, but that is pure speculation on my part.

What is not speculation is that 12,000 signatures were all that was necessary to put on the ballot a proposition that is, in the words of Marc Stern of American Jewish Committee, "the most direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the United States."

Proponents of the measure argue that brit milah puts a baby through a traumatically painful experience that causes mental and physical scars that last a lifetime. I have attended many, many ritual circumcisions, and can personally testify that most of the crying of the baby comes while the mohel is preparing the child for the surgery, before any cutting has occurred. The baby typically is calm and happy just a short time later. Millions of Jewish men can personally testify that they have suffered no lasting trauma from their circumcisions.

"Es ist schwer zu sein a Yid ," it is hard to be a Jew, goes the old Yiddish saying. In recent years in the secular West it is becoming legally harder. In addition to attempts to ban brit milah, we have the continuing attempts to ban the kosher slaughter of animals, schitah. The Netherlands appears to be on the verge of banning kosher slaughter, through a law requiring that an animal be stunned before it is slaughtered. Ironically, Holland was the first European country to allow the free and open practice of Judaism after the persecutions of the Middle Ages.

The Netherlands would thereby join New Zealand, which banned kosher slaughter last year, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. New Zealand currently allows the import of kosher meat other than chicken. (That puts the kabash on the traditional Friday night Sabbath dinner.) A week before New Zealand implemented its ban, the European Union's parliament voted that all packages of kosher meat must bear a label stating that the animal was slaughtered without prior stunning. In Switzerland, where kosher slaughter has been banned since 1893, an animal rights activist is actively promoting a legal ban on the import of kosher and halal meat, imposing an even greater hardship on the Jewish and Muslim citizens of that nation.

By the way, the foremost expert on humane slaughter of animals, Temple Grandin, has repeatedly stated that when done properly, kosher slaughter causes no more pain and suffering to the animal than methods involving prior stunning.


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