The debate concerning outlawing ritual circumcision is raging. Also here in Denmark, it is now very much at the fore, in mainstream news. Other Nordic countries such as Iceland and Norway have had strong popular motions to set an age limit to circumcision, and this is following the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe’s suggestion from 2013 to ban ritual circumcision (Children’s right to physical integrity). I have even attended a church sermon recently (yes, that’s right – I went there mostly to hear Bach’s music!), where the priest used his whole sermon to address the debate – pointing out that Jesus was also a circumcised Jew!
The latter is a kind of an amusing statement – but there’s an irony there, which was clearly lost on the priest – that Jesus couldn’t have taken a decision about his own circumcision at the age of 8 days. And this is really the point of the whole debate. It’s not about circumcision as such, as a medical procedure – but about ritual, forced circumcision.
Recently a very prominent rabbi, Nathan Lopes Cardozo, has made a novel assertion in the debate (writing in Times of Israel):
As Spinoza, who had left all Jewishness, so correctly observed, circumcision is the secret to the miracle of Jewish survival. What those Jews who oppose circumcision should never forget is that the attempt to outlaw this rite may not just make Jewish life impossible, but would probably end all Jewish existence. In fact, it is a call to end the State of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
Cardozo’s piece is so egregious, it deserves its own particular focus and analysis, which I will provide here. But before I go further into the intricacies of Cardozo’s piece, I would just like to accentuate that Cardozo is an Orthodox rabbi of considerable international clout. UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said that “Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has emerged as one of the most thoughtful voices in contemporary Judaism. He is a man of deep faith and wide intellectual horizons, unafraid to confront the challenges of the age with the quiet confidence of one who is attuned to the music of eternity.”
And Cardozo does manage to address a wide audience with the modern language of “human rights”. In fact, his article’s title contains a witty irony to attract the “human rights” interested: “Circumcision: Why risk your child’s well-being? A call to all Israelis”, it says (and he really means just Jews).
But as is rather quickly revealed in the piece, Cardozo sees the whole discussion about “human rights” as completely missing the point:
“What these well-meaning people, especially Jews, have to realize is that the whole premise on which these objections are based is the result of a profound misunderstanding of what human beings are all about, what moves them, and what makes their lives meaningful.”
Cardozo does note that there are Jewish groups against circumcision, but he generally regards all international attempts to ban circumcision as being motivated by anti-Semitism:
“[N]o self-respecting Jew would lend a hand to these ill-conceived attacks”, he writes.
In effect, Cardozo is positing that these “well meaning” Jews are simply naïve, and that really, they have no self-respect. Cardozo is actually suggesting, that such Jews are unwittingly lending a hand to anti-Semitism. And as he points out,
“it is impossible to argue with anti-Semites, since hate is all they know, and no reasoning will change their minds.”
Thus, according to Cardozo, there is ostensibly no real reason to even try to engage in a debate based upon reason – because it won’t help anyway.
On the one hand, Cardozo understands that there is a debate about medical pros and cons in this respect:
“Medical science has not yet determined whether circumcision has medical advantages. It all depends on which school of thought you ask, and many medical opinions on the subject are driven by opposing agendas”, he writes.
“Arguing about this is missing the point. Circumcision has nothing to do with medical advantages. It has to do with the meaning of life and its higher purpose.”
So one could say, that it is simply impossible to argue with Cardozo, just as he opines that it is impossible to argue with the “anti-Semites” – because no reasoning, besides the one about religious decree – will change his mind.
Cardozo is aware that circumcision is a religious “rite”:
“The rite of circumcision is the Jews’ way of passing on life’s meaning to their children by obligating them to fulfill the Jewish people’s covenant with God, sealed thousands of years ago”, he writes.
But he doesn’t like it being called “mutilation”, because that’s
“a description completely disproportionate to the small incision that takes only a few seconds, heals within hours, and has no serious consequences”.
Oh, I could write a whole article just on that sentence. Let me try to address it concisely:
“Small incision” – imagine if someone just made a “small incision” in your eye. Or in a girl’s clitoris (that’s a whole other debate).
“Takes a few seconds” – so does killing another person.
“Has no serious consequences” – the male foreskin is one of the most sensitive parts of the body, and plays a central part in sexual pleasure. That foreskin doesn’t grow back.
But then, if it’s such a “small incision”, why is it so central for Cardozo?
Cardozo quotes, as mentioned, the great philosopher Benedict (he calls him by his Hebrew name Baruch) Spinoza, who opined that “The sign of circumcision is, I think, so important that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the nation forever”.
Cardozo does note later that Spinoza “left all Jewishness” (omitting the fact of his expulsion from the Jewish community in Amsterdam), but addresses Spinoza’s claim approvingly:
“What this great philosopher was arguing is that Jews may reject Shabbat, kashrut and Judaism at large, but as long as they circumcise their children, they will preserve their nation from utter oblivion, because they realize that it stands at the core of Jewishness and represents a good deal more than just a religious rite or the belief in God.”
So let’s get this right – Cardozo is opining that circumcision is absolutely central, that it’s at the very core of Judaism, and that it is more important than other central Jewish rituals such as Shabbat, kashrut, and even adherence to “Judaism at large”. As long as Jews circumcise their boys, the “nation” will be preserved.
In a way, Cardozo is opining that the future of Judaism rests upon the male penis. If it is not cut, it’s all over.
And what about the female aspect of this?
Cardozo attempts to get rid of this problem in a one short paragraph:
“To say that women are party to the covenant only in a secondary way because they do not undergo circumcision, is like saying that American citizenship applies only to those who fly the stars and stripes on their flagpoles, everyone else being a second-class citizen”.
In other words, Jewish males have penis-flagpoles and penis-flags, which bear the mark of “Jewish nation”. But if you’re a girl, don’t worry, the boys will represent you, and you’re ok too.
Cardozo opines that
“Judaism does not believe that people own their bodies and are therefore free to do with them whatever they please”.
Oh, so God owns my body, and if God allegedly said that my penis should be cut, then I don’t have a say in it. God simply “owns” me. Indeed, Cardozo seems to suggest that circumcision is a kind of ‘branding’:
“Like a piece of paper that carries the buying power of a certain dollar amount, the body serves as the vessel that holds the soul. Just as the symbolic markings on the bill inform us of the value assigned to it by the treasury department, so too does the ‘sign’ that parents inscribe on the bodies of their children reveal the greatness of the souls they house”, he writes.
I want to provide a personal story at this point. I’m Jewish, and I haven’t circumcised my boys. When it became clear to my family nearly 19 years ago that I am not going to circumcise my first-born son (never mind that his mother isn’t Jewish), I got concerned messages from my family. And be aware, that this is a ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ Jewish Israeli family. One member came with a ‘reason’ why it would be logical to perform circumcision – because if I didn’t, my son might encounter awkward situations in public baths… Apparently, the person hadn’t considered that living in Denmark means that the majority is not circumcised, so it would probably be awkward the other way around. But anyhow, is that a fair reason to cut a baby’s penis, because others do it and he might feel awkward? See, this is a societal persuasion. It has got nothing to do with religion really, it’s a kind of traditional-tribal persuasion. Those who adhere to the bible will say that “God said so” – that is, God allegedly said so to Abraham thousands of years ago, that he should circumcise himself (at age 99), all his offspring and all his household – in eternity – because “any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken [God’s] covenant.” (Genesis 17). But others who don’t believe in God, believe in the power of the tradition and are worried about societal exclusion.
As an adult Jew, you can decide how you will live your Jewish life. But somehow, many adult Jews who practice very little of Judaism, seem to think that this ritual of circumcision should be forced upon babies, that they should “practice” Judaism through a physical mutilation of their sexual organs, from before they can even think. The persuasion to do it is very deeply rooted, as a societal tradition. But I don’t think that faith should be imposed like that upon babies. Not in such a way. Faith should be about much more than genital mutilation. And it should be able to transcend beyond it.
But Cardozo says circumcision is an absolute core must. And his reasoning, if you can call it that, bears marks of intransigent religious fundamentalism. If Jews really are to relate to Cardozo’s advocacy as a definitive representation of Judaism, then many will no doubt opt to disavow Judaism completely. But I’m suggesting something else – that instead of disavowing or abandoning Judaism, we disavow and abandon religious fundamentalists (posing as liberals) such as Cardozo.