The year 1999 brought me one of my most memorable moments. Because my grandson was born at home, hospital circumcision was not available. So we went to a Jewish physician who was also a mohel, or professional circumciser. Holding my grandson for the ancient rite, I felt apprehensive: would I be able to hold Christopher steady enough to avoid a surgical accident? But I also felt a spiritual connection to Abraham and Moses in that moment.
In November, voters in San Francisco could have penalized anyone circumcising a boy under 18 (up to a $1,000 fine or a year in jail), if a court hadn't killed a controversial ballot measure in July.
Although the vast majority of infants in America are circumcised for hygienic rather than ritual reasons, this proposal had strong antireligious overtones. "Jews, Muslims, and Christians all trace our spiritual heritage back to Abraham. Biblical circumcision begins with Abraham," said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "No American government should restrict this historic tradition. Essential religious liberties are at stake."
In American law, religious liberties are not absolute. In the 1880s, Congress stripped civil rights from Mormons who practiced plural marriage. And in 2011, a jury convicted an Oregon couple of first-degree criminal mistreatment because they chose prayer over standard medical treatment for their daughter.
What is the difference? No major world faith commands plural marriage or substituting prayer for medical treatment. Infant circumcision is, however, a mandate of Jewish faith and a millennia-old marker of Jewish identity. Sabbath observance, kosher diet, and ritual circumcision are historically the three big marks of Jewish identity. Orthodox Jews maintain all three. Most liberal Jews, who likely fudge on Sabbath and food, still circumcise—or feel vaguely guilty if they don't.
Matthew Hess, president of the group behind the proposed ordinance, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "We're not trying to be anti-Semitic. We're trying to be pro-human rights." They may not have been trying to be anti-Semitic, but the caricatures of Jews in a comic book Hess wrote play into centuries-old stereotypes. In issue #2 of Foreskin Man, a villain named Monster Mohel bursts into the room flanked by gun-toting thugs. He snatches an infant, and while one of his goons restrains the mother, prepares to sacrifice the infant's foreskin. Monster Mohel has an evil grin, untrimmed hair and beard, stringy saliva, and vacant zombie eyes.
Stories about Jews stealing infants and circumcising them circulated in the Middle Ages and actually cost Jewish lives. This anti-circumcision campaign is trading in stock anti-Semitic tropes.
For most of their history, Christians thought circumcision, kosher diet, and Sabbath would prevent unity among Jesus' followers. Paul was first out of the gate with his letter to the Galatians. We often forget that a debate about circumcision frames our favorite verses about justification by faith. Paul was clear: "If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you" (Gal. 5:2, ESV). Justin, Abelard, and Luther elaborated Paul's themes. Drawing on the Hebrew prophets, they claimed that the true circumcision God commands is spiritual, a "circumcision of the heart." Jews, they argued, were blind to the superiority of the spiritual over the physical. Circumcision was evidence of their blindness.
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