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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 ...

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Criminalizing Circumcision
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In the Magazine

September 2011

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