This is going to be an incomplete Musing because I am committing to paper thoughts that need to be sharpened and shaped. That, of course, is true of all my Musings. New information or ideas always abound. Sometimes a phrase occurs to me that I wish I had thought of earlier. Yet, this Musing is different because the topic is both difficult and important and I have never seen it discussed elsewhere. So, I am advancing opening thoughts and hope that others will pick up the conversation or point me to articles I have missed on the subject.
The New York Times Health Editor recently suggested that journalists replace the term “female genital mutilation” with “genital cutting.” This seemingly small change strikes me as hugely significant. The New York Times feels that the word “mutilation” is “culturally loaded.” In other words, it implies a negative judgment of a practice that in some cultures is perfectly acceptable (left unstated is that the ‘other’ is Moslem).
Meanwhile, over the years some have urged that male circumcision be called “male genital mutilation” or that the Moslem practice be termed ‘female circumcision’. The intention here is to insist that circumcision of males and females is identical. In both these cases language is a way to affect perception.
What’s our nation to do? We’re not alone; the question of dealing with many diverse cultures plagues Europe, Canada and other countries around the world as well. We Americans have tied ourselves into knots over the years, unsure how to reconcile the Founders’ roots in Christianity with the great mosaic of religions, including atheism, that over time have become part of the American social tapestry. One response is to rewrite history and remove the Christian underpinnings of this country; another is to acknowledge but abandon those principles. Both those options force us down the road of establishing an entirely new country. Indeed, it is hard to argue that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were they to visit our times, while initially being elated at how America has survived and thrived, would also be deeply worried about her continuing to do so.
In the 1800s, our country adamantly resisted Utah becoming a state as long as large numbers of future citizens insisted on retaining multiple wives in accordance with what was then Mormon Church doctrine. I think it obvious that had there been an active Hindu population in America in the 1800s, the practice of suttee, or burning widows on their husband’s pyres, would never have been legalized in the name of ‘religious freedom,’ a problem the British grappled with in their India colonies.
We have become increasingly reluctant to acknowledge that Christianity, in all its various denominations, played a special role in the codification of our Constitution. America is not a theocracy but Christian roots underpin its entire existence. Not conceding and respecting this has diminished our ability to uphold certain acts and condemn others. How the law treats circumcision greatly affects my family’s ability to live in this country, along with many other committed Jews.
Should our laws and culture start to allow, or turn a blind eye to, female genital mutilation in the name of Islamic freedom of religion, America will have taken a giant leap to elevating Sharia law. As a result this country will become less safe for many groups such as Christians, Jews, homosexuals and females. To remain a nation of free people we must be able to say that Sharia law and many Islamic practices are incompatible with America’s laws, values and culture.
On the other hand, if, in the interest of not favoring one religion over another, brit milah – the circumcision of a Jewish baby boy on the eighth day of life – is outlawed, observant Jews would be hard-pressed to stay in America. Despite a presence since colonial days, they would now be forced to leave. This is not an idle threat like that of Hollywood stars who hysterically announced that they would emigrate should Donald Trump become president and then quietly reneged on their promises after November’s results. This is a statement of fact: For Jews who are faithful to their God, brit milah is non-negotiable.
Brit Milah is at the core of a religious Jewish life. It was outlawed by both the Romans and the Greeks leading Jews to martyrdom and revolt rather than acquiescence. It was a dangerous tell-tale sign of Jewishness in Nazi Germany, yet religious Jewish parents did not abandon the practice. If progressives succeed in renaming brit milah “male genital mutilation” it would quickly follow that this act would be unacceptable. If this were to happen what arguments could be mustered to keep it legal?
Possible health benefits for either males or their spouses from brit milah are interesting but irrelevant. On the other hand, should some scientific study show increased risks caused by circumcision, it would make no difference to me as a Jewish parent. With science today being politically and ideologically driven I would expect such a study to appear. Should I be told that my sons can opt for circumcision when they are old enough to make that independent choice, it would make no difference either. The Biblical obligation commands circumcision on the eighth day, barring medical problems.
I am left asking why, as an American, I hold that brit milah should be legal and female genital mutilation be criminal? The bottom line I come back to is because brit milah is part of a religious tradition that was known to and accepted by America’s founders, whose familiarity with Jews, Judaism and Hebrew texts is astounding.
The automatic response to that statement is, “Ah, but so was slavery accepted.” That argument doesn’t pass the test of historic literacy. Source documents of the time make eminently clear that the issue of slavery was uniquely and endlessly discussed by the Founders. They were fully aware that, for many, it contradicted the underlying principles on which this country was being based. Their solution was to kick a contentious issue down the road knowing that it had the possibility of destroying the entire enterprise.
No such debate over the position of Jews took place. Historically, America was deeply rooted in a broad Judeo-Christian tradition. The promise of federal religious freedom allowed groups within Christianity such as Catholics and various Protestant denominations as well as Jews to foresee a future of coexistence. This showed a marked difference from the bloody and contentious alternative in Europe.
Yet, our Founders did not promise that anything done under the umbrella of any religion, including ones unknown or not yet conceived at the time, would and should be accepted. Certain practices, such as human sacrifice, are in conflict with the founding documents and culture of this country. Female genital mutilation is one such practice. Our history shows no more deference to female genital mutilation than it does to ritual human sacrifice.
On so many issues, our country faces troubling decisions that if decided wrongly could lead to the end of the great American experiment. We have made many deeply disturbing decisions already. How we deal with female genital mutilation is one enormous signpost as to which path we are choosing to take.
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