Body and soul

Body and soul

They call themselves “intactivists” — individuals and groups who oppose circumcision and support efforts to outlaw the procedure on boys under the age of consent. In November, San Franciscans will vote on just such a ballot measure.

According to JTA, they include the Bay Area Intactivists, a “loosely organized group that protests outside medical conferences in and around San Francisco,” and MGM Bill, a “San Diego-based advocacy group that has prepared anti-circumcision legislation for 46 states.”

(MGM, by the way, stands for “male genital mutilation.” Such groups hope to gain political headway by comparing the brit mila to the genital mutilation carried out on woman in parts of Africa and the Middle East.)

MGM Bill founder Matthew Hess came to the movement through a combination of personal experience and public conscience — explaining to JTA that his own circumcision as an infant resulted in diminished sexual sensitivity as an adult.

“Freedom of religion stops at another person’s body,” he explains.

Except when it doesn’t. Jewish groups insist that freedom of religion is very much relevant in talking about circumcision — a relatively non-invasive, minor surgical procedure that has no long-term ill effects and that has proven to be a public health boon in parts of the world where it arrests the spread of AIDS. The American Jewish Committee calls the anti-circ legislation a “direct assault on Jewish religious practice.” The Orthodox Union called it “patently discriminatory against Jews and Muslims.” (And the New York Jewish Week editorialized that the campaign against circumcision is a close cousin of the unfounded national “hysteria” over Muslim Sharia law.)

Legal experts doubt the intactivists will prevail or even if passed such a law would pass constitutional muster. But there is something deeply discomforting about their campaign, and the assault it represents on one of our most essential — and strangest — practices.

As I wrote a few years back, some anti-circ activists talk about Jews and circumcision in ways that make my anti-Semitism antennae quiver. But even the generally responsible intactivists put me on the defensive — it’s tough to read criticism of an act so basic to Jewish identity, whether you’re a male or the parent of one.

And deep down I worry less about the government banning circumcision than I do about Jewish couples deciding not to circumcise their sons. If the intactivists win, it will probably be in the court of public opinion.

In 2009 novelist Michael Chabon spoke for young Jewish couples everywhere when he wrote of the circumcision of his own two sons as “mutilation” and a “raw act.”

I’ll grant Chabon the latter. It is raw. For those couples who might be sitting on the fence over this, I don’t think we do them any favors by hiding that fact. Without going into details, let me say that I’ve been to a bris where the procedure was a little more complicated and prolonged than usual, and the guests were subjected not to a quick religious ceremony but rather to a lengthy episode of Nip/Tuck. It had me questioning the public nature of the rite, and the bizarre juxtaposition of blood and bagels.

But here’s another fact: Circumcision is not that brutal, and not that raw. And it is certainly not mutilation. The analogy is not between circumcision and female genital mutilation, the latter a barbaric act meant to rob women of sexual pleasure. Circumcision is not mutilation, in the sense that the organ in question continues to function as nature intended. The better analogy is between circumcision and cosmetic surgery.

In most cases, it’s a clip and a snip; the baby cries for a few seconds and soon falls asleep in someone’s arms. As for emotionally scarring, the science just isn’t there.

Most of the brisses I’ve been to are short, sweet, and powerful affairs. And the power derives from the strangeness. There is something intensely emotional and primal about this tribal act being carried out in suburbia, this renewal of Jewish belonging even in otherwise assimilated homes, the air of solemnity and literally carnal joy in which a group of Jews welcomes another one of its own. I always weep.

I understand the qualms of couples when it comes to brit mila, and it’s not up to me to say whether they should go through with it, or do it in the hospital, or search for a mohel who delivers anesthetics.

But at the very least, they should talk to Jewish couples who have experienced the elation and holiness of their babies’ brisses. The debate shouldn’t belong to those who exaggerate the violence of the rite or its long-term effects, or dismiss the wide consensus about its health benefits.

Even as we fight the intactivists on civil liberties grounds, we should fight for circumcision among our own people. We need to remind them of the power of the traditions that have kept it alive, and the power of the act to sustain the traditions.

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