Circumcision: Rite or Right?
The “Foreskin Man” and the “Monster Mohel” characters are criticized as being anti-Semitic by opponents of a ballot initiative that would ban circumcision in San Francisco. (From Matthew Hess’s “Foreskin Man” online comic)
In San Francisco, all it takes is 7,168 signatures on a petition to get a measure placed on the ballot. City resident Lloyd Schofield accomplished that, so this November San Francisco will become the first city to vote on a measure to ban circumcision. If the measure passes, circumcision on any male under age 18 will become a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, one year in jail, or both. There will be no religious exemptions.
During a CNN debate with a rabbi, Schofield argued that if the measure passes, men could still get circumcised when they turn 18. But he failed to mention that the procedure is more risky and more painful for adults.
Schofield says the measure is not religiously motivated. “People can practice whatever religion they want,” he told CBS news, “but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body. His body doesn’t belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It’s his decision.”
Schofield is not a lone ranger. The “intactivists,” as they call themselves, are led by Matthew Hess, president of MGM-bill.org (MGM stands for Male Genital Mutilation). The nonprofit’s regional directors have submitted proposed bills to 2,800 legislators in several states and in Congress—thus far, without success.
Hess has also produced an Internet comic book in which his Aryan superhero, Foreskin Man, tries to foil a mohel (a Jew trained to perform the ritual of circumcision) from doing his job. Monster Mohel is depicted as a sinister bearded Jew in Orthodox garments.
Understandably, this had led to a backlash from a majority of the Jewish community.
“The (Monster) mohel has a dark complexion, hook nose and is practically drooling at the thought of apparently doing harm to a child,” said Nancy Appel, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He even has claws on his fingertips. He is blood thirsty just like the grotesque Jewish stereotypes that appeared in Nazi propaganda.”
When asked directly if the comic is anti-Semitic, Hess replied, “A lot of people have said that, but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights.” But the reaction against Foreskin Man forced a similar measure off the ballot in Santa Monica, California.
There are Jews who are against circumcision. The Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, founded by Ronald Goldman, states that “all Jews do have a choice; we can be fully identified and affiliated as Jews, and fully engaged spiritually in a Jewish context, without circumcising our infants.” But, without specifically naming the comic book, Goldman distanced himself from Foreskin Man, saying, “A publication on Jewish circumcision is receiving attention because it is insensitive and offensive to many Jews, and I regret that. Please understand that it represents only the writer who speaks for nobody else. The movement to question circumcision is wide and diverse. There is no organization that controls, or could control, what individuals who oppose circumcision may say or do.”
Hess contends that circumcision is unnecessary, outdated and should be banned, just as the mutilation of female genitals has been. But, as Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, “Clearly the authors [of the initiative] want to confuse voters by equating male circumcision to female genital mutilation, the barbaric, unsanitary butchering of a young girl’s private parts in a procedure that has been known to leave girls severely infected and in pain.”
Will the measure pass? Unlikely, based on an informal poll of Chronicle readers in which 72% were opposed to the ballot measure.Some are actively opposing the initiative. Muslims, many of who also practice circumcision, joined with the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League, and several physicians to file a lawsuit in California Superior Court to keep the measure off the ballot in November. California Rep. Brad Sherman just announced plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit cities nationwide from banning male circumcision.
Is the anti-circumcision measure legal? Is it constitutional? That depends on whom you ask.
“I think it’s an outrageous infringement on religious freedom, but I think it would be hard to challenge under the First Amendment,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “It would be hard to argue that the circumcision ban is motivated by the desire to interfere with religion. That is clearly the effect, but it’s not its purpose. And it’s clearly of general applicability as well. It prohibits all parents—not just Jewish parents—from circumcising their sons.”
On the other hand, Martin Nussbaum, a First Amendment attorney from Colorado Springs whose law firm represents religious institutions across the nation, says that even if the circumcision ban passes, it is highly unlikely that the courts will uphold it.
“The rite of circumcision, especially in Judaism, is an initiation rite by which one shows his belonging to an ancient religion and respected religion,” says Nussbaum, “and this [proposed measure] runs afoul of many different constitutional values.”
Michael A. Helfand, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Director, Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies at Pepperdine University, says, “It seems likely that parents seeking to circumcise their children as part of a religious practice are engaging in conduct implicating both their Free Exercise rights under the First Amendment and their parental rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Then there was the comment (later retracted) by celebrity Russell Crowe in which he called circumcision “barbaric and stupid” and “man’s interpretation of what God requires.”
Crowe’s comment actually brings us to the heart of the matter. Is circumcision our interpretation of what God requires? Or does God state very clearly in the Scriptures what he requires, and do Crowe (and others) choose to ignore what God says?
In Genesis 17, God told Abraham:
As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised … (Genesis 17:9-12)
I believe this Abrahamic Covenant is still very much in effect for Jews, including Jews like me who believe in Jesus. So even, as seems very unlikely, should this ballot measure pass in San Francisco, I would urge those Jews among us here in the City by the Bay to do whatever it takes to continue to keep our covenant with God—maybe a quick trip across the Bay Bridge to Oakland for your son’s brit milah!
But there’s also a New Covenant in effect for all who will enter into it. The prophet Jeremiah announced it in the Hebrew Scriptures: “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
And the Scriptures speak of a more important brit—a circumcision of the heart: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Note that it is God who must change our hearts. We can’t do it ourselves. King David understood this when he prayed, after sinning by taking Bathsheba: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:10-11).
The Holy Spirit performs this circumcision of the heart. And God promises that if you put your trust in the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel, the Holy Spirit will indwell you and circumcise your heart, making it right with God.
Jesus is the Messiah, and here’s what the New Testament says about him: “When you came to Messiah, you were ‘circumcised,’ but not by a physical procedure. Messiah performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature” (Colossians 2:11).
So, whether you are Jewish or gentile, if you haven’t had this “procedure” performed, I highly recommend it. There’s no ballot measure against it, it’s painless (Jesus took the pain when he died on the cross for us), and it produces eternal joy!
Matt Sieger is the editor of ISSUES: A Messianic Jewish Perspective. ISSUES is our publication for Jewish people who are willing to consider the question, Who is Jesus? Matt also writes blogs, articles, and reviews for our publications and has edited the book, Stories of Jews for Jesus.