An Example Disproves the “Moral Case for Circumcision”

Flimmaker Eli Ungar-Sargon (Cut) has an excellent post on Rabbi Smuly Yanklowitz’s flawed essay I wrote about earlier this week. He rejects Rabbi Yanklowitz’s arguments for many of the same reasons I did. Read it because it’s worth your time, as Eli’s thinking always is. Here I want to excerpt part of the background and context Eli provides. It’s important.

In the interests of full disclosure, Rabbi Yanklowitz is a member of one of the Jewish communities that I belong to here in Los Angeles and I have a cordial relationship with him. He is the founder of Uri L’Tzedek, a wonderful Jewish group that is devoted to social justice issues. This is remarkable in so far as Orthodox Jews have historically not been as involved with social justice as Jews from the more Liberal movements are. Rabbi Yanklowitz’s commitment to both Orthodoxy and progressive causes makes him something of a rare bird, which demonstrates a moral courage and awareness that few Orthodox Rabbis can manage. And yet, here he is trying to defend the indefensible.

Yanklowitz begins his article by declaring that he is someone who believes that mitzvot, religious commandments, have an ethical foundation. Taken literally, this statement is obviously false. There are a number of commandments that historically required Jews to commit acts of genocide and there are many other ethical problems with the structure of Jewish law (the status of women comes to mind as an obvious example). But the rabbi should not be taken literally here. What he means by this statement is two things. First, that he is not a fundamentalist, because he believes that human agency is a necessary part of religious interpretation and practice. Second, in his personal hermeneutics, ethics play an important role in shaping religious interpretation and practice. The rub, of course, is how one deals with situations in which morality conflicts with the Jewish tradition. Circumcision is an apparent, and I argue actual, instance of such a conflict. Yanklowitz seems to be trying to argue here that circumcision is not such an instance. …


Related to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay, I found a quote I’d like to highlight. In a Q&A with Soraya Mire, a human rights activist and survivor of female genital mutilation, she states:

[Q.] Your father, a general under the military dictator and former Somali president Mohamed Siad Barre, objected to FGM. Why do you think your mother insisted the mutilation be performed?

A. Not only did Father witness the suffering of my sisters but he understood the backward cultural mindset and conformity in the face of violating a child’s bodily integrity. The institution of marriage is the focal point for mothers, and FGM allows them to prepare their daughters’ future security. In my case, Mother was so worried about securing my worth and marriageability that she didn’t consider the unbearable pain she was inflicting on me. FGM is physically and psychologically traumatic to any child and, yet, we have surviving mothers, like my own, who refuse to acknowledge this cultural torture, let alone feel or address their own pain. They became branded lambs with sutured lips as they watched our bodies ripped open like curtains. They had no power to stop the actions of those cruel hands or condemn the violation of our human rights. To them, this reckless ritual, called a “rite of passage,” was justified because the tradition must continue in order to preserve our virginity and, therefore, the family honor. It’s time to address the damage that is done to millions of women, along with the violation of their basic human rights. The atrocity must stop and we must do whatever it takes to bring an end to this ancient genital mutilation.

Compare that to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s argument on “Parental Values and Social Acceptance” (i.e. cultural conformity):

… Not circumcising a Jewish boy may hinder his social acceptance and his chances of finding a Jewish spouse. The overwhelming majority of Jewish women look for a mate who is circumcised. It would be cruel to prevent a man from potentially finding a suitable mate. …

As I wrote, this is a claim commonly made in defense of female genital cutting. In Ms. Mire’s answer we have the same scenario presented by Rabbi Yanklowitz, with only the gender changed. There is no compelling reason why this defense is acceptable for male genital cutting. Gender is irrelevant in the ethical/moral case against non-therapeutic genital cutting on non-consenting individuals.

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