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On Leaving More Than Your Heart in San Francisco

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 @ 09:07 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Shortly after our son was born, my wife and I discussed his brit milah (covenantal ritual circumcision). We did not discuss whether to have the ceremony. The discussion was all about who would perform it, where it would be held and other such logistics.

We decided to secure the best mohel (circumcisor) we could, and we did. They called him Shakey Goldstein, but whatever anxiety we new parents might have felt about Shakey were dispelled when we met him. He was a lovely man, with huge and steady, yet gentle, hands. And he had a tool kit that would make the Swiss Army knife folks drool.

Into those large hands, we entrusted our son. The ceremony was over in a flash. Shakey mumbled and snipped and mumbled some more. Everyone cried, except the kid. I cried. My wife cried. All of our parents cried. The kid? He did not have a very good view of things, and he seemed content to suck on the drops of wine he received during the event.

And when it was all over, the crowd sang and clapped hands.  The applause was not for Shakey, though, or for us. The applause was for something greater, for the new link in the chain we had just forged, a chain I can trace back only four generations. But I know that the chain is longer than that, perhaps thousands of years long. And I honor that chain. For one mother’s perspective, see,

Why do I tell you this? Well, it’s not because I have become a convert to “sharing.” It’s because of a movement in San Francisco to ban circumcisions, to make permitting or performing them a criminal act, punishable by jail time as well as a fine.

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The practice of circumcision is noted early in the Bible. The Biblical God is recorded as recognizing a covenant with Avraham and his offspring, and commanding Avraham to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin as a sign of that covenant. See, Genesis 17:9-14 (Parashah Lech L’cha). For religious reasons, Muslims practice circumcision as well.

Circumcisions are performed without a religious basis, as well. Indeed, well over half of the male children in the United States are circumcised as infants. Conversely, male circumcision is rare to non-existent in South America, Asia and much of Europe.

Earlier this year, a San Diego based organization claiming that circumcision was male genital mutilation initiated an effort to introduce legislation in Congress, in various states and in certain local jurisdictions to ban circumcision of young males. See, In San Francisco, MGMbill  succeeded in securing enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot in November. That a referendum on circumcision will apparently occur raises serious questions. Let’s focus on science and the law.

If you are looking for the scientific underpinnings of the proponents of the ban, you will not find much at the ban proponents’ website. The website concedes that circumcision may reduce susceptibility to certain diseases, but asserts that “(m)any men” previously circumcised “suffer the same psychological effects found in rape victims.” Moreover, it claims that a “sense of great loss and feelings of anger, distrust and grief” are “common” among circumcised men, that they encounter problems with intimacy, post-traumatic stress and personal powerlessness. Oy!

While there are no doubt individuals who may have had a bad experience associated with circumcision, and they deserve our empathy, the suggestion that the claimed circumstances are prevalent is not credible.  If the adverse consequences of circumcision were as dire as the ban proponents suggest, with well over half of all male children having been circumcised in the United States for many years, there should be a large population of affected boys and men whose behavior exhibits some signs of such disorders, especially in contrast with the other portion of the male population which has not been circumcised. The MGMbill website, however, does not provide any evidence of any statistically significant difference in the mental health of the two populations at all, let alone differences which are attributable solely to a neonatal circumcision, and not influenced by age, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, education, economic class, or some other factor.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on circumcision, one which acknowledged “potential benefits” of circumcision, but stated that those benefits were “not sufficient to recommend routine neonatal circumcision.” See,  AAP reaffirmed its statement in 2005. While hardly an endorsement of circumcision, the AAP statement clearly does not characterize the procedure as mutilation and provides no documented medical rationale for a complete ban. Instead, it calls for education and parental choice, and recognizes that it is “legitimate for parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions . . . .”

Subsequently, at least two other papers have been published which more strongly identify the benefits of circumcision on medical grounds. One, by Dr. Edgar Schoen, was published in “PEDIATRICS” in July, 2006. See, There Dr. Schoen discusses new studies which provide “compelling evidence” of multiple medical benefits of circumcisions with respect to prevention of HIV, penile cancer, and infant urinary tract infections and “protection against penile dermatoses, human papilloma virus, cervical cancer, and chlamydia infection.” (Internal citations omitted.) See also, “PEDIATRICS” (April, 2007) at

The point here is not to debate the medical benefits, real or potential, of circumcision. Rather, it is to note the stark absence of any compelling medical evidence of a proven immediate or latent detrimental effect that circumcision has when the procedure is performed properly.  Simply put, ban proponents have failed to meet the burden of demonstrating any meaningful scientific basis for their proposal.

The absence of carefully structured and controlled adverse medical studies is important in and of itself, of course, but also for the legal issues which arise from the San Francisco referendum. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from interfering in a citizen’s free exercise of religion. Under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, that prohibition extends to the states and to local governmental units as well.

Constitutional rights, though, however absolute the language in which they are written, are not, you should excuse the expression, carved in stone. Government involvement in and regulation of certain conduct generally may, under certain circumstances, be permissible even if it impinges on religious activity.

Trying to understand what the Supreme Court is thinking about the First Amendment’s religion clauses is always problematical. In brief, in its recent history, the Court has approached the Free Exercise Clause in two primary ways.

For some time prior to 1990, the main question for the Court was whether the government  had a compelling interest which justified interference with particular religious conduct and, if so, had chosen a narrowly tailored way to do so. In 1990, this question was replaced with a different, less accommodating test. In Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the Court approved a seemingly neutral law of general applicability which adversely impacted a religious activity, but one which was not intertwined with another Constitutional protection.

All but two of the members of the 1990 Court (Scalia and Kennedy) have since been replaced. And many think the San Francisco ban, if passed, cannot survive a judicial challenge. The truth is that no one knows.

If Smith is followed, the Court will look to see if the impacted religious practice is associated with another protection. For instance, in numerous cases, although primarily related to education, courts have ruled that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. The Court may or may not choose to conclude that the interests of Jewish and Muslim parents in educating their children in the tradition of their ancestors fall, if not neatly, at least comfortably within the precedents set by the courts on matters of parental control.

Should the Court revert to its compelling interest standard, and putting aside for the moment whether the “compelling interest “ test is greater, less or the same for a referendum as it is in the normal legislative process, any approved ban should lose because the banners have not demonstrated any compelling state interest here.

For those who look to “original intent” as a method of constitutional construction, we have no information about our American forefathers’ foreskins. But we can safely assume that Jews practiced circumcision from the earliest days of settlement in the colonies.  The Republic has stood strong for 235 years so far. Continuing to allow this religious tradition will not bring the country down now.

Needless to say, the MGMbill website does not address the constitutional rights of the families in whose lives it seeks to meddle.

So what is going on here? If there are no compelling medical reasons to ban circumcisions and no legal precedent for doing so, as someone once asked Alfie, “What’s it all about?”

One clue is a comic book series published by Matthew Hess, the president of MGMbill.  The comic books are not funny. In fact, they are quite vile. Titled “Foreskin Man” and available through the Publications section of the MGMbill website or directly at, they depict Monster Mohel, complete with wide brimmed hat, prayer shawl and evil lurk, holding down a baby on a pool table. They claim that Monster is excited by cutting flesh. The hero in this series is, surprise, a blond hunk called Foreskin Man who comes to save the day. Hess, of course, denies the charge of anti-semitism and claims to be a human rights advocate.

Not all proponents of the ban support Hess’s outrageous caricatures. And there are, apparently, some Jews who are opponents of circumcision. See, In these heterodox and heteroprax times, the ban proponents are entitled to their views. But the would be banners, especially the Jewish ones, should be cognizant of the fire with which they are playing, as Hess publishes his inflammatory pieces.

Applying the Law of Unintended Consequences, perhaps something good will come out of this affair. Already numerous groups representing Muslims, evangelicals, Catholics and others have joined with Jewish organizations to speak out and make sure that the referendum will be defeated and defeated resoundingly.  See, . From their lips to whom it may concern.

For more on this topic, see,

Roger Price

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6 Responses to “On Leaving More Than Your Heart in San Francisco”

  1. Matt says:

    I can safely say that I do not remember the procedure, but everything seemed to turn out OK. Although I do get shivers when I meet anyone named Shakey, and this post might explain why.

  2. It was quite honestly an awesome occasion of an opportunity to interweave the spiritual and the medical. Unnerving for the mother but a glimpse into the everyday spirituality. And BTW the Mohel was named Noah. That’s the truth!

  3. Jeremy says:

    Interesting read… but the highlight for me was the comment section!

  4. Jonathan Spinner says:

    I think the blog has covered most of the controversy very well, and I appreciate that Roger has focused on the lack of scientific “support’ on the banners’ website. His very close understanding of the legal aspects reflects his knowledge of American law, and his noting the anti-semitic comic published by the lead banner is excellent, but the one item missing — perhaps the wrong expression to use in a discussion of circumcision — is the one that is really fueling the banners, the moral one that goes back to the Greeks’ abhorence of circumcision i.e. that circumcision disfigures the human being. This is not the same kind of argument used by those who wish to stop female circumcision, who are concerned that women are being deprived of their inherent right to sexual enjoyment. This has to do with seeing the human male figure as a creation of the divine and as a reflection of the actual divine being.
    Of course, this side of the discussion is neither understandable to Jews or scientists, but it is very clear to the banners.

  5. Kay Magilavy says:

    One way to think about the relationship of the physical world – which we understand through our sensory experience and the wisdom of generations of scientific inquiry – and the spiritual world – which we understand through prayer and the wisdom of generations of Jewish scholarship and insight – is that they exist simultaneously, and in constant interaction with one another. As responsible dwellers in both worlds, we should explore and delight in them both, not distract ourselves elevating or denigrating one or the other.

    The ways people interact with the physical world – the choices they make among options – are guided by the teachings, or ethics, if you prefer, of tradition. For Jews and for followers of descendant traditions, the channels of interaction between the physical and spiritual realms are the mitzvot.

    So now back to the brit milah. The actual removal of the foreskin is only the beginning, just as birth (a much more painful process) is only the beginning of a life. The circumcised penis, like the mezuzzah on the door post and the tzitzit on the prayer garment, are part of a group of mizvot the rabbis classify as Aydim – witnesses. They serve as reminders of our covenant as Jews to walk in G-d’s ways – to take daily functions and elevate them to the sacred by performing them with constant attention to their impact on others. What you believe or think matters precious little, it is your actions that count.

    What about circumcision? Why this particular ot (symbol)? It can be seen as a reminder of sexual responsibility, which includes, at the extreme, the commitment not to commit sexual abuse, and, at its core, the commitment to protect, educate and care for children (of all ages.)
    Sexual violence continues to spread, violating both women and men.

    Our tradition requires us to take responsibility to not contribute to its spread, and to demonstrate that we “love the stranger” by providing care, and such healing as can be offered to victims of violence. Like Horton, who sees a great wrong about to be committed to Whoville, it is our obligation to speak out first, and then to take action.

    That is the blessing of the brit milah. People who do not understand the full covenantal obligation signified by circumcision may someday prevail and prevent the ceremony from occurring. But the obligation remains – unless Jewish parents, too, forget.

  6. Matt says:

    I heard this story on NPR today on the topic. It deals with some Jewish couples who are having male children and grappling with the decision. There is no Shakey Goldstein, but the mohel did make a quick joke right before he did his handiwork.

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