Thursday, July 21, 2011

Primal Spirituality of Circumcision vs. Cultural Steamroller of “Scientism”

Original published in Tikkun Magazine in response to the proposed (but cancelled) vote on a Circumcision ban in San Francisco. 

Should a society based on the principles of democracy and western thinking permit people to circumcise children? The answer to that question may well be, no. I suggest that this is the wrong question and I think getting the question right is key.

People should not be allowed to act violently towards others just because they think God told them to do so. A case was reported in Australia of a Muslim man that was allegedly given 40 lashes for drinking alcohol by a few Muslims who broke into his house [1].  The perpetrators were rightly condemned by other Muslims. This example illustrates the logical principle that violence cannot be allowed on the basis of claims of divine sanction.

Anti- Circumcision Cartoon that has been
described as Anti-Semitic
Similarly, in approaching the issues of Circumcision if the question is whether scriptural mandates justify violence the logical answer should be no. However, I suggest that this is the wrong question.  Instead the question should be about how assertive we should be about our Western ways and logic when they clash with other ways of being and thinking. I think some humility is in order.

Yes, we have put a man on the moon, make some progress on racism and sexism and I am not advocating a return to the Shtetl. But the Western way has also been horribly destructive to some social structures, traditions and many lives. Bryan Appleyard, in his “Understanding the Present[2], argues that “Scientism”, the approach that privileges the “scientific” way of knowing over all others often obliterates much of the spiritual and mystical.

I reflect on the time, when I was let in on the secret initiation rites of the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Australian desert, my reaction was that these were unreasonably harsh. But, the initiated man I spoke to was dignified and clear about who he is, while many of his people who have been cut off from their traditional ways are literally destroying themselves and each other.

Don Palmer, an exceptional man working with Indigenous Australians[3] wrote “"it is matters of the spirit - the Kurrunpa, as those in the Centre (of Australia) would say that are fundamental to there being any future at all. Without the spirit being valued, nourished and cared for, then no amount of clever western medicine will serve any purpose of consequence".

For me and I suspect that for many Jews the ritual of circumcision, like some rituals of tribal and first peoples, transcends logic and is a primal and deeply important spiritual rite. It is not only important because some of us believe God commands it. It is important because it identifies us and binds us and our children in a non-negotiable bond with our concept of God and our past, all the way to Abraham.  

A pasty white tinge was noticed on my face. Again, I was enduring the circumcision of my son. The thought of what was being done to my third son and the newborn’s cries get me every time. Still none of this even caused me to hesitate to go through it all again on our fourth and fifths sons. The idea that my son would not enter into the covenant in the traditional way is for me, unthinkable.

I agree that in some cases religious priorities should ever be overshadowed by other community considerations. I was asked this asked about this, when appearing before the Local Government Council of Canterbury in Sydney Australia. They were considering restrictions on the operating hours of new religious buildings and this was of concern to Muslim groups. I objected to some of their draft plans but I answered that we must weigh up the benefits to one group against the compromises asked of others.

Citizens of San Francisco should bear in mind the devastation caused by Western cultural imperialism to other peoples, the deep importance of circumcision in Jewish and Muslim heritage and weigh that up against the violation of their conscience caused by the circumcision of children.

[2] Double Day 1992
[3] Don’s organisation is , the quote is from his correspondence with me

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