Circumcision and Religious Tolerance

Amy Levin: From the 30-year anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, to the Weiner scandal, to the current debate over legality of male circumcision, the public eye is certainly holding its gaze on men’s bodies. While religious discourse undoubtedly has a stake in each of these issues, the surgical removal of men’s foreskin happens to be of particular religious interest.

According to a Sunday article in The New York Times, the November 2011 ballot in San Francisco will feature a proposal to ban circumcision of all male minors. Violation of the crime would result in a $1,000 fine and up to one-year in jail. The proposal comes from anti-circumcision activists, or “intactivists,” and the efforts of a San Diego-based advocacy group called, which stands for “male genital mutilation.” Yes, the name is meant to play off the term “female genital mutilation,” and the group argues that men deserve the same protection as women under federal law. Many  outspoken advocates of the bill claim that circumcision is a health risk and an “unnecessary medical procedure.” However, while anti-circumcision logic posits the practice as body modification, such rhetoric strips the ritual of its religious significance.

And, alas, Jena Troutman, a Santa Monica mother who championed an effort to put the initiative on Santa Monica’s November 2012 ballot, got her wake up call. According to a Monday article in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Troutman withdrew her efforts for the bill because they were, as she claims, misconstrued “as an attack on religious freedom.” Misconstrued or not, the banning of male circumcision would criminalize one of the most ancient and fundamental rituals in Judaism, and for as many as 68% of Muslims as well.

In Judaism, circumcision dates back to the Old Testament, to Abraham’s covenant with God, and has since traveled genealogically and geographically far. That’s why the Anti-Defamation League and others have called Matthew Hess’ comic book, “Foreskin man,” anti-Semitic. The image of “Foreskin Man” features a handsome-body-builder Aryan rescuing an innocent baby from a demonized, menacing Mohel. Hess claims that the comic is anti-mutilation rather than anti-Semitic, but it might turn a few heads to know that Hess himself founded and heads the MGMbill.

While Troutman and others in the pond call for baby rights, some denominations call for religious rights, many (including some of the former) believe that such issues belong in the hands of parents, and most of all that foreskin is gaining a bit too much extra coverage.

Regardless, the tendency to pick sides shouldn’t blind some of the illuminations of our American cultural narratives: the implications of evocative discourse, the value of religious freedom, and continuation of our insistent obsession with genitalia.

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