Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison has co-sponsored a bill aimed at preventing the banning of circumcision for males under the age of 18. Rep. Brad Sherman of California will introduce the Religious and Parental Rights Act of 2011 later this week as a direct reaction to the anti-circumcision movement in San Francisco.
“Male circumcision has been practiced for thousands of years and is a deeply important ceremony for two major religions,” Sherman said in a statement, adding that Congress has a history of protecting the free exercise of religious rights. He said that a compelling argument against circumcision could be made if medical evidence showed it to be harmful to a person’s health, but the medical studies have instead shown the opposite. Currently Rep. Ellison is the only co-sponsor of the bill, but Sherman expects to have more in the coming days. As a Muslim, Rep. Ellison practices a religion that advocates circumcision. He also spoke with TCJewfolk last year about his trip to Israel and Gaza, and he issued a statement about the Holocaust on last year’s Yom Hashoah. As he states, he is “committed to working for mutual respect and understanding of all faiths.”
Supporters of the ban liken circumcision to a war crime and claim that the medical results are inconclusive as many countries that don’t typically practice circumcision still rate just as high or higher than the United States on health surveys. They claim that this is not a religious issue, but a human rights issue. Yet banning circumcision without a religious exception borders on intolerance and seems to violate First Amendment rights. Furthermore, the actions taken by some supporters of the ban stink of anti-Semitism. The author of the San Francisco bill, Matt Hess, has created an online comic called “Forskin Man” which depicts a blond-haired, blue-eyed superhero fighting the evil “Monster Mohel,” clad in traditional Orthodox garb. Depicting a Jew in a black hat and coat is like depicting a Muslim in a turban or a Christian in a Benedictine monk’s robe. That is to say, it’s a stereotype. To make the character the villain and arm his henchmen with Uzis makes a statement about how Jews should be seen in this debate. The villain could’ve easily been a generic doctor (or the “Demon Doctor” to stay alliterative) and made a different statement.
Circumcision is a central aspect of Jewish observance. It is commandment numero uno that distinguishes Abraham as a Jew. Many contemporary Jews have decided that it’s ok and even necessary to question traditional Jewish practices. TCJewfolk writer Galit Breen wrote a great piece about her conflicted feelings towards circumcision, conveying something a number of parents in the Jewish community feel. If some Jewish parents decide they don’t want to circumcise their baby, they should be allowed to make that decision. But it should be their decision to make.
The Religious and Parental Rights Act is an important bill, not just for Jews and Muslims, but for all parents who care about imparting their religious and cultural traditions onto their children. Representatives Ellison and Sherman are taking an important step in making sure that those traditions remain unobstructed.