Banning Mila and the Ascendance of China
Frum Jews seem to be aware of the proposed bans of bris mila on minor children in San Francisco and Santa Monica, but not terribly alarmed by them. (This is in contradistinction to proposed anti-shechita legislation in Holland and the EU, about which they should be very alarmed.) The arguments against the ban emerged quickly, and are percolating through the community, as people read the first op-eds that have reached the general media. Opponents of the bans have to make secular, not religious, appeals to the general public. They point to the medical benefits of circumcision that far outweigh any perceived problems. They observe that the measures may be unconstitutional, although this is not at all certain. They argue that society gives parents the right to make all sorts of health-related decisions on behalf of their children, and infringing on that right smacks of totalitarianism.
Here is an argument that has not been given as much attention. The measures do not target Jews or Judaism, but religious faith itself. All of it. Religious non-Jews should be as irked about the bans as Jews are.
For over two hundred years of American history, bris mila went unchallenged, even in times when anti-Semitism was rampant. The current opposition comes from an increasingly strident lobby of people – including Jews – who are dismissive and contemptuous of genuine religious faith. These people see the Bible as nothing more than myth. Following the Golden Rule is innocuous, but taking any other part of the Bible seriously is bad. Acting on any part of it is worse. People who listen to the Bible about circumcision could very well be opposed to gay marriage, and such opposition is a cardinal sin against the non-deity.
What galls them is that anyone could take a knife against the flesh of an infant because they are so unenlightened as to live their lives by fairy tales. The hatred of mila stems from a smug confidence in their independence from archaic notions of a Creator. Religion is for the uninformed, the unvarnished masses living in the darkness of their incomprehension. Those who comprehend have no need for religion, and no room for religiously-based (or sourced) child surgeries. The arguments are not new; the ferocity in the public domain is. It is only one part of what will be an increasing mockery of, and assault on, all forms of religious belief.
This is a pity, and possibly much worse. A decline in religious belief – at least in what we call the Judeo-Christian system of belief – may mean the loss of a leadership position in the community of nations. Lord Rabbi Sacks is his usual eloquent self in the Times of London: Towards the end of his recent book, Civilization, the historian Niall Ferguson drops into his analysis an explosive depth-charge. He quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, part of a team tasked with the challenge of discovering why it was that Europe, having lagged behind China until the 17th century, overtook it, rising to prominence and dominance.
At first, he said, we thought it was your guns. You had better weapons than we did. Then we delved deeper and thought it was your political system. Then we searched deeper still, and concluded that it was your economic system. But for the past 20 years we have realised that it was in fact your religion… that made possible the emergence first of capitalism, then of democratic politics.
Has the West abandoned the very system that made it great, only to have the Chinese claim it as its own?
What has China realised that the West is rapidly forgetting? That a civilisation is as strong as its faith. As a culture grows old and tired, as people borrow more and save less, as they value present pleasures over future growth, so they begin to lose the beliefs and practices that made their society successful in the first place. …It begins to resemble the Roman Empire at the start of its decline. The Roman historian Livy wrote, with great poignancy, about how “with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge
The observation is not terribly new
The decline and fall of civilisations has been charted by the wise for many centuries. ..Civilizations begin by valuing austerity, courage and self-sacrifice. This sets them on a path to growth. As they become successful, they grow more self indulgent and self centred. People are no longer willing to make sacrifices for the group. Trust declines. Social capital wanes. There are no heroes any more. Renown gives way to fame and then to mere celebrity. …Societies start growing old when they lose faith in the transcendent. They then lose faith in an objective moral order and end by losing faith in themselves…We are as strong as our faith. That truth, once the West’s unique selling proposition, now comes with a label saying, “Made in China.” But it’s still worth buying.
The growth that Rabbi Sacks speaks of is more akin to what is described in Startup Nation than in Pirkei Avos. The lessons of bris milah begin where those of material development end off. They include notions like the necessary curtailment of Man’s energies, and the mandate to make the world a better place in the course of one’s lifetime. They imply entering into a covenant not only with G-d, but with a people prepared to do His bidding.
These lessons as well will survive long after a few crazies in San Francisco learn that, like the generation of the Tower of Bavel, they cannot really ascend to the Heavens and attack their Resident with their cudgels.