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.

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17 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    This article should be widely disseminated, it explains the opposition to Milah and also what the benefit of our religious tradition has. Rabbi Sacks is a wise exponent of enlightened ideas. He is soon to retire and I hope that there are more thinkers like him who will assume positions of leadership. Rabbi Adlerstein, you explained it very well. If only the anti-semites of the world cared about the logic of their arguments. They have a visceral hatred and I don’t think we could ever conviince them, but maybe we can convince our own people and this could awaken some Jews to defending Judaism. Our problem is apathy and a good battle may energize some Jews, if we have the right leaders.

  2. E. Fink says:

    I take issue with the use of Judeo-Christian in this context. The ban would affect Muslims at least as much as Christians.

    The article should say “Abrahamic Religious Values” in my opinion.

    [YA – I take issue with your taking issue. True, the ban will affect Muslims. We cannot, however, speak of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition in this country. It doesn’t exist, although optimistic liberals like me hope that it will one day. At the moment, however, America’s interaction with Islam has been limited to the Barbary pirates at the time of the nations’s founding and jihadist Islam in more recent times. If Islam can liberate itself from the influence of extremist groups and restore some of its enlightened rationalism of 1200 years ago, we may have a shot at incorporating its influence in a shared “Abrahamic Religious Values” tradition. Right now it doesn’t exist here.]

  3. Michoel says:

    In Ikvesa D’m’shicha, R. Elchanon Wasserman points out that when a segment of Klal Yisroel attacks the observant segment, it leads to the nations of the world attacking all of Klal Yisroel. (I am paraphrasing). Perhaps there is something to be learned from that. When a segment of the observant community increasingly regards major parts of the Torah as mere allegory, it may result (perhaps directly, perhaps through spiritual effect) in the nations of the world being more dismissive of taking the Bible seriously, and all the more so acting on that conviction.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    L. Oberstein wrote, “Our problem is apathy and a good battle may energize some Jews, if we have the right leaders.”

    We also need enough Jews ready to follow. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.

  5. chaim says:

    Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, R.H. Tawney Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. The latter was written in 1962 and the earlier work at the beginning of the 20th century

  6. Raymond says:

    While this new attempt to get rid of circumcision is quite disturbing, a positive aspect of it is that it clearly exposes the Radical Left’s true agenda, which is to rid society of any vesitges of a Torah-based morality. With all the many serious problems encountering this country and our world today, the fact that the Far Left of San Francisco and Santa Monica apparently have nothing else to do with their time than to pick on traditional, Orthodox Jews, reveals the sheer emptiness that lies at the core of Radical Leftist thinking. Their efforts in this regard is so blatantly ridiculous, that even a pessimist like me feels fairly certain that they will be defeated on this. And even if they are not, all it means is that those cities will have caused their own economies to suffer just a little bit more than their surrounding neighbors.

  7. yitznewton says:


    “When a segment of the observant community increasingly regards major parts of the Torah as mere allegory, it may result (perhaps directly, perhaps through spiritual effect) in the nations of the world being more dismissive of taking the Bible seriously, and all the more so acting on that conviction.”

    How does allegorizing translate to not taking seriously? Perhaps it’s not the allegorists who are undermining Torah, but those who refuse to accept allegory as legitimate.

  8. E. Fink says:

    RYA – When talking about the effects of a circumcision ban, it seems the wrong time to raise Judeo-Christian values. Seeing as Christianity banned circumcision in its early years and expresses ambivalence about the practice today. They are two separate things. 1) Judeo-Christian values 2) circumcision.

  9. dovid2 says:

    The religious parties in Eretz Israel do not shy away from joining with Arab parties in the Knesset to defend practices or policies that are of benefit to both the Charedi and Arab communities. Why don’t we approach the Muslim community about circumcision and tell them that they will also stand to lose if such legislation would be enected? While the “enlighted” circles in the US, liberal Jews included, will not hesitate attacking Jewish practices, they wouldn’t dare mess up with the Muslims because it’s not PC and because blood may flow freely in the streets of San Francisco and Santa Monica. And that won’t be blood from bris.

  10. Ori says:

    E. Fink, circumcision is practiced by most self-professed Christians in the US. They may not see it as part of their religion, but I think they do see the right to practice it as a religious freedom issue.

  11. Michoel says:

    Let me address your second question first. It could be allegorists AND anti-allegorists. Doesn’t have to be one or the other.

    Allegorizing does not translate into not taking seriously. Did someone write that? But it could certainly could be that allegorizing Avraham Avinu could lead others to question exactly why it is so important L’achniso L’vriso Shel Avraham Avinu (allegorical father that is) b’ito u’v’shaato.

  12. dovid2 says:

    “maybe we can convince our own people and this could awaken some Jews to defending Judaism.”

    L. Oberstein, I humbly suggest we set lower, more achievable targets for ourselves, such as having people in our own machane not vote for liberal candidates such as the current resident of the WH. To his credit, BO didn’t pursue any policies in his 2 1/2-year presidency that were out of line with what we knew of him, or that came as a surprise to us. Only that despite the fact that what we knew of him was not good, there had been members of our communities that voted for him, and that’s a shame.

  13. Ori says:

    Dovid2, google for “Islamic Networks Group circumcision”, they’re on the case. BTW, the Catholic bishop is also opposed to the ban.

  14. J. Madison says:

    The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.

    Originally posted here.

  15. YM says:

    I followed the link to Eugene Volokh’s analysis of the legal aspects of banning bris milah and read the hundreds of comments there. It is clear that there are many folks out there who don’t care about our religious freedom when it comes to what they consider a violation of a child’s right to not experence “needless surgery”. I fear that this is the wave to come in the good old USA.

  16. Harsimrat Kaur Khalsa, President, Guru Granth Parchar Mission of USA, Inc. says:

    If the state is so concerned about mila, then at worst they should only require a mohel to be licensed with the State. At least that way the state will make some money out of allowing Jews to perform mila.

    It is more humane to do mila on an infant than an adult because the healing process is much quicker on an infant and the wound much smaller.

  17. L. Oberstein says:

    I don’t know who the kooks are in SF who want to ban mila. It is unconstitutional. On the other hand, I would like to ban female genital mutilation, I honestly would. Please explain why the first is untouchable and the second is a vile and primative practice that is harmful to women and criminal.

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