A Sign in Your Flesh

Image: Rembrandt etching "The Circumcision in the Stable"
Rembrandt: The Circumcision in the Stable (1654)

Recently the practice of religious circumcision has been in the news. Last year anti-circumcision activists sought a ballot initiative to ban the practice in San Francisco. Their publicity efforts included a comic book in which a blond superhero kidnaps a Jewish boy lest he be circumcised by a bloodthirsty rabbi. The initiative was struck down in the courts. Then this year, in Germany, a regional court ruled that the practice of circumcision ran counter to human rights. Germany’s prime minister, Angela Merkel, has vowed to reverse the decision.

In both of these instances, the specter of anti-Semitism seemed to lurk close to the surface–certainly the San Francisco activists could scarcely conceal their visceral contempt for those who circumcise their sons for religious reasons. However, the German court in their judgment did not recall Nazi propaganda. Rather, they appealed to universal human rights, specifically the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity.” By their reasoning, circumcision would violate this right.

Without knowing the judges themselves it is impossible to say whether anti-Semitism secretly influenced their decision, but I sincerely believe it did not. Even the worst of hypocrites, anyway, would hesitate to take an action recalling the painful history of anti-Jewish hatred in Germany which culminated in the Holocaust. The judges must have known their decision would excite scrutiny, and nevertheless chose to do what they thought was the right thing, based on their true belief in a “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity.” The judges are emphatically not echoing Nazi policy, at least not by intention. They are well-meaning and liberal. Keep in mind that although here we describe ourselves as conservative, we do not use “liberal” as if it were a dirty word. “Liberal” in its best meaning suggests liberality, a generous disposition to give people the benefit of the doubt in their free choices. As far as this goes our opinions might as well be called liberal. But liberalism is not turtles all the way down. It rests on something unlike itself that is even more fundamental–innate human dignity and worth–which in turn rests on humankind’s unique likeness to God.

The system of ethics which believes it has discovered the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity” seems to have no serious qualms about abortion or euthanasia; no concerns about the possible effects of transhumanistic experimentation, cloning, “gender reassignment” and other mutilations and interferences with human biology which are absolutely violative of bodily integrity. The fact that the same ethicists support all of the above along with a supposed “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity” without any sense of contradiction is a scandal.

To understand the issues surrounding the circumcision debate we must ask some very basic questions about human rights. Who qualifies as a rights-possessing human being, and why? What is the nature of the rights he/she possesses, and why? A human right may indeed compel a certain course of action, or prohibit a particular behavior, but first we must be certain enough that the right exists to justify the inconvenience and curtailment of free choices that a right necessitates. For instance, does everyone in the world have a right to maintain a certain standard of living? This is a good and noble aim that we should work to accomplish, but it does not rise to the level of an absolute human right because to impose it we would have to curtail more basic human rights.

“Bodily integrity” may be a human right which interacts with other human rights and duties. But how does the right of the child to bodily integrity inform other things we regard as “rights,” such as a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy? The woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body, sure, but the child’s fundamental right to bodily integrity is not so highly regarded then, though it is apparently inviolable only eight days after birth. Has a mother the right to kill her child in utero at will, even though he does not seriously endanger her health, yet not have the right have him circumcised eight days after birth? Surely what is really at stake here is not bodily integrity but a right to self-determination or “choice,” which an adult woman is capable of exercising but an infant is not. So may parents choose to vaccinate their children in infancy? To do reconstructive or cosmetic surgery? To circumcise?

Human beings possess a dignity intrinsic to them as human beings, regardless of their age, health, self-awareness, or any other characteristic. This dignity is the basis of “human rights.” But this is an insight unavailable to science and natural philosophy. It is a religious insight.

My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years ago. Although throughout the several years of her affliction the progressive dementia and physical problems caused pain and a sense of loss for her and her family, they did not deprive her of her humanity and intrinsic personhood. Rather, we appreciated her all the more as we experienced the loss occasioned by her decline. It did not make her less of a person, but the experience did increase our own humanity. Loving and losing her has made us closer as a family. We all–me, my father’s brother and sisters, Grandma’s loving and patient husband, and the nurses and attendants in the Alzheimer’s ward of her retirement home, are now better people. And Grandma, for that matter continues more than ever in her personhood, now in the knowledge of God, awaiting the hope of the resurrection of the dead into new and perfect life through Jesus.

Human rights rest on an understanding that human persons are sacred and deserve respect for what they are and what they represent. What they represent is most clearly understood within the Jewish religious tradition. The book of Genesis is the book of first things both philosophically and chronologically. It relates how the world and all things in it came to be, and especially how human beings were created as a creature specially favored by God to rule over the other creatures. The first humans were tempted to arrogance and fell away from the knowledge of God, but not from his love. As evil and death entered the world through the actions of human beings, God promised that amid all the suffering and death that would be our lot in life, he would be working to repair and renew the world through a child that he would choose.

Many years after this, God revealed his promise in greater detail to the nomad Abraham. Through Abraham’s descendents, all people would be blessed. As yet Abraham, though an old man, had no children. Later God commanded that as a sign of God’s promise Abraham and his male descendents should be circumcised. When Isaac was miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah, he was circumcised on the eighth day after birth. For over three thousand years the descendents of Abraham and Isaac have continued to practice circumcision of male children, remembering God’s covenant with a sign in the flesh.

God made human beings along with everything else, but he made us especially to reflect his nature and character, both in the way we live with one another, and the way we care for all of creation. This is why we assign ultimate value to the life and dignity of all human beings. It is priceless and sacred, a gift for which nothing can be substituted. But if this is true, we only know it because God, who is transcendent, has been pleased to reveal himself to us. He chose to do this by making a covenant with a family of nomadic shepherds three thousand years ago–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Today the people who carry their DNA are a living and breathing testament to humankind’s personal encounter with the God who made us. The scriptures their descendents recorded and preserved are the record of God’s message to mankind.

Judeo-Christian ethics are founded on the identity of human beings as God’s image-bearers. Murder is not merely a socially dangerous act; it is a desecration, an act of blasphemy. God told Noah and his sons to put to death any murderer, or even any animal that killed a human being. The civil code God later gave to the people of Israel maintains this law along with others, including instructions about caring for the poor and other laws which were very humane in their cultural context. The law of Moses is not the last word in divine ethics–Jesus provides that–but it is the first, and it belongs to the Jews as they belong to it.

Yet, it is not their faithfulness to the Law as a whole but the rite of circumcision itself which in large part has made Jewish identity “sustainable.” It has been practiced consistently more than any other religious rite and is the greatest continual factor in Jewish identity over the ages. It was already established before the history of the Jews ever began with Moses. Their deliverance from Egypt and the foundation of the nation of Israel were effects of their chosen identity, not its cause. Circumcision tells the Jewish child, “You are one of God’s chosen people, having been marked in the flesh by the sign of his covenant. You did not choose him, but he chose you and your ancestors.”

Just as circumcision is a sign for Jews of God’s covenant with them, the miraculous existence of the Jewish people today after three thousand years, is a sign to us of God’s ability to keep his promises. The Jews are a sign in our flesh–members of humanity–that God has not forsaken the world. Although as non-Jews we need not adopt the practice of circumcision, we should respect it as a sign to us, as it is for them, that God has made a covenant with human beings, initiating a relationship that still exists today. The opponents of Jewish circumcision confound their own received ethics and show the anti-religious tendency of their self-destructive beliefs. And by rejecting Judaism, they leave themselves without any fixed basis to affirm the unity of the human race and the inestimable value of human life.