Giles Fraser is angry about the German court decision that religious circumcision of infants is a violation of their right to bodily integrity (although he doesn’t say that, but substitutes “against the best interests of the child”). He’s outraged that Merkel had to say ”I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practise their rites.”
Yet the circumcision of babies cuts against one of the basic assumptions of the liberal mindset. Informed consent lies at the heart of choice and choice lies at the heart of the liberal society. Without informed consent, circumcision is regarded as a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child. Which is why I regard the liberal mindset as a diminished form of the moral imagination. There is more to right and wrong than mere choice.
Well there’s a non sequitur. Of course there’s more to right and wrong than mere choice, but when it’s a matter of snipping off a bit of the penis for purely religious reasons then informed choice really is preferable to its absence.
He was circumcised at eight days old. His son wasn’t. He regrets that.
I still find it difficult that my son is not circumcised. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, himself a survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, famously added to the 613th commandments of the Hebrew scriptures with a new 614th commandment: thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. This new mitzvah insisted that to abandon one’s Jewish identity was to do Hitler’s work for him. Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust. My own family history – from Miriam Beckerman and Louis Friedeburg becoming Frasers (a name change to escape antisemitism) to their grandson becoming Rev Fraser (long story) to the uncircumcised Felix Fraser – can be read as a betrayal of that 614th commandment.
And I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.
I can sympathize with that – but what he’s overlooking (rather distastefully, when you look closely) is that that’s about him, and that it doesn’t give him the right to snip off a bit of his infant’s penis. His son could still get circumcised – but it would be his decision, about his body. It seems to me it’s a good deal more of a betrayal to force that decision on someone else.
As I argued in this week’s Church Times, one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head. This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. “We” comes before “I”. We constitutes our horizon of significance. Which is why many Jews who consider themselves to be atheists would still consider themselves to be Jewish. And circumcision is the way Jewish and Muslim men are marked out as being involved in a reality greater than themselves.
Yes, but, again – that shouldn’t be forced.
I know what the problem with that is. If it’s not “forced” – if it’s not the child’s world from the first moment – then the roots are much shallower. It’s not such an embracing “we.” Lots and lots of parents – probably most – want that embracing “we.”
But then, most people don’t get enough exposure to a “shallower” kind of we, which makes possible an expanding and exciting set of “we”s as the child matures. Informed choice really is a pretty good idea.
H/t Tauriq M