Dagbladet, Dawkins, Intactivists & How Demonizing Choice Makes Militancy
Honest Reporting is really great at ruining my morning coffee. They shared a cartoon from a Norwegian newspaper that makes circumcision look like baby torture, which it isn’t, involving toes, which it does not. A woman at the door, holding a bloody book, is talking to the police.
“Mistreating? No this is tradition, an important part of our belief!” She says.
“Belief? Oh yes, then it is all right,” the officer responds, while the second policeman apologizes for the interference.
This intimidating cartoon really got to me, a moderate believer who made what I thought was a minor sacrifice to tribal loyalty—twice—over 20 years ago when I chose the traditional ceremony for my newborn sons. Of course I did not like causing my babies pain, but I had seen the ceremony several times and knew that it did not last long at all, and having just gone through childbirth, I knew pain was part of life.
This morning I thought to myself, "oh, dear, am I the woman holding the bloody book?"
This called to mind the time I found myself at a cocktail (ironic, that) party with Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and vocal atheist. It was not the first time we had met, and we were on very good terms with one another. We had traveled together for an organization called The Center for Inquiry and spoken cordially at dinner about my conviction that continuation of the Jewish tradition was important. At this cocktail party, which was less than a year after the trip, and which was raising fund for Dawkins’ own foundation, I may have gotten a bit aggressive in nudging him to visit Israel. Dawkins did not see the point. I persisted, “you should go for the history alone. I visit because I’m Jewish.” Perhaps to end the conversation, Dawkins said impatiently “Why bother being Jewish, anyway?”
And I answered “because I AM Jewish! Is biology a CHOICE? Would anyone in their right mind CHOOSE my metabolism and these thighs?” I gripped one of them and shook it. “And my metabolism is such a gift from my ancestors; I could never forget who I came from.”
And then I said, surprising myself:
“And besides, sons paid for their heritage in blood!” I could hardly believe I said that. Where had that come from? “I had them circumcised!” The guilt, you see, for doing that to them, was lurking under the surface, fueled by the intactivist debate in San Francisco, and popped out just then.
Dr. Dawkins said “Circumcised? That’s not a huge deal; I was circumcised, myself, because that was the custom of the hospital at the time. It’s irrelevant.”
“I thought so, too,” I said, “before an intactivist got a hold of me at dinner once and gave me an earful. They told me a lot of things that made me feel like it IS a huge deal. It’s worse because, being female, I can’t evaluate their claims.”
The militant campaign about circumcision has made my decision, which was a no brainer at the time, hugely symbolic. Like a family heirloom that you suddenly find out is worth a lot, I look at the brit milah (and remember Muslims also circumcise, but I don’t know what they call it) differently than I used to. When it was routine, giving the boys a bris was only a matter of changing the location and date of an inevitable procedure that every male had.
Now that it’s controversial, a bris is an act of defiance against assimilation.