6/23/2011

The Motives of California "Intactivism"

The "intactivist" (anti-circumcision) movement in California is making the news all over the US (strangely, not in Israel yet) by trying to get MGM (male genital mutilation) laws passed in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Their latest propaganda includes a magazine called "Foreskin Man" (which I've been tweeting about for a week already).
Although many (like Shmuely Boteach) have tried to take the "circumcision is healthier" tack, I believe - along with WSJ's Brad Greenberg - that this is misguided. The point is that Jews will not stop circumcising even if you make a law, just as they did not stop in the past when it was forbidden by law. Making such a law is a dangerous endeavor.
Several years ago at UMD, I was interviewed by the student newspaper for an article about an anti-circumcision group on campus. At the time, I took a dual strategy: a. Acknowledge the good that they do (educating non-Jews about the risks of circumcision; educating Jews about the risks of performing circumcision under unsanitary conditions). b. Don't even bother trying to explain why Jews insist on circumcision (if you read the article, you'll see how I executed this strategy). There's nothing to argue about. It is the quintessential marker of Jewish identity (in the Bible, non-Israelites are called "uncircumcised ones" or more properly "foreskins" - a jarring synecdoche if ever there was one). And it continues to be practiced almost uniformly among Jews, even secular, anti-religious, or atheist Jews; even among Jews who truly believe it to be a barbaric ritual. Can I explain that? Not really. On the other hand, it is a reality, which needs no explanation.
With regard to the motives for the current campaign, I view it as a product of a hypersexual culture. Part of what the authors of Foreskin Man portray - ignoring the blatantly anti-Semitic (and anti-Amish, come to think of it; the Monster Mohel has a beard and no mustache) images for the moment - is the sexuality that simply oozes from the "good guys" (whatever the authors think about circumcision, they sure don't seem to have an issue with breast implants). Their names (Kummings, Hastwick, etc.; personally, I'd have named the hero's alter ego Arlo Pullman, especially given the epispasmic practices of the comic's creator) simply ooze sexuality. When they're not fighting to save foreskins, they're hanging out on the beach, wearing next to nothing on their Olympian bodies. In short, the message is that circumcision hinders sexual fulfillment.
Similarly, this blog post by a young Jewish man angry at his mohel because he's too conflicted about hating his parents offers a similar lament: he doesn't enjoy sex and masturbation as much as he otherwise would. He also experiences mild discomfort, chafing, and sometimes gets lint under the folds of his skin, but the structure of his argument suggest that's the main issue is the great sex he's missed out on.
Thus, when coming to evaluate the importance of a flap of skin with some nerve endings, one's table of values comes strongly into play. If sex, and the degree of pleasure experienced during sex (and it is a question of degree; circumcised men do enjoy sex), are at the top of one's priority scale, then something that mitigates that pleasure is simply terrible. If sex is simply not that high up on the scale, then the removal of that skin is, quite frankly, not such a big sacrifice, and when it conflicts with other, more important values, then the skin loses. [After I started writing this, I saw that Chaim Steinmetz makes a similar point].
A similar direction for contextualization is in Ben Chorin's recent series, especially the entries of December 19 and 27.
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