The story of Abraham and his son Isaac is well known. Abraham, in a show of devotion to God, reluctantly accedes to a divine command to kill his son as a sacrifice to God and begins preparations to kill the son he loves with his own hands. Think about that for a moment – God, whom the Psalmist describes as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103 – ESV), asks Abraham to kill Isaac whom, as the very beginning of Genesis tells was one “made in the image of God.” What sort of monster is this God that the murder of another child (or young man) is deemed an act of piety?
Of course, those who know the story (which is found in Genesis 22) know that after binding Isaac to the altar – presumably to prevent escape, as this was, after all, not a voluntary act on the youngster’s part – God intervenes through an angel and puts a stop to the proceedings and a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. This last-minute intervention lets God off the hook (somewhat – he did after all command the murder of a young male in His name!) and lets us assume that this is nothing but a test of Abraham’s faith.
Things may not be so simple, however. There is an argument, for example, that ancient Israelites interpreted texts such as Exodus 22:29b as a command that God accepted child sacrifice in certain circumstances. Thankfully, if such child sacrifices did take place (which they probably did) Jews soon rejected such practices – in other words, their theology evolved (it is worth noting that if Jews did ever engage in child sacrifice they were one of many nations and faiths doing so and are in no sense unique).
My point in alluding to the above story is not to engage in a theological debate about the nature of God or whether the diabolical acts ascribed to God in the Torah can in any way be reconciled with a God who is abounding in steadfast love. They can’t – and that is the point.
I am confident that if, for example, the Chief Rabbi of England were to today proclaim that God had commanded him to put to death one of his children as a sign of faith, he would quickly be informed of how ludicrous and immoral such an act would be a multitude of members of his own faith who would also, in the name of Judaism, repudiate any such murderous intent. That Abraham was prepared to murder in the name of his religion in no way mitigates the evil act of intent to murder his own son whilst lashed to an altar unable to escape. Judaism has, in the main, made peace with the idea that God does not command the killing of innocent children, etc. Most would, I suspect, reject categorically the very idea of any such divine command as an actual historical event. God is not, in other words, the moral monster a literal reading of scripture may suggest.
So, why do so many Jews inflict upon their children an act for which there is at least a credible argument amounts to child abuse? That act is, of course, circumcision. I do not for a moment suggest that there is any intentional malfeasance on the part of parents circumcising infant males; the desire to dedicate a child to the faith of its parents and to signal its incorporation into a universal faith is a proper and, some might say honourable one. It is, after all, little different from a common Christian tradition of infant baptism (which, its apologists explicitly link to Judaism’s circumcision). But, the fact remains that circumcision inflicts a physical mark upon its recipient that speaks to a religious identification of the recipient to which they have not at the time of infliction not assented.
Martin Robbins writing in today’s Guardian is forthright on the issue: “Infant circumcision involves performing surgery without consent to permanently alter an individual’s genitals. In many cases this is done without good medical justification; for example, to force the infant to conform to the expectations of a particular religion. Just as we call sex without consent ‘rape’, circumcision without consent or reasonable justification should be called ‘mutilation.’” I agree.
In the book of Genesis we are told that circumcision was commanded by God as a sign of His covenant; interestingly, the failure to do this is described as the fault of the [8 days old] child. Genesis 17:14 states that “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” We are, it seems, back to the God as moral monster scenario – the failure of the an infant to be circumcised is a conscious defect on the part of the infant!
As it happens, along with most Jews, I do not believe God is a moral monster – sharing, as I do as a Christian, much of the same scripture (and a far more ugly legacy of evil actions perpetuated in the name of my faith). Neither however do I believe that God takes any pleasure or delight in the ritual mutilation of infant children, whether it is done in His name or not. It was wrong when Abraham (allegedly) did it; it is also wrong now; that it is done in the name of religion or that it is conducted with pious sincerity and good intent by otherwise good people does nothing to mitigate this. Should the brit milah persist into the 21st century, let it be the voluntary act of a child or man of appropriate age making a rational and religiously meaningful act as sign of his own devotion to his faith and his decision to voluntarily stand subject to a great tradition.