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The Right to a Rite

August 30, 2012
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This week's report from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluding that health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks is a welcome intervention in what is becoming a disturbing debate over the legitimacy of one of Juda­ism's oldest and most-defining traditions.

The academy's task force stopped short of calling for routine circumcision of all newborn boys, but placed the decision exactly where it should fall -- on parents.

In the Pediatrics Academy's first focus on the matter in 13 years, the task force wrote that in a pluralistic society, where parents are given wide authority in child-rearing and welfare, "it is legitimate for the parents to take into account their own cultural, religious and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors, when making this choice." The notion that it should be any other way -- as forces in this country and throughout Europe are suggesting with increasing and misguided tenacity -- is outrageous.

Let's not confuse two issues here: One is the growing, though still somewhat limited, phenomenon, as reported in the Jewish Exponent and elsewhere in recent months, of new parents wrestling with whether or not to ritually circumcise their infant sons. The questioning is disconcerting but not all that surprising at a time when the next generation is rethinking -- and reinventing -- all kinds of rituals and practices that parents of earlier generations took for granted.

The other, more disturbing issue is the mounting assault on the basic religious freedom to practice that custom, which is also sacred to Muslims.

In San Francisco last year, critics managed to place a circumcision ban on the ballot until a judge ruled against including the measure. In Germany, a Cologne court ruled in May that circumcisions were illegal, setting off a firestorm of debate in that country. And last week, a German doctor filed charges against a rabbi for performing a bris. Amid all the legal confusion, hospitals in Austria and Switzerland imposed, then lifted, bans on the procedure.

This attempt at government intervention in a long-established religious practice is unacceptable. All voices must be raised to counter such efforts.

While many parents may cringe at the sight of their infant son being cut, the widely practiced Jewish custom that dates back to Abraham has prevailed because of the sacred and covenantal tradition that it upholds. The American Academy of Pediatrics got it right. It is up to parents to make that choice. Nothing and no one should stand in their way.

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