Thursday, June 16, 2011

The body on the ballot in San Fran

Although the question certainly doesn't involve me personally, I am following with some interest the initiative in San Francisco to ban the practice of circumcision for anyone under the age of 18. (Offenses incur a $1000 penalty.) Jewish and Moslem groups see this as an attack on their religious freedom, especially because no religious exemption is included in the proposed law. Although there are some Jewish families, and even rabbis, who are moving away from the practice of circumcision, others see the proposed law as a sophisticated form of "ethnic cleansing."
The law's proponents present the practice as a taboo-based, primitive kind of genital mutilation and a gross violation of a boy's personal autonomy. That, I think is where the question should interest anyone. The slogan being presented is "His body. His choice."  But San Francisco is not treating all autonomy equally. A California girl does not have to be 18 to have an abortion. And San Francisco still allows parents to have their babies' ears pierced--by jewelers and at mall kiosks, no less (I wonder how long that will last).
There is another dimension that I haven't seen addressed, and that concerns the sacramentality of the body. Circumcision is a kind of sacrament for the Jewish people: a sign of the covenant between God and the children of Abraham, a covenant that is manifested in the body, that is renewed for each and every boy that is born to Abraham's descendants.
Our culture seems very conflicted when it comes to the body. There is a (mostly) unspoken assumption that the body doesn't really matter; that being male or female doesn't make a difference; that what you do with your body doesn't really mean anything, either. As long as it's your "choice." In other words, matter doesn't matter. (You thought Manichaeism was just a decrepit heresy?)
The Jewish tradition (which we Catholics inherited in our sacramental worldview) is that the body--and all "matter"--means very much indeed. Our very nature is a "sacred sign...of grace."

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