Jewplexed: Cutting Around the Law on Father's Day
Are Jewish fathers on the road to becoming outlaws? Not the kind of lawbreakers with a big gun - but the kind with a tiny, shiny blade.
Are Jewish fathers on the road to becoming outlaws?
Not the kind of lawbreakers with a big gun—but the kind with a tiny, shiny blade.
In Jewish law, the father is responsible for his son’s circumcision. Yes, almost all of us hand the job off to a professional, a mohel. But what if you couldn’t? What if Jewish law were superseded by the law of the land, as is being proposed by a ballot measure prohibiting circumcision in San Francisco?
The MGM Bill (Male Genital Mutilation) calls for punishment of up to $1,000 and a year in jail for those who circumcise boys under 18.
By next Father’s Day, will Dirty Harry be on your tail? The Gray Bar Inn your next vacation spot? Will the city by the bay need to reopen Alcatraz?
Experts say the bill has very little support. Yet with over 7,000 signatures collected to get the bill on the ballot; support seems to be creeping beyond the fringe.
So, abbas, eemas too: what are you going to do if the city or state, or country you live in says a bris, a brit mila, our covenant of circumcision, is against the law?
Go underground? Skip across the border? Or take an ambivalent shrug on your Constitutional right to freedom of religion?
Besides, if you buy the ban supporters’ reasoning, the prohibition is aimed at the practice, not just the Jews or Muslims. Of course taking off from that example, a law banning baptism (because kids could drown) would not be anti-Christian.
What’s a Jew to do?
In the Gemara there’s a concept known as “Dina D'Malchusa,” “the law of the land is the law.” However, an essay titled “Civil Disobedience and Conscientious Objection,” by Rabbi Joshua Flug found on Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic Resource Center web site notes that according to Maimonides, Rambam, dina d'malchusa only applies if the people recognize the government as legitimate and accept its sovereignty.
The essay goes to say that an Italian Jewish scholar, Joseph Colon ben Solomon Trabotto, known as Maharik, noted that if there are laws that discriminate against one group over another, dina d'malchusa does not apply.
Is the proposed San Francisco ordinance just such a discriminatory law? If it or one like it passed in your community what would you do?
Eighteen years after he performed a bris in my home, I called Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics of Los Angeles, a man who has performed approximately 20,000 brises, to ask him what he would do.
“Simply, I would go across the border,” he answered. “But I would also do it even if I had to do it hiding in a cellar,” he continued, relating a story of a bris in Russia where a lookout had to be posted to warn of the police.
“This is a wake up call,” he said speaking of the San Francisco measure.
In Los Angeles in the 1970’s, I remember picketing in front of the Shrine Auditorium. The Russian ballet was in town and a group of Jewish UCLA students went downtown to protest for the release of Soviet Jews.
Sign in hand, walking the line under the watchful eyes of the LAPD I asked myself: if the police ordered us to disperse was I willing to resist and go to jail?
That protest was highly charged but we remained an orderly assembly. The threat seemed oceans away, and civil disobedience didn’t feel right. But here and now, if faced with breaking a law banning a bris, I would be a disobedient dad.
Yes, I have a basement, but I would hold the ceremony on my front yard lawn.
Edmon J. Rodman has written about making his own matzah for JTA, Jewish love music for the Jerusalem Post, yiddisheh legerdemain for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, a Bernie Madoff Halloween mask for the Forward, and what really gets stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits for the Los Angeles Times. He has edited several Jewish population studies, and is one of the founders of the Movable Minyan, an over twenty-year-old chavura-size, independent congregation. He once designed a pop-up seder plate. In 2011 Rodman received a First Place Simon Rockower Award for "Excellence in Feature Writing" from the American Jewish Press Association.