Aaron Kalman
Business and GenAI by day, public policy by night

Judaism through education, not coercion

Two seemingly opposite stories regarding circumcision were reported Monday, raising some questions about those who think they know best — and the practice of religious and anti-religious coercion.

Only hours apart, a Norwegian official slammed minorities who carried out the ancient practice of religious circumcision and an Israeli rabbinical court fined a mother for continuously refusing to circumcise her now one-year-old son.

These two stories represent what appear to be opposite ends of a moral scale: on the one hand a government official who thinks education will help Jews and Muslims to “voluntarily abstain” from their ancient practice, pushing aside religious considerations; and at the other end a rabbinical court holding to the ancient ruling of Jewish law stating that the community has an obligation to circumcise a child if his parents do not, sidelining ideas of choice or child rights.

However, a closer examination of the positions reveals that both sides have a similar line of thought. The idea represented by Norwegian child welfare advisor Anne Lindboe is close to that stated by the rabbinical judges. In fact, not only do they rely on the same principal of truth and “enlightenment,” they also interact with one another.

The first and possibly most important similarity between the two positions is the underlying (or visible) assumption that there is one right thing to do — and that the person who knows what that is must make sure everyone else falls in line with it.

It is this line of thought that caused countries such as Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland to ban ritual slaughter (choosing to side with those who believe in animal rights over those who support the religious rights of minorities), and the next step seems to be the move toward the regulation — or outlawing — of religious circumcision. Likewise, this logic is why, in Israel, religious parties pushed for various laws, including the outlawing of pig farming and banning the public sale of bread during passover.

The second aspect of these seemingly opposing positions is their mutual influence. In short, this influence can best be described as opposing forces in a wrestling match based on lack of choice: the more one side chooses to flex its muscles and forcefully push back the other, the more resistance is used by the second side who pushes at the first — with each side trying to take away the other’s ability to choose how to act.

This was clearly demonstrated in the rabbinical court’s ruling, in which it addressed the anti-circumcision legislation across Europe and “expressed concerns about the precedence this incident could set should an Israeli Jewish woman be allowed to forgo the custom.”

Like many other Israelis and Jews, I too think one of the reasons over 97 percent of baby Jewish boys in Israel are circumcised by their parents is due to the fact that there is no law forcing them to do so. Also, I have no doubt the recent rabbinical court ruling will be taken to a civil court, where the Israeli legal system will have to decide whether it accepts religious coercion.

I am heavily opposed to anti-religious coercion, the likes of which we’re witnessing across Europe as of late, and I’m equally opposed to religious coercion. However, I agree with other values highlighted in these cases.

The rabbinical court reintroduced the idea of communal responsibility toward the individual, not only in the realm of charity or healthcare, but also in ritual practices of ben adam l’makom, between man and God. I find it hard to agree with the coercion, but think the message of taking responsibility at a moral level is important.

In Norway, Lindboe may have spoken out against circumcision, but she spoke in favor of education. Yes, the two of us would be educating toward different (indeed, opposing) goals and values — and yet I think education should be chosen over coercion.

I have faith in my Jewish heritage and tradition. Many of my daily and weekly actions are based on age-old customs, and the canonical texts written by rabbis and Jewish thinkers throughout the years are, to me, an incredible source of knowledge and guidance. These values help reinforce my belief that Judaism’s continuation and development should be based on education and mutual responsibility, and not on coercion.

About the Author
Currently the Chief of Staff at Lightricks, Aaron previously served as a diplomatic advisor to Israeli Cabinet Members and a Jewish Agency emissary in Australia, among other things.
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