The writer Raymond Carver once penned a short story with a distinctly minimalist yet memorable title: “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s about a boy who dies in a hospital of “complications,” and whose parents are comforted by a friendly baker who gives them warm rolls — food being a “small, good thing” that makes us feel better when we are down. The title somehow always makes me think of circumcision — the surgery that we Jews made famous and that is held by many Americans in increasingly ill favor.
The small, good thing in this case is prepuce, or foreskin. Opponents of the surgery point out that while there are rare circumstances in which complications can result in the infant boy’s disfiguration and even death, there are other consequences that are less dire but still undesirable and quite predictable. In this view, the foreskin is a good thing indeed because it preserves the exquisite sensitivity of the glans penis. With the foreskin removed, the male organ is exposed in its entirety to the wide world, and this sensitivity is largely lost.
Recently The New York Times devoted a sympathetic news article to the growing band of anti-circumcision activists and lawyers. Led by a group called Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, they argue that parents have no right to subject an infant to an operation that will reduce the pleasure he gets from sex for the whole of his adult life. When you take into account that there is no net medical benefit to the procedure, it becomes challenging to justify infant circumcision as a routine medical procedure.
Under the pressure of such arguments, 10 states have stopped Medicaid coverage for circumcision. These states — Arizona, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, California, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington — are expected to be followed by others.
Meanwhile, the parents of a little boy in North Dakota are suing the doctor and the hospital at which their son was circumcised. The harm they claim was inflicted on him is one of “diminished sexual sensation injury.” The Times quoted a lawyer in Georgia who specializes in anti-circumcision malpractice cases and who says that soon the very right of a parent to consent to the procedure will come into question.
And there the argument would stand, were it not for the fact that circumcision is not merely a medical procedure. It is a spiritual procedure, for Jews and non-Jews alike.
The medieval sage Maimonides, himself a physician, knew that circumcision cannot be defended except on spiritual grounds. As he wrote in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” “No one… should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith.” The main purpose of it, he wrote, is that “there is much mutual love and assistance among people that are united by the same sign when they consider it as [the symbol of] a covenant.”
This has been the purpose of circumcision for Jews, but in a sense it has also been so for Americans. It’s not coincidental that only America, alone in the gentile world, is attached to the surgery. While 60% of American males are circumcised — down from 90% in the 1960s — only 17% of Canadian males are; among Britons, 5%.
But America is special in many ways, not least in the seemingly supernatural affection it bears for things Jewish. American Jews have come to appreciate this in today’s poisonous international climate, in which America alone stands loyally by the State of Israel. Then again, America has always had a touch of Jewishness in its soul.
The Catholic scholar Michael Novak writes powerfully about America’s affinity for things Jewish in his 2001 book “On Two Wings,” in which he discusses what he calls the “Hebrew metaphysics” that underlay the founding of America. The founders were Christians, but they bequeathed to America a Christianity different from the European varieties, uniquely imbued with reverence specifically for the Hebrew part of their Bible. Novak points out, for instance, how often the founding documents speak of God in Jewish terms — Creator, Providence, Judge — and almost never in Christian language such as Christ, Jesus or Holy Spirit.
It should come as no surprise, then, that such a nation would embrace circumcision. The patriarch Abraham introduced the surgery for the Jews (Genesis 17) — but not only for us. As the Bible tells it, when he circumcised himself, he also circumcised all the other males in his large household, including non-Jews.
Neither tradition nor Scripture says what became of this household, but I reckon that its legacy can be observed in the strange and wonderful culture we call America — a culture that is neither Christian in the European manner, nor Jewish, but rather, Abrahamic.
That fact helps explain why Jews have felt at ease in this country as we have nowhere else. To the extent that circumcision is abandoned here, so too, it follows, is America’s Abrahamic heritage endangered, with consequences that may be neither small nor good.
David Klinghoffer’s new book, “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” will be published in March by Doubleday.