Circumcision is not as common as it used to be in this country. About 60 per cent of boys born in the U.S. get circumcised, many for religious reasons, or just so the son can look like the father.
The Oregon Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday on whether a divorced man who converted to Judaism can have his 12-year-old son circumcised. The boy’s mother objects. As Colin Fogarty reports, the case could have far reaching consequences.
Circumcision goes way back in Judaism.
Daniel Isaac: "It is the oldest Jewish custom that we’re aware of."
Rabbi Daniel Isaac, with Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland says the ritual has been practiced ever since Abraham made a deal with God.
Daniel Isaac: "At various points in Jewish history, there have been tyrants who tried to separate Jews from their Judaism, one of the first things they did was to outlaw circumcision."
Isaac says that’s why he and other rabbis are paying close attention to a custody dispute case before the Oregon Supreme Court.
Here are the basic facts: James Boldt and his ex-wife Lia Boldt have a 12-year-old son. James Boldt — who has full custody of the boy — converted to Judaism in 2004. And he wants his son to be Jewish too. But the boy’s mother is Russian Orthodox and she objects strenuously to having her son circumcised.
Rabbi Isaac says under Jewish tradition, the faith is passed from mother to child. So he says if the boy was born to Jewish parents, he’d be considered Jewish whether he was circumcised or not.
Daniel Isaac: "But a child whose parents when the child was born was not Jewish, then the circumcision becomes one of the steps to the conversion process. That varies perhaps from congregation to congregation. But if the child is being welcomed into the community as a member of the community, the child should have gone through the conversion process."
That varies from congregation to congregation because not all Jews agree on how important circumcision is to conversion and not all Jews agree the faith can only be passed from the mother. And some even oppose circumcision altogether.
Lia Boldt is getting legal backing from the Seattle-based group, Doctors Opposing Circumcision. Its director John Geisheker considers circumcision at any age to be medically unnecessary and cruel.
John Geisheker: "It’s too horrific. The benefit isn’t there. And plus, it changes the mechanics of sexual intercourse, a fact of life that he’s entitled to when he’s an adult."
Geisheker says like all procedures, circumcision comes with medical risks. And that’s why he goes on to argue that the father in this case has no right to circumcise his 12-year-old boy.
John Geisheker: "See we don’t see this as a dispute between the parents. We view it as a case about the rights of a child to be free from any kind of imaginary cultural surgeries inflicted by the parents for whatever reason, however spiritually and deeply held."
And that’s what has Jewish advocacy groups upset about this case.
Marc Stern, with the American Jewish Congress, says denying James Boldt the right to circumcise his son would violate his religious freedom. Stern says because this is the first appeals court to decide this issue, the precedent it would set could kick off a spate of lawsuits over circumcision across the country.
Marc Stern: "The worst case scenario is that the Oregon Supreme Court says this inflicts a permanent change on the body of a child, it’s therefore beyond the can of any parent – divorced or not – to consent to such a procedure. And if we lose, it’s a sure thing that there will be other lawsuits in other states."
No matter what the legal precedent, Rabbi Daniel Isaac is more concerned about the boy at the center of the case. In court briefs, Lia Boldt said her son told her he didn’t want a circumcision, but was afraid of contradicting his father.
Isaac takes the father's side in the legal case, but he wishes the couple could work out a compromise.
Daniel Isaac: "It’s difficult when you have parents that are divorced and arguing not just about this, but about everything. But I would be hesitant for Judaism to become yet another issue between the parents."
James and Lia Boldt declined to be interviewed, as did their attorneys.
Circumcision opponents are asking the Oregon Supreme Court to look to a trial court case last year in Chicago. A divorced mother wanted her son circumcised, but the father did not. The judge in that case did not rule on the religious issues. Instead, he blocked the circumcision until the boy turned 18 and could decide for himself.