Posted on: July 19th, 2012 Against Human Rights (again): Sachs on Circumcision

If anyone had any doubts about the validity of Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of the secular rhetoric of human rights let them read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this article in The Jerusalem Post by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs (hat tip to Chad Pecknold), in which Sachs trenchantly writes,

Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them – some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today (italics mine).

That is what the court in Cologne has done. It has declared that circumcision is an assault on the rights of the child since it is performed without his consent. It ignored the fact that if this is true, teaching children to speak German, sending them to school and vaccinating them against illness are all assaults against the rights of the child since they are done without consent. The court’s judgement was tendentious, foolish and has set a dangerous precedent.

One can see a similar dynamic at play in the recent Dutch ban on the shechitah (thankfully reversed … for now), here endorsed by the secularly machiavellian Peter Singer, as well as in the Obama Administration’s recent deplorable attempt to require payment and referral for abortion-causing drugs and birth control in the health care services provided by various Catholic institutions.

I hasten to add that that the most profound response to such developments is not for the Church (or “religious institutions”) to lobby for “a place at the table” of pluralistic voices, thereby pandering to and invoking the very secular rhetoric which has led to the marginalization of religion (although of course such a move can “buy more time” in the short run).

For more on this I would recommend (especially for my more “conservative” friends) Peter Leithart‘s works on ecclesiology, including The Kingdom and the Power, Against Christianity, and Defending Constantine.

The Church has two basic vocations: to convert the culture (noncoersively, of course) and to suffer as martyr. Christians in postmodernity should be asking, “What time is it now?”

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7 Responses to “Against Human Rights (again): Sachs on Circumcision”

  1. Brendan Says:
    July 19th, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Nicely and concisely stated, Matt! Thanks.

  2. Jesse Says:
    July 19th, 2012 at 10:35 am

    The deciscion in Cologne does seem to be anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim (similar to the Dutch/shechitah issue), and I would favor overturning the ruling. Circumcision, which is a painful and slightly dangerous procedure done for religious or aesthetic reasons, however, can only loosely be compared with such beneficial and necessary actions on a child’s behalf as educating them in language and culture. Every parent must make the best choices they can for their children with or without consent, but religious practices that seem to do harm to the child understandably need further explanation in a secular world. I think that the religous rhetoric around this issue oversimplifies the question of how one decides what is necessary and good for a child created in God’s image.

  3. matt Says:
    July 19th, 2012 at 1:09 pm


    Interesting. When you mention “religious rhetoric” near the end of your comment, can you tell me a bit more about what you mean?



  4. jesse Says:
    July 21st, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I just mean that the article from the Chief Rabbi isn’t really an invitation to dialogue or a response to the beliefs of those who oppose circumcision. It is rather a rhetorical piece based on religious principles.

  5. Clay Says:
    July 23rd, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Fr. Matt,
    I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now. I’ve recently started one of my own at Would you mind my including you on my blog roll?

  6. matt Says:
    July 23rd, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    Thx Clay. Consider it done.

  7. matt Says:
    July 26th, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Jesse, Interesting thoughts. I see the “genre” of Sach’s article as _neither_ “an invitation to dialogue or a response to the beliefs of those who oppose circ,” _nor_ “a rhetorical piece based on religious principles,” but rather as a commentary on the wave of secularism currently sweeping the west. So its not about circ per se, it seems to me.

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