The Midrash Tanchuma tells over a famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and Roman senator Turnus Rufus regarding the concept of circumcision. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are better: things made by The Almighty or things made by man?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “things made by man.” After a little back-and-forth, Rabbi Akiva brought a stalk of wheat and some baked cakes, and asked Turnus Rufus which he would rather eat - the wheat made by G-d or the cakes made by man. His point was that man is created imperfect and it is up to him to improve. The bris milah, therefore, is the culmination of the physical perfection of man after G-d created the natural version.
This story has been bouncing around in my head as of late, especially during the month of June, when the country seems to be discussing the concept of gender, especially as it relates to how we deal with children who inform their parents that they are not the gender they appear to be. A lot of discussion exists regarding how to treat these children, and one of the most controversial is through hormone blockers and surgery.
The Jewish Left has never been one to shy away from citing halachic sources to prove their point in American law. They make such claims in regards to several areas of halachah that align with their social agenda - most prominently, abortion. Of course, when it is inconvenient to their argument, they will not accept the halachic stance on an argument, claiming separation of church and state. They want the Right to be consistent in their observance of halachah, but don’t care to do so themselves. And of course, they will never acknowledge that the source they are citing is far from universally agreed upon, not expecting their opponent to know that.
It would follow then that the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus will be used to prove that transition surgery for children is not only permitted by the Torah, but Rabbi Akiva would actively encourage it. After all, man is created imperfect, and it is up to him to improve upon G-d’s creation, and that which is made by G-d is inferior to that which is made by man. If it is up to man to physically alter his body via circumcision in order to get to a more perfect human state, would it not follow that for man to achieve his ultimate perfection, his outside should match what he is feeling on his inside?
If you don’t think this argument is coming, you have another thing coming. It took me listening to one conservative and one liberal podcast to see this connection, and I’m not even actively looking for this connection. Leftist Jews looking for this will salivate over the opportunity to prove from religion that providing so-called “gender-affirming care” is probably mandated by the Torah. It’s funny; previous generations worried about ruling nations removing their ability to perform bris milah. With this concept, we should be worried about others weaponizing it.
So what’s the answer? When inevitably this argument comes down the pike, how should we explain it? Isn’t gender-affirming care just using natural wheat as an ingredient to make a delicious cake? Well, no. Firstly, we will need to point out that bris milah is a positive commandment in the Torah. We are required to give our sons a circumcision. We are not required to treat him like a girl by biblical law. In fact, we are expressly prohibited from even dressing men like women and vice versa, much less giving them drugs and performing surgeries to make them more so.
But the answer is always the direction in which we are least likely to go. Our immediate reaction is to try to explain why they are wrong, why the Torah or halacha doesn’t apply to what they are claiming. After all, we believe the Torah is correct, so we would have to show why this is not a fair comparison. No, the answer needs to be that we here in America do not make laws based on halachah. If we want to create a society where we follow Jewish law to the letter, we can have that conversation, but until we are all ready to adopt the Mishna B’rurah as our basis for American law, we need to stop appealing to halachah to prove a social agenda. Until that point, we need not discuss Jewish law as it pertains to American law.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.