“Circumcision will be targeted after shechita.”

This headline appeared in the January 4 edition of the Jerusalem Post, quoting a European rabbi speaking out against efforts in the Netherlands to ban the ritual slaughter of livestock. According to European activists against ritual slaughter, this practice—called shechita in Hebrew, and mandated by Jewish and Muslim (halal) dietary rules—constitutes animal cruelty.

Rabbi Uri Makley, a member of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, is reported to take issue with the claim that shechita is cruel to animals, pointing out that the same authority that declared it a mitzvah to eat kosher meat also said cruelty to animals was a sin.

Rabbi Moshe Friedman, representing the European Rabbinical Council, is quoted as calling laws banning ritual slaughter (such laws are already in effect in Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden) “anti-Semitism disguised as animal rights.” He goes on to say that “the message European citizens have received is that Judaism is a religion that is cruel to animals, and the path from this to prohibiting circumcision is very short.”

I haven’t thought much about the relative cruelty of ritual slaughter as compared to the mass, mechanized slaughter of animals in the commercial meat industry.

I have, however, thought a lot about circumcision. What I find revealing in this article is a religious authority acknowledging the parallels between the ritual killing of animals—a one-on-one blood encounter that pits a knife-wielding human being against a helpless and unsuspecting animal—and a ritual that involves a knife-wielding adult inflicting a painful, invasive, and permanent wound on a helpless and non-consenting child.

The rabbis’ comments clearly imply that it is the perpetrator’s motive—not the victim’s experience—that determines whether a practice is cruel or not.  No matter how bloody or barbaric the custom, if we can get others to buy the rationale, the motive, it’s ok.

Of course, American culture and our legal system also support that construct. We give a pass to doctors because they circumcise baby boys for “health benefits” or “hygiene” or cultural conformity.  We give a pass to parents and faith practitioners who cut babies “for religious reasons” when, otherwise, bringing a stranger with no medical license into your home to cut off part of your son’s penis would clearly meet the definition of assault, battery, and child abuse. Our hypocrisy on this matter becomes even more apparent when we consider how the gender of a child turns the world I just described upside down: If it’s a girl whose genitals are being cut, suddenly there are no excuses—not even religion—that will keep you out of jail.

Interestingly, people who deplore female genital “mutilation” while defending male “circumcision” often explain the difference in terms of motive—that FGM discriminates against women, and represses their sexuality, while circumcision is a modern, clean thing.

Our poor sons.

—Georganne Chapin