Tag Archives: Circumcision

The Haredi PR Problem: Bad For (All) The Jews

by Ezer Smith

There has been some outrage recently over an Orthodox custom known as metzitzah b’peh, and justifiably so: The custom, during which the mohel sucks blood out of the circumcision wound with his mouth, has caused 11 cases of genital herpes in newborn boys since 2005. Two have died, and according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, some “became seriously ill” and others “developed brain damage.” This has prompted reactions from all areas of the journalistic and intellectual spectrum: Publications such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have carried articles; Cantor Philip L. Sherman (a mohel) has included a short F.A.Q. about it on his website; Christopher Hitchens condemned it with his usual brand of anti-religion vitriol; and Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Brooklyn has defended it, staunchly and vigorously.

What has been left out of the discussion is the effect this sort of thing has on the Jewish community, particularly in New York City, but elsewhere as well. And by “this sort of thing,” I mean, in addition to this most recent episode of bad press, the now well-publicized tendency of Haredim in New York City to underreport (if at all) accounts of child molestation and sexual assault within their community. I mean the anti-Internet protests held by this same group of Haredim that filled a baseball stadium.

I realize that there are two sides to every debate: the Internet really can be corrosive and disgusting; metzitzah b’peh is a 5,000-year-old tradition; and the molestation issue can be satisfied with Jewish law and custom. These arguments, particularly the latter two, may sound hollow and even morally repugnant, but they are arguments nonetheless. They are a necessary part of any conversation about the issue; self-righteousness and ethical bombast, from either side, won’t solve anything. But many Haredim don’t seem to be concerned with ‘debate,’ much less respecting anyone else’s opinion. They believe that they are a sacred community, bound together by God’s sacred word, and that this entitles them to whatever societal system they want to use. I think the logic goes: “American society and the American political system cannot exist forever, but God, and God’s commandments, will.”

My usual response to opinions like these is to throw my hands up and walk away. If people hold to their views that relentlessly, there can be no hope for reconciliation. This case is an exception, however. The ultra-Orthodox are no isolated group: they are Jews, and Jews come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities and ideologies. Whether they like it or not, at some level, these Haredim are lumped together with all the Reform, Conservative, Recontructionist, Sephardic, Humanistic and secular Jews the world over. This is what worries me: anything the Haredim do is tossed into the general category of ‘Jewish.’

At first blush, this may seem a bit selfish, and it is true that this problem does hold personal implications for me. At some level, as someone who defines “Jew” as “anyone who defines themselves as a Jew,” I really care for the Haredim. They are, for better or for worse, my brethren, my family. More than that, I think that they provide a unique perspective on Judaism and on life in general, one that must be considered. To marginalize or dismiss Haredi Jews is to do the same to their outlook, outdated and irrelevant as it may seem. I am for a Jewish tradition that welcomes all opinions, so as to let its members decide, after careful consideration, which one(s) suit them best.

This brings me to the problem of image as it relates to the broader Jewish community. Serious Orthodox Jews have never attempted to market themselves, and why should they? They have no dearth of new members: the birth rate per woman for Haredi Jews is around 6.5, comparable to that of Afghanistan. (The U.S. national rate, meanwhile, is about 2.1.) But a new report from the UJA-New York shows an interesting and perhaps troubling trend: Like the American political system, the Jewish population is expanding at its ideological edges. Secular and highly Orthodox Jews were the only groups that grew in population; all others declined.

The risk in these new numbers is clear: an increase in population in the two groups most at odds with each other means a growing split within the larger Jewish community. I have watched with growing consternation as the New York City Haredi community has blundered its way through these most recent incidents, and I’m sure many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. Most of the Jews I know would say they identify more with the principles of liberalism and fairness than those of Talmudic law; in fact, the two are not so different. It’s time for both groups, the secular Jews and the Haredim, to open lines of dialogue with each other about contemporary Jewish issues, because if they do not, we, as a Jewish community, risk a complete split. That would not be good for the Haredim, and that would not be good for the Jews.

Cutting Arguments

By Steven Philp

It looks like Bay Area Jews may one day have to leave the city to perform brit milah for their male children; a new measure gathering signatures for the November 2011 ballot would make it a misdemeanor to circumcise men under the age of 18. In an interview with CBS San Francisco, Lloyd Schofield–the author of the proposed ban–argues that circumcision is equivalent to genital mutilation. “It’s a personal decision,” he states, arguing that a man’s body does not belong to his culture, country, or religion. Although a number of the people interviewed in conjunction with Schofield disagree with his campaign to make circumcision illegal, they failed to provide a cohesive counterargument beyond parental choice. In fact–in the face of growing evidence that circumcision may not provide traditionally ascribed health benefits–the number of circumcised infants has been decreasing; a recent study published by the New York Times shows that fewer than half of male children born between 2006 and 2009 were circumcised, down from the two-thirds who underwent the procedure in the 80’s and 90’s.

Although Schofield needs to gather over 7,100 signatures before the measure is put on the ballot, his campaign calls attention to a growing debate concerning the right to circumcision. The necessity of the procedure has been called in to question, with organizations like the Centers for Disease Control still studying whether circumcisions provide any significant health benefits. According to CBS medical reporter Dr. Kim Mulvihill, “Most medical groups have not come out with strong opinions regarding pro or con circumcisions. Most are saying leave it up to the families, let them decide what’s right for their son.” A quick search on the Internet reveals few reliable sources; a large number of sites devoted to the topic are politically charged, providing rhetoric rather than evidence.

Drawing from commandments given in Genesis 17:10-14 and Leviticus 12:3, the Jewish community has been performing the covenant of circumcision – or brit milah – for millennia. Conventionally the removal of the foreskin is done eight days after a boy is born, accompanied by a series of blessings and the declaration of the child’s Hebrew name. By replicating the circumcision of Abraham, it is thought that the boy becomes an active witness to the covenant established between G-d and the Jewish people. On the other hand, the failure to be circumcised is thought to preclude the boy’s inclusion in the Jewish community. In fact this ceremony has become so integral to Jewish identity, even converts are required to undergo a similar ritual (or – if they have already been circumcised – a drawing of blood called hatafat dam brit).

Yet with the  measure to ban circumcision gaining momentum in San Francisco, Jews will be faced with tough questions. For example, is circumcision equivalent to genital mutilation? According to the World Health Organization, female circumcision–which has performed on an estimated 100 to 140 million women worldwide–is a highly invasive procedure that can cause serious health problems, and lacks explicit religious prescription. Male circumcision, on the other hand, is not associated with health problems, but can lead to a reduction in sensitivity, according an article published in the Journal of Urology.

In that regard, is the relative difference in sexual satisfaction between a circumcised and uncircumcised male worth the compromise of a several thousand year-old tradition derived from an explicit commandment given in the Torah? On one hand, the Jewish community values the careful preservation of our rituals and institutions; our particular – if not peculiar – approach to life is what has defined us as a people for thousands of years. On the other hand, many Jews find pride in our adaptable nature; we develop our traditions to accommodate social progress – take the ordination of female rabbis or the celebration of same-sex marriages, for example. As the debate concerning circumcision continues, the Jewish community will have to consider whether this particular case calls for preservation or adaptation.

This Week’s Links: Is it Summer yet? Edition

By Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

  • SPAM is back! [CBC Radio One (scroll down)]
  • A nice summary of the basic problems and solutions related to bringing kids to synagogue. [Three Jews Four Opinions]
  • “AJC extended today congratulations to Cem Özdemir, the newly elected co-leader of the Green Party in Germany. Özdemir has been a longstanding participant in the Turkish-Jewish Roundatble, sponsored by AJC’s Berlin Office.” [AJC]
  • Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a cafe in Northwest London. [Totally Jewish]
  • With election hoopla finally dying down, Jewish news has mellowed out. One Jewish blogger is reallllllly bored. The result? A list of 22 useful travel tips for you and me. [Treppenwitz]
  • And this week’s award for most ridiculous news story goes to the Danish. Oh they take it home, and easily, for trying to ban circumcision under the age of 15. Not only would that effectively ban Jews from one of our historical homes, it’s also just plain dumb. Circumcision is as a benefit to men’s health in most countries. [Ynet]

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Brace yourselves.

The BBC reports on a circumcision gone awry. Terribly, terribly awry:

A sixteen-year-old Kenyan boy is being treated in hospital after losing part of his penis in a circumcision ritual…

Medical officers at the Bungoma District hospital told the BBC that the tip of the boy’s penis was chopped off by mistake when the knife wielded by the circumciser slipped.

He has been undergoing surgery on Friday to prevent further bleeding.

Maybe if a moyle had been there—instead of the far less impressively named “circumciser”—this wouldn’t have happened. At the very least, we hope the boy got a fair serving of wine. He certainly could’ve used a drink.

For the great masses whose circumcisions had far happier endings, the medical benefits of the procedure include the decreased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. As PRI reports, the Ugandan government is touting the virtues of circumcision as part of its campaign to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The campaign’s catchy “Circumcision Song” is hitting the airwaves and will have have you singing along before you know it. Go on, check it out:

Circumcision Song

Photo by lisaschafferphoto.

Benjamin Schuman-Stoler

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