This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.
There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.
Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.
As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.
For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.
I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.
A couple of years ago I learned about a new front in the internal Israeli struggle over religious freedom: gender segregated buses. I was incensed. What century is this?
I have always felt that Israel has great potential to be a “light unto the nations,” inspired by our prophets of old. While the real Israel has many problems in realizing this vision, Israel’s story is still filled with many amazing accomplishments. I remain hopeful that Jewish values will ultimately prevail and the promise realized.
It had never occurred to me that the value of equality, which is so central to my Jewish life, could be rejected by an increasingly powerful and publicly present Ultra Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel. This just doesn’t feel right – this can’t be good for the Jews.
At the time I heard about this segregation I knew nothing about it. But I felt that I wanted to ride a segregated bus and sit in the forbidden (to women) front section. I stood outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with my husband eyeing dozens of passing busses, trying to discern which were segregated – I couldn’t find one. Ok, I was being naïve, but in Jerusalem, where secular people are feeling increasingly squeezed out and sometimes harassed by the growing Ultra Orthodox population, emotions can run hot.
I later learned that the recently developing gender segregation problem is so extensive in some Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods that it spread to service at some bank branches, shops, and medical clinics, and even some streets. There is more – you can read about it on the website of the Israel Religious Action Center — IRAC, which is one of several groups studying this phenomenon and acting to reverse it. IRAC has collected many stories and letters from Ultra Orthodox women who do not feel safe to speak out in their own communities, but have turned to this legal arm of the Israel Reform Movement for help. Their testimonials are gripping.
I was happy to learn that the IRAC is now actively organizing “Freedom Rides,” named after the desegregation activism in the US in the 1960’s. I jumped at the chance to be a participant this summer. I learned why I didn’t see a segregated bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – they have operated only between Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. But I also learned that, thanks to the legal actions of IRAC, a court order made bus segregation illegal. Compulsory bus signs explain that riders should only feel compelled to move if an elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman would need their seat.
The “Freedom Rides” are the next phase of the strategy, providing support and empowerment to the women who need it. As a result of these rides, IRAC has been able to take bus drivers to court when they do not enforce the open seating rule. With bus drivers facing steep fines, real change is now happening. Dozens of segregated bus lines used to travel in Jerusalem neighborhoods. Now only two remain (though other cities in Israel still have some segregated lines.)
Our group of visiting American rabbis and educators, accompanied by Israeli volunteers from IRAC, boarded the number 56 bus in Ramat Shlomo. I sat down in the front section in a grouping of 3 empty seats. We started at the first stop of the line during rush hour, and the drama took quite a while to build. A male colleague sat behind me and said, “I have your back.” While there hasn’t been violence on the IRAC “Freedom Rides,” I was still a bit worried as we started.
It was fine – thankfully nasty looks can’t kill. I got plenty of those! We desegregated that bus, all right. And by the end of the crowded ride, two Ultra Orthodox women had joined me in the adjacent two seats. We all had a memorable day.
In the week that has followed I have been reflecting on this experience and discussing it with colleagues studying with me at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. How do we forge a mutually respectful culture within Israel? It’s complicated. I hope to write more in about this in my next post. In the meantime, greetings of Shalom from Jerusalem!
A few posts ago, while the Supreme Court was still hearing arguments on the legality of the Healthcare Act, I said, “If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out.” So, it has passed, as a tax and not under the Inter-State Commerce Clause, but in any case, now we’ll have it- Obamacare (properly referred to as The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).
What does this mean to congress? Not much. And that’s the nature of sinat hinam, baseless hatred. The rabbis of the Talmud said that it was for baseless hatred that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. If the Democrats like something than you can be sure the Republicans will hate it, and vice versa.
This type of tit-for-tat bickering is not just exhausting for the country to watch, but it’s downright destructive for our society, which, before politics became so partisan and divisive, prided itself on the strength of our diversity.
Consider the classic cautionary tale about why Jerusalem was destroyed. There was a mix up on the invitations to a party. Two men whose names sounded awfully similar each thought that they were the rightful guest at a party. The problem is that that hated each other, couldn’t stand each other, and nobody set them straight. Even the sages that were present at the affair said nothing. You can read the whole story here, but to get to the juicy part, one of the men incited the Romans against the Jews. He told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple:
The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the authorities.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them: “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
They wanted to kill the person who brought the animal, so he could not go and inform on them. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said: “People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
RabbiYochanan said: “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” (Gittin 55b-56a)
By analogy, the debate regarding Obamacare , even after Chief Justice Robert’s tie-breaking vote to affirm the legality of the law, is likewise so toxic that it feels like we’ve been boxed in. In truth, nobody loves the law as it stands, Democrats wanted more, and Republicans in the House have already set a date to repeal it (July 11th).
What we know will happen with this admittedly (by everyone) imperfect law, is that when the cracks start to show, Conservatives will say, “we told you so.” You can set your clocks to it. And, they’ll be right.
But here is where we should learn the lesson of baseless hatred: When the costs rise instead of fall, or coverages shift in ways we did not predict and do not want, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s just make more calculated adjustments.
The truth is, the middle is messy. The law that was passed was built on the Centrist idea that a few steps forward are better than waiting for the perfectly crafted bill to be born, which would never have happened in the polarized system we currently have. When we become intrenched, clinging to one good ideal over any other (“I will never raise taxes”, “Everyone should have healthcare coverage”) we freeze up; we fail to act in the best interest of those we care for, and when that happens, society’s moral compass falters.
Republicans should not waste time trying to repeal Obamacare (a repeal will never pass the Senate even if it passes the House), they should be trying to improve it, and Democrats would be wise to listen to them.
Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.
The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.
And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.
There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.
But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.