Julia Moss with mohel Rabbi Shalom Denbo

Behind the bris: an interview with the mohel


As a 48-year-old father of seven, Rabbi Shalom Denbo isn’t your typical Orthodox rabbi. He zips through Southern California on a motorcycle with a medical bag in tow, performing brises on Jewish babies and making jokes about having six daughters.

“Now you know why I pray for mothers to have more boys.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Jokes? Denbo has heard them all. Years ago, as part of a marketing campaign, he ran an ad in the Jewish Journal that read, “Tell me a mohel joke I haven’t heard, and you’ll get a bris for free.” There were no winners. Not even: “Do you work for tips?”

Born in New Jersey, trained in Israel and now living in Pico-Robertson, Denbo is the author of “7 Traits: How to Change Your World” and has traveled as far as Tahiti, performing more than 1,000 brises, the ceremonial circumcision covenant that connects Jewish boys to their heritage on the eighth day of life.

Jewish Journal: So, why do we do brises?

Rabbi Shalom Denbo: There are all kinds of nice esoteric explanations, but the main reason is that the Torah tells us to, just like Abraham gave his son Isaac on the eighth day of his life. That’s why we do it and, really, the father is supposed to do it, like Abraham did it to his son.

 

JJ: My husband does a lot of things for us, but …

SD: And I’m not sure he would accept the challenge, either. But really it’s supposed to be their mitzvah. I’m there as a proxy because most parents either don’t know how or would not want to do it, anyway.

JJ: Why the eighth day?

SD: The eighth day is considered above the physical. This world we live in is considered the physical. Everything in this world is seven — seven continents, seven seas, seven days of the week, seven days of creation. Eight is that one step beyond — the step into the spiritual realm. There are exceptions. Most common is if the baby is sick. The other is not so commonly known but if the baby was born via C-section; that does not get done on Shabbos or Yom Tov.

JJ: Did you grow up wanting to be a mohel?

SD: I grew up with the stereotypical Jewish parents telling me, “You’re either going to be a doctor, a lawyer or, at worst, an accountant.” I had no desire to be a doctor or a lawyer; I had a desire to be famous. I wanted to be an actor; I wanted to go into show business. The irony is I’m in Hollywood as a rabbi. When my father found out I was deciding to become a rabbi, he said, “Well, so you won’t be a doctor but maybe you’ll become a mohel.” I used to laugh at him but an opportunity, pun intended, fell in my lap. My father-in-law found out that I had this indirect connection to Reb Yossel, a famous Jerusalem mohel who is estimated to have done over 100,000 brises. My father-in-law insisted that I learn from him. I said to my father-in-law, “I’ll learn under one condition: that you understand that I have no intention of being a mohel.”

JJ: What was it like to learn from Reb Yossel?

SD: Learning from Reb Yossel was like learning guitar from Prince or Jimi Hendrix. He was an artist. He imbued his personality into the showmanship of it, into the actual technique.

JJ: Can you tell us about the first bris you performed?

SD: Reb Yossel did a lot of brises for recent immigrants for free. They didn’t know the famous Reb Yossel; they only knew that their doctor or their rabbi had arranged for him to do the bris and they wouldn’t have to pay. One time, we were going to perform a bris in a suburb outside of Jerusalem and there was clearly not going to be anyone there. As we were walking in, he turned to me and said, “You’re Reb Yossel.” I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re going to do the bris.” We walked in the apartment and there were only three people there besides the baby. I really thought he was kidding but when we walked in, he didn’t say a word. He just stood there. It was obvious that I needed to start speaking because it was an awkward silence. And so I did the bris. It was a fascinating experience, the most life-changing experience except maybe the birth of my daughter. I realized at that moment, “I want to be a mohel.”

JJ: What was so life-changing about it?

SD: Every mitzvah is supposed to be a powerful, life-changing experience. There is only one mitzvah that we do today that you actually see on a physical level: a bris, where the child is different physically than he was one second earlier. As a rabbi, I know that the mitzvah changes the baby forever and I was the instrument. And that was a moving experience for me.

JJ: What is it like to deal with the families?

SD: Everyone is nervous. Everyone is anxious. I always tell parents who are nervous and apprehensive that it would be more concerning if they weren’t because this is your baby and it doesn’t matter that this is a good thing for them; it’s still something scary. Interestingly enough, though, the more emotional of the two [parents] is usually the father. I have had more fathers cry at a bris, far more, than mothers.

JJ: How do people respond at a dinner party when you say you’re a mohel?

SD: I don’t know if it’s us or lawyers that get the brunt of more jokes. Immediately they start with the jokes.

JJ: Why do all mohels make jokes at brises?

SD: There does need to be an element of comedy. Not that it should be a roast. This is a tremendously holy mitzvah. You’re talking about a very delicate procedure, which is very primal to a man. There is definitely tension in the room. You don’t want it to be a tense experience; you want it to be a holy, meaningful experience.

JJ: What is the advantage of hiring a mohel?   

SD: A lot of people want a doctor, or they want it done in a hospital because they think that’s safer or better. They think they are getting someone that is an expert in circumcision, but the truth is that they’re not. [In a teaching hospital], most likely the person that is doing the circumcision is a resident or an intern and it might very well be their first circumcision. In a non-teaching hospital, people think that they are getting a urologist, but that’s not true, either. Most circumcisions in hospitals are done by O.B.s. — that’s not to say they are not proficient, but it is not their specialty. A mohel, this is our specialty. This is all we know.

JJ: How many times have you been peed on?

SD: Too many. Ask the other question.

JJ: How many times have you been pooped on?

SD: Also too many. Pee is actually more controllable —  you can point it away.

In defense of Jewish circumcision


This past week, I was in Miami for the bris (or brit), the Jewish ritual circumcision, of my grandson. It’s a good time to offer a defense of the Jews’ most ancient ritual.

According to various reports, there are Jews — and not only Jews who have forsaken their Jewish identity — who oppose circumcising their sons. They are still a minority, but they are vocal and, I suspect, growing.

Their primary arguments are that circumcisions, whether for religious or medical reasons, are unnecessary; that they are a form of mutilation; and that the act inflicts serious pain on the 8-day-old for no good reason.

Let’s begin with the first objection. In fact, circumcision is both medically and religiously necessary. People are free to object to circumcision, whether performed by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser) or a physician. But they need to be honest with the facts.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in 2014. 

“The benefits of male circumcision have become more and more clear over the last 10 years,” added Dr. Aaron Tobian, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.

Circumcision is so medically beneficial that many African countries demand that their male citizens get circumcised. The reason is that, other than sexual abstention, circumcision is the best way to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS. And there are multiple other health benefits.

Personally, I would endorse the bris even if there were no medical benefits. I only cite these benefits to refute those who argue that circumcision is not beneficial, or is even harmful.

What matters to me are the religious benefits of giving one’s son a bris — or brit milah, “covenant of circumcision,” to give it its full name. They are, of course, not as objectively measurable as medical benefits, but they are even greater.

I found the circumcisions of my two sons and two grandsons more emotionally and spiritually moving than any other religious activity in my life. Here I was, in as dramatic a way as one could imagine, bringing my sons and grandsons into the Jewish people and into the Jewish covenant with God. I thought about how my father had done this to me, and his father to him, going back to Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. I thought about all the Jews who, at the risk of their lives, brought their sons into the covenant during the many anti-Semitic periods in Jewish history.

As for “mutilation,” that is a complete misuse of the term. The term properly describes what is done in many Muslim societies to the genitalia of young girls. That is why it is called “female genital mutilation.” Its vile purpose is to deprive women of the ability to enjoy sexual intercourse. And its effects are prolonged excruciating pain and permanent physical disfigurement. To compare that to the removal of the foreskin is not only absurd, it trivializes the horror of female genital mutilation.

With regard to pain, of course the baby experiences pain. The question is how much and whether there is any lasting trauma.
The amount of pain is essentially impossible to judge for a number of reasons, however. One reason is that we can’t ask the baby: “What is your level of pain from 1 to 10?” Another is that many babies barely whimper during the brit. Virtually all cry far more loudly and for far more time when they have gas or are hungry — and neither condition is regarded as abnormally painful, let alone traumatic.

Nevertheless, the request of any parent who wants to have lidocaine injected into their baby’s foreskin to numb the pain should be honored. There is no halachic issue here; after all, adult men who undergo a brit can be fully anesthetized.

To assess whether one wants one’s son to undergo a brit milah, one has to recognize one of the most important laws of life: Everything has a price. There is a price paid for having a brit, and there is a price paid for not having one.

The price for having one is momentary pain in an infant. That’s it. The idea that a man pays some lasting price for not having his foreskin is refuted by the experience of virtually every circumcised male who has ever lived. I have only met one man in my life who was troubled about not having his foreskin. On my radio show, I once interviewed a spokesman for an anti-circumcision group based in — you’ll be shocked to learn — San Francisco. And I told him I thought he must be very bored to devote so much of his time to lamenting his lost foreskin.

As opposed to the minuscule price paid for having a brit, there is an enormous price paid for a Jew not having a brit. The advantages wildly outweigh the momentary pain. The brit uniquely strengthens a Jew’s religious identification, and the ceremony instills in the family and in the community present at the ceremony a profound identification with the nearly four millennia of the Jews’ world-changing history. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Lenny Kravitz had a wardrobe malfunction


Clothes, they say, make the man. But occasionally, a lack thereof may make the man as well.

Example: Lenny Kravitz’s man parts — revealed to the world Monday when the rocker’s leather pants split during a concert in Stockholm and much talked about online since then — says quite a bit about Lenny Kravitz. And however slight his work may have seemed around 25 years ago, the 51-year-old Kravitz — an enduring artist whose oeuvre always seems slightly out-of-sync with whatever is popular at the moment — is a significant figure who deserves a closer look.

Read the rest at The Washington Post.

Spiritual authenticity and the circumcision decision


Though the prospect of circumcising a baby boy typically causes some anxiety, Jewish parents most often to go through with it. Circumcision is a concrete symbol of the ancient Abrahamic covenant, an affirmation of membership in the tribe, and a way for the boy to “look like Dad.” Sealing the deal for many is the idea that circumcision provides health benefits throughout a child’s life.

These days, however, there are Jewish parents who consider the issue carefully—and come to a different conclusion. To them, circumcision seems unnecessary, harmful or traumatic, and they decide not to do it. The question is, do these families represent a disheartening watering-down of tradition? Or do they perhaps have something unique and precious to offer to the ongoing Jewish narrative?
 
My sons, now grown, are both circumcised. But I acquiesced unhappily, despite grave misgivings. My husband was in favor of circumcision, and like him, I wanted my boys to be fully accepted in Jewish life. I wanted to be fully accepted in Jewish life. In short, my compliance was calculated. It was not an expression of my spiritual beliefs or my relationship with God.
 
From the point of view of halacha (Jewish law), one should perform the mitzvot (commandments) even if one lacks spiritual conviction. The idea is that since spiritual belief can result from practice, one shouldn’t wait for inspiration in fulfilling a required deed.
 
While I respect and appreciate that concept, I’m not a halachic Jew. I believe in the central principle of progressive Judaism: we make ritual choices based on Jewish knowledge and thoughtful personal inquiry. If we leave our experience out of these decisions or go against our own ethics, we not only fail ourselves, but deprive our community of something vital to the living, breathing organism we call contemporary Judaism.
 
2011 responsum by Conservative-trained Rabbi Chaim Weiner asserts that halachically, boys who have not been circumcised are still entitled to have bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. As someone who champions the inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish life, I applaud the rabbi’s stand.
 
Rabbi Weiner then notes, regarding families’ choice whether to circumcise, that “it is unlikely that coercive tactics will lead to an increase in observance.” It is here that I disagree with him. I believe such tactics, from subtle pressure to overstepped emotional boundaries, have persuaded many parents to go through with circumcision.
 
If the Jewish community has secured greater conformity to circumcision through social pressure, I would ask: at what cost? I remember feeling I had to choose between my maternal urges (protect that infant!) and my heritage (hand him over!). My authentic self, the person who wanted to nurture and comfort my newborn babies, did not seem welcome in Judaism. I had always thought of tradition as something that makes us whole, connecting us not only with each other, but with our inner being. Here I felt disconnected from my people and from myself.
 
Our personal integrity, the genuineness of our connection with God, and the biological imperative to protect an infant are all sacred covenants. I’d even go so far as to suggest there’s an implicit covenant between Judaism and the individual Jew: if I value the best of Judaism, shouldn’t Judaism value the best of me?
 
It is because of these other covenants that circumcision strikes some parents as a breach of promise, rather than the sealing of one. And yet that painful predicament—despite its spiritual nature—is rarely part of the Jewish conversation. Too often, parents’ doubts are met with diversionary humor, dismissal, or reverential incantations about “the covenant,” as if no obligation other than the agreement between God and Abraham could be considered sacred.
 
Parents for whom circumcision feels like an ethical breach should be able to discuss that with clergy and get actual spiritual guidance instead of pressure to conform. Brit shalom (covenant of peace), a ceremony for non-circumcising families, should be openly offered.
 
The rate of routine infant circumcision has dropped steadily in the U.S. in recent decades, from 81% in 1981 to a little over 50% now. Skepticism about medical benefits, better understanding of the physiological function and erogenous nature of foreskin tissue, and ethical considerations have all played roles in the declining rate. Since these matters concern every parent, it’s not surprising that Jewish families are among those opting out of circumcision. 
 
Meanwhile, progressive Jewish institutions are going to great lengths, and admirably so, to welcome members of our community who may not look traditionally Jewish. I would urge any rabbi wishing to respond to the diverse needs of today’s families to openly embrace “conscientious objectors” to circumcision, reassuring them that they’re still included and wanted. This is a halachically sound concept as well as one appropriate to the principles of various progressive movements of Judaism.
 
A Judaism that respects and celebrates spiritual authenticity, a Judaism that invites us to bring our true selves into the Jewish conversation—this is a vibrant, meaningful Judaism.
 
Lisa Braver Moss is a novelist and the co-author of Celebrating Brit Shalom (Notim Press, 2015), the first-ever book for Jewish families opting out of circumcision. Moss conceived and spearheaded the movement toward open inclusion of non-circumcising families in Jewish life. 

Woman jailed after fleeing to avoid circumcising 4-year-old son


A Florida woman is in jail after fleeing with her 4-year-old son to keep him from being circumcised.

Heather Hironimus, 31, of Boynton Beach was arrested  last week after going into hiding with her son Chase three months ago rather than give her consent and turn the boy over for the surgery.

Hironimus and the boy’s father, Dennis Nebus of Boca Raton, had agreed to the circumcision three years ago as part of their separation deal. Hironimus backed out of the surgery and Nebus took her to court. In May, an appeals court in Florida upheld lower court rulings in favor of Nebus and the circumcision. The couple, neither of whom is Jewish, were never married.

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge received assurances from Nebus’ attorney that the judge will receive 10 days notice prior to the procedure. Chase is in the custody of his father in an undisclosed location.

The judge, Kenneth Marra, made no ruling on an emergency request by Hironimus to put a temporary restraining order on the procedure.

Nebus has called circumcision “just the normal thing to do.”

An arrest warrant for Hironimus was issued in March after Hironimus failed to show up to hand the boy over to his father as required in the couple’s custody-sharing agreement.

Haredi circumcision practice infects New York baby with herpes


A controversial circumcision practice has led to the infection of a New York City baby with neonatal herpes, according to the city’s health department.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced Tuesday in a press release that the case was reported in November and resulted “following ritual Jewish circumcision with direct orogenital suction,” a practice known as metzitzah b’peh. This is the fourth such case in 2014 and the 17th since 2000, according to the health department. Two of those cases have resulted in death and another two in brain damage.

Metzitzah b’peh, in which the mohel sucks blood from the wound following circumcision, is a common traditional practice among many haredi Orthodox mohels. When performed directly with the mouth (as opposed to through a sterile pipette), it has been directly linked to the transmission of the herpes virus. New York City health department regulations require the parents of a child to provide prior written consent for the practice, but the regulation has not been enforced.

 

Anti-Semitism creeps into ‘Natural Childbirth’ movement


It’s the special treatment reserved for Jews that earns the anti-circumcision “intact-ivism” movement the label “anti-Jew.” And it’s the large space created for intactivist representation within the natural childbirth movement which unfortunately poisons this otherwise effective and necessary maternal health community. 

As a childbirth doula (labor coach) in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am honored to support women of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds and to work on the cutting edge of patient rights and women’s health along with a growing movement of informed practitioners who are advocating for birth options and evidence-based practices. I am privileged to serve clients of all backgrounds along with the other Jewish women health practitioners in the “Imeinu Doulas and Birth Collective” which I founded in 2008. Just as “Shalom Bayit” a 22-year old Jewish domestic violence organization in the Bay Area is a model of a culturally-based women’s rights initiative who works locally but is internationally known and networked, Imeinu is a younger, established and growing culturally-based women’s health and advocacy model but in the field of childbirth with service providers networked internationally.

As a Jewish woman who literally wears my Jewish heritage as I ally with other natural birth professionals, I become a quick target for anti-circumcision rationale, a quick opportunity for intactivists practicing talking points that are developed especially for Jews. Let’s back up here and understand the difference between the way birth workers usually provide information and how intactivists, whose work is primarily carried out through layers of public relations campaigns, promote their cause.

Birth Workers are different from Intactivists

When we birth professionals are educating new parents about procedures like epidurals, delayed umbilical chord clamping, skin-to-skin, or breastfeeding – all of which can have life-changing impact on the vitality of the child, we do not aggressively assert that parents are hurting their child or putting themselves at risk if they go along with what are the medical trends. We encourage parents to do their own research and inform themselves about the approaches of their care providers so that they can be aware of risks and options and exercise their rights as patients and human beings.

Birth workers partly get our work done by staying up-to-date and providing information, and the impact of natural birth advocacy is seen in the statistics. Examples of the successes of birth workers can be seen in the emerging government-funded doula programs in several countries, bringing more trained labor coaches to provide continuous care to mothers in labor because of the improved health outcomes associated with the presence of a doula. Birth workers’ objections to inducing pre-term labor or pre-term elective cesareans helped focus research on these issues which eventually led to policy changes in hospitals across the United States, so we know our approach works. More hospitals are instituting new protocols for delayed umbilical chord clamping, and skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby immediately following delivery – two campaigns that the natural birth movement has been conducting through its attention to evidence-based research in the field and in published studies.

Intactivism is carried out through public relations campaigns that range from reaching expectant parents through tabling at childbirth fairs to pushing for legislation to outlaw circumcision. Books, websites, blogs and social media sites share science, stories, and resources on why circumcision is wrong. These venues commonly devote a portion of their pages to cultural circumcision which inevitably focuses on mostly misunderstood and inaccurately framed summaries on Jewish culture. And for those of us who have inherited circumcision in our religious practice, there are even some Jewish-run groups who offer guidance to holding alternative ceremonies sans the cut, and support groups. But it doesn’t stop there. 

Special Treatment for Jews

Enter a conversation with intactivists and let them know you are a Jew, almost every time the conversation topic will change from the focus of circumcision being medically unnecessary to, “Did you know another baby died in New York from herpes after the mohel sucked…” No matter whether you appear religiously observant, no consideration or interest in whether you circumcised your own son at 8 days, just because they learn you are Jewish intactivists will bombard you with talking points that range from new information about your ancestral tradition, to Jewish celebrities’ involvement with intactivism, to films about Jewish men and their decisions about circumcision for their sons, to names of organizations that can help you. If you’re lucky, the intactivist will remember to compliment your people, “Well Jews wait till 8 days so the Jewish boys getting circumcised are the lucky ones if you’re going to have it done…”

Intactivists are blind to the fact that the same arguments they are promoting outside the Jewish community, based on research to advocate their cause, would be the only ones appropriate to share with Jews. Intactivists treat Jews different from other people and within their culture have developed an entirely separate agenda for Jewish ears. Even though less than 2% of the American population is Jewish while majority of Americans circumcise, much of the intactivist propaganda – from memes to comic books to films – involves imagery of and alludes to Jewish men. So intactivism is involved with targeting Jews in personal interactions, and representing Jews as child-abusers in the public sphere.

Intactivists have failed in the cultural sensitivity arena. In the Bay Area and other parts of the world, the Jewish and Muslim communities have come together to defend their religious practice from proposed anti-circumcision legislation, so I believe we can all thank the intactivists for catalyzing some unity

Birth Workers Need to Realign with Dignified Advocacy Practice

Speaking as a birth worker, cultural sensitivity is part of our job. We serve families who speak all languages, in all circumstances, with all sorts of beliefs during this sacred time as they welcome new life into the world. Many of us natural birth doulas serve parents in homes, birth centers, and hospital settings. Regardless of our personal choices and opinions, our purpose is to support our clients whatever their decisions may be while upholding the utmost respect and cooperative relationships with the medical professionals who are responsible for the childbirth procedures and outcomes.

The natural birth movement’s imperative is to handle circumcision with the same professionalism as they do all other debated procedures related to maternity, childbirth, and babies. We cannot allow the intactivist movement’s impassioned bigotry which condemns and even criminalizes our clients who choose circumcision while also targeting Jews, to run us off course from our successful movement to improve maternity care.

In fact, natural birth professionals are already anti-racism activists. We have to take into account that horrendous disparities are at play when we support our mothers in labor. For example, a black woman is five times more likely to die during childbirth than other women in the United States, regardless of her economic or other status. Similarly, racism is evident in our professional field as the vast majority of birth and maternity care workers as well as the natural birth events are light-skinned women. Reproductive justice advocates are addressing the ways that institutional and societal racism impact childbirth and women’s health as well as the professional field. We shouldn’t have to be adding anti-semitism to the mix, with Jewish birth pros and Jewish moms feeling alienated from our good work.

If we as childbirth professionals, and the natural maternity organizations we are part of, choose to address circumcision within our scope of information, we can give the issue the same consideration and air-time as we do to the many other physically and spiritually invasive procedures that we witness regularly. Resources about circumcision options are about as appropriate for birth workers’ clients as resources about vaccination as long as the information is evidence-based, but the intactivist movement’s degrading tactics and banners should have no place in our online or virtual forums, nor at our events.

Wendy Kenin is a childbirth doula and mother of five in Berkeley, California. Creator of eco-feminist judaica and founder of Imeinu Doulas and Childbirth Collective, Wendy is a member of the editorial board of Jewcology – the online home of the Jewish environmental movement, and serves on the leadership circle of the Torah-guided environmental organization Canfei Nesharim. She is also a social media consultant, co-chair of the Green Party’s national newspaper Green Pages, and a member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. Wendy blogs and tweets as @greendoula.

 

For new dad, a stronger bond from circumcising son


Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.

But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Although most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.

“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”

The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for baby Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Zaidenweber the option of making the cut.

The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she said was intended to say, “Are you crazy?” a friend reassured her it would be easy.

“I then took a deep breath, surrendered to the faith I had in Phil and motioned that they had my blessing to proceed,” Raab said.

Sherman set up what was needed, gave the baby some sugar water, put a clamp in place and offered Zaidenweber some direction. Making the cut, Zaidenweber said, was a powerful bonding experience.

“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I’m glad I have that connection with my son. Your love is equal for both [twins], but it’s special that we have that bond.”

For Raab, too, the experience was a positive one. Sherman had told the gathering that a baby’s cry during a bris is like the sound of the shofar opening the gates of heaven.

“I closed my eyes, heard Jay’s cry and actually was able to experience it as deeply spiritual and beautiful,” Raab said, noting her pride that her husband took on the role.

“He stepped up, fearlessly, with a faith in himself that I wouldn’t have had in myself,” she said. “I have since been aware of how much his modeling has helped me to muster more courage as I face the tasks of mothering.”

If the couple were to have another son, would Zaidenweber make the snip again? Yes, say both parents, without hesitation

Silverstone doesn’t take a kind view of circumcision


Alicia Silverstone has had a long and varied career in the public eye, from her star-making turn in the 1995 film “Clueless” to her reemergence a decade later as a vegan and animal rights activist. But in her latest iteration as a celebrity mom, Silverstone is taking on a new role — intactivist.

In her new parenting book, “The Kind Mama,” Silverstone announces that she did not circumcise her son, Bear Blu, according to the anti-circumcision website Beyond the Bris. Her decision apparently raised some family hackles.

“I was raised Jewish, so the second my parents found out that they had a male grandchild, they wanted to know when we’d be having a bris (the Jewish circumcision ceremony traditionally performed 8 days after a baby is born),” she wrote, according to Beyond the Bris. “When I said we weren’t having one, my dad got a bit worked up. But my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

Silverstone’s father was born Jewish and her mother converted before Alicia was born. She was raised in a Jewish household.

Her stance sets her in opposition to recent scientific evidence, which indicates that neonatal male circumcision can have substantial health benefits that significantly outweigh the risks.

However, Silverstone hasn’t been reluctant to buck established medical science. “The Kind Mama” has been heavily criticized for claiming that children don’t need to be vaccinated, an argument that has alarmed pediatric health experts.

The book also has a foreword written by Jay Gordon, a pediatrician who has achieved notoriety as the doctor for notorious anti-vaccination advocate Jenny McCarthy.

Passing on circumcision, by contrast, is far less controversial — the American Academy of Pediatrics states that the health benefits outweigh risks, but that the decision should be left up to parents.

None of that is to say that Silverstone’s parenting approach is clear sailing for the squeamish. Her favored method for feeding her son — pre-chewing, then spitting it into his mouth, like a mama bird — went viral a couple years ago, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

 

Health benefits of circumcision reinforced


In the circumcision wars, circumcision has been winning some big battles.

A new survey of medical data going back more than two decades has found that the health benefits of circumcision far outweigh the risks. The publication of the article on April 4 by the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings is the latest development to tip the scales in favor of circumcision in the long-running scientific, cultural and political struggles over the practice.

Some say this series of arguments has damaged the efforts of American anti-circumcision activists.

“They’re in disarray. They used to be very organized, raising money and so forth,” said Edgar Schoen, a clinical professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and a longtime champion of the medical benefits of circumcision. “People don’t listen to them that much anymore.”

The authors of the new survey reviewed some 3,000 studies on male circumcision published since 1988 and found evidence indicating that circumcision significantly reduced the chances of contracting a number of diseases, including urinary tract infections, human papillomavirus and HIV.

“When considered together with ethical and human rights arguments, neonatal circumcision should logically be strongly supported and encouraged as an important evidence-based intervention akin to childhood vaccination,” wrote authors Brian Morris, Stefan Bailis and Thomas Wiswell.

Morris, the study’s lead author and a professor emeritus of medical sciences at the University of Sydney, has long been an advocate for the health benefits of male circumcision, authoring the 1999 book “In Favour of Circumcision.”

Circumcision opponents — known in some circles as “intactivists” — generally dismissed the new study.

“It’s very easy for researchers to design their studies and the analysis of their studies to come out with conclusions that they want,” said Ronald Goldman, author of “Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.” “So they’re finding what they’re seeking, in other words. There’s no objectivity here.”

The so-called “circumcision wars,” as they have been dubbed by the media, spilled into the American political sphere in 2011 when anti-circumcision activists submitted more than 12,000 signatures to place a San Francisco city ballot measure to ban the practice. The measure spurred heated debate as pro- and anti-circumcision advocates traded accusations of anti-Semitism and child abuse.

However, before the measure could go before voters, a state judge ordered it struck from the ballot as a violation of state law. The California State Legislature subsequently outlawed any local bans on circumcision.

The medical landscape tilted against anti-circumcision activists in 2012 when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued revised guidelines on the practice, stating for the first time that “the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks.” This marked a reversal of the academy’s neutral stance and undercut a key talking point of anti-circumcision activists, who had argued that the practice had no support from any major medical organization.

Anti-circumcision advocates disputed the notion that their efforts have run aground, but some acknowledged that the legal and political terrain has become more challenging.

“There was an enormous and immediate clampdown on any type of legislation gaining a foothold to protect male children in the United States,” said Lloyd Schofield, an anti-circumcision activist who served as a spokesman for the San Francisco ballot measure.

However, Schofield and other anti-circumcision activists point to Europe as more receptive territory.

Attempts to limit or ban non-medical circumcision of boys under 18 have intensified in Europe in recent years. The efforts gained steam after a German court ruled in 2012 that circumcision amounted to causing bodily harm — a ruling that triggered brief bans in various locales in three German-speaking countries.

Last October, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a non-binding resolution condemning the practice of circumcision for boys as a “violation of the physical integrity of children.” Several Scandinavian political parties and medical associations are seeking a ban, as are the children’s welfare ombudsmen of Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Jewish groups have pushed back strongly against efforts to ban the practice.

Part of the trans-Atlantic difference in attitudes may be rooted in cultural practices. The study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings cited an estimate that only 10 percent of European males are circumcised. In the United States, the authors calculated that neonatal circumcision rates had dropped from 83.2 percent in the 1960s to 77.1 percent in 2010 as a result of demographic and policy changes.

One of the primary reasons cited by the authors for declining circumcision rates is the country’s rapidly growing proportion of Hispanics, who tend to circumcise their children at far lower rates than non-Hispanic blacks and whites. The report cited figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that only 44 percent of Mexican-American male infants were circumcised, compared with 76 percent of black males and 91 percent of white males. However, the report also noted that circumcision rates among all three groups appear to be increasing.

Another major factor cited by the report for lower circumcision rates was the reduced number of states that provide Medicaid coverage for circumcision. Currently, 18 states do not cover the procedure through Medicaid, up from just six in 1999. Anti-circumcision groups have urged additional states to cease covering circumcisions.

The new study calculates that hospital circumcision rates are 24 percent higher in states that cover the procedure through Medicaid compared to those that do not, after controlling for other factors.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2012 policy statement explicitly urged insurance providers, including Medicaid, to cover neonatal circumcisions. Although there have been reported efforts in several states to restore Medicaid coverage, to date none has made the switch.

Douglas Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and a member of the pediatrics academy’s task force on circumcision, urged caution in interpreting the study’s findings, saying that circumcision rates are notoriously difficult to calculate because of the number that are performed outside of hospitals. However, he said the impact on decisions by parents would be driven not so much by the data as by media attention.

“It’s not so much that this paper is so radically important as that it seems to be getting a great deal of press,” Diekema said. “Press coverage gets the attention of parents.”

Watch: ‘Mohels,’ an a capella take on Lorde’s ‘Royals’


Ever noticed how “mohels” rhymes with “royals”? Well the University of Maryland a capella group Kol Ish did, and thank goodness.

In their version of teen pop star Lorde’s “Royals,” retitled, yep, “Mohels,” the boys have a thing or two to say to those opposed to circumcision.

It’s pretty intense — think lines like “I’ve never left a forsekin on the flesh,” and “Don’t want to tell you what to do/so leave us be or we’ll cut you too” — but also sort of genius.

In fact, turn down the volume on those pretty voices and you might just be able to hear the Maccabeats kicking themselves for not coming up with it first. Although a rendition from those sweeties would have probably been a lot rosier and peppier, and performed in a video that did not contain handwritten messages like “It’s just the tip” and “cut and proud.”

How to become a Jew


1. ENROLL IN A CONVERSION PROGRAM

There are a variety of options for how to begin the process, but all involve study with a rabbi. Some people study with an individual rabbi for a period of time, and other people enroll in group classes designed especially for converts.

People find out about conversion classes in a number of ways: through the Internet, through family and friends, or by making an appointment to meet with a synagogue rabbi who recommends a program. Some students choose a particular religious movement’s program because that is the movement to which a Jewish partner’s family belongs, or perhaps the student is attracted to a particular rabbi or synagogue of that movement.

My program, Judaism by Choice, offers a Conservative curriculum, but which also welcomes other denominations; it includes 18 three-hour classes that cover such topics as Jewish history (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, American Judaism), Jewish holidays, Shabbat, kashrut, Jewish lifecycle (birth, marriage, death), theology, prayers, philosophy and rituals.

Students must also connect to a local synagogue and attend Shabbat services weekly, meet with the synagogue rabbi, observe Shabbat fully every week — including meals from Friday night to Saturday night — keep a level of kashrut (no pork, shellfish or mixing of meat and milk), learn to read Hebrew and have experiences in the Jewish community. Students must also attend our monthly Shabbat dinners and Shabbat morning learning services at Sinai Temple or Temple Beth Am and a Havdalah social evening at private homes.

When students in my program meet the conversion requirements, I give them a letter saying that they have completed all requirements in the Judaism by Choice program and are now eligible for conversion with either the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California (interdenominational). 

2. CIRCUMCISION

Men must undergo a ritual circumcision, or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolic circumcision), which is a procedure where the mohel draws a little bit of blood from the penis.

3. CONVERSION

Once the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements, he or she meets with a beit din — a rabbinical court. The rabbis ask about why the candidate wants to convert to Judaism, what observances he or she follows and his or her knowledge of Jewish holidays and Judaica. The candidate must also willingly give up any former religion. After 30 minutes of questioning, the candidate is told whether they have passed, and those who have are asked to read aloud the “Declaration of Faith,” affirming that he or she is ready to assume the obligations of Judaism.

The candidate then immerses in the spiritual waters of the mikveh, going fully under the water three times. For the first two immersions, he or she says blessings, and on the third immersion, recites the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. After fulfilling this, the candidate is officially a Jew.

For those who want to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), conversions are regulated by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, and all converts, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are accepted. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still regulates permission to marry within the Jewish state, and non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox converts are not accepted for that ritual, although many are. 

4. WELCOMING THE NEW JEW

After the conversion, some people celebrate at their synagogue, where the congregation welcomes them to the Jewish religion. The newly converted might be called for an aliyah (saying blessings over the Torah) during the Torah service, and a special blessing might be recited for them in front of the ark during a Shabbat service. We do this at our Judaism by Choice Shabbat morning service.

Our program also includes a special ceremony at a Shabbat dinner, or a Havdalah social evening, where we officially hand the new Jew by Choice a conversion certificate and publicly acknowledge that the person is now part of the Jewish People and Jewish community. Family and friends also come to share this happy occasion.

5. FOLLOWING THE CONVERSION

We hope the new Jew by Choice will be involved in the Jewish community, in addition to involvement in a synagogue. Our program also provides supplemental programs throughout the year specially geared to Jews by Choice. These have included a pre-High Holy Days spiritual retreat, a Sukkot wine-tasting party, Chanukah and Purim parties, a second-night Passover seder and an annual trip to Israel. 

 Just as the biblical Naomi was welcoming to Ruth, so should the Jewish community be welcoming to those who embrace Judaism. Jews by Choice are knowledgeable and observant Jews, and we should all celebrate the fact that they will help the Jewish religion and Jewish people to grow and survive.


Rabbi Neal Weinberg is rabbinic director and instructor of Judaism by Choice Inc.

Poll: 45 percent of Britons favor banning shechitah


About 45 percent of 1,900 Britons polled favored banning Jewish ritual slaughter and 38 percent said they favored banning nonmedical circumcision.

In the poll, which was conducted last week by the YouGov polling agency for The Jewish Chronicle of London, 45 percent of respondents backed banning ritual slaughter, known as shechitah. Another 28 percent said they were undecided and 27 percent opposed such a ban.

When asked about “male circumcision for religious reasons,” 38 percent supported a ban, 35 percent opposed a ban and 27 percent were undecided, The Jewish Chronicle reported this week.

Among 18-24 year-olds, 41 percent would ban both nonmedical circumcision in underage boys and ritual slaughter of animals for food.

European doctors: U.S. colleagues support circumcision out of bias


Thirty-eight physicians from Europe wrote a paper alleging that “cultural bias” was behind the pro-circumcision stance of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The commentary, published Monday on the website of the U.S.-based Pediatrics journal, disputes a report by the academy last August that  “benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision.”

The European reply, titled “Cultural Bias in the AAP’s 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision,” says that “seen from the outside, cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious. The report’s conclusions are different from those reached by physicians in other parts of the Western world.”

In the academy's report, the benefits attributed to circumcision — including protection against HIV, genital herpes, genital warts and penile cancer — are “questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves,” the European authors wrote.

A large percentage of non-Jewish males in the United States are circumcised, whereas in Europe the custom is limited almost exclusively to Jews and Muslims.

The European physicians found only one argument put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics to have “some theoretical relevance”: the possible protection circumcision offers against urinary tract infections in infant boys. But, they wrote, this “can easily be treated with antibiotics without tissue loss.”

Approximately half of the European physicians are from Scandinavian countries, where several political parties have stated their opposition to circumcision as a form of “child abuse” or an unwanted phenomenon of immigration by Muslims.

German Parliament passes law guaranteeing legality of ritual circumcision


The German Parliament passed a law protecting the right of Jewish and Muslim parents to choose a ritual circumcision for their sons, after months of heated debate over efforts to ban the practice.

In all, 434 legislators voted Wednesday for the new law proposed by the federal government; there were 100 votes against, and 46 abstentions.

The decision was applauded by Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said in a statement that he was “pleased and relieved … The circumcision law finally brings legal security and hopefully brings this highly disastrous debate, which marked this past year, to an end.”

The new law, which introduces restrictions on the practice for the first time, requires that the procedure be carried out by a medically trained and certified practitioner such as a mohel, or ritual circumciser, or by a medical professional, and that anesthetic be used if needed. For a child over 6 months old, the procedure must be done in a hospital.

The campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a Muslim minor was a criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom.

Graumann said in his statement today that the law provided a sense of security that Jews and Muslims could continue to practice their faith in Germany. “In my view, the recent debate was also a tolerance test for our society. And I am very glad that we have passed the test.”

German lawmakers propose barring circumcision before age 14


Some 50 lawmakers in Germany have signed on to a proposal that would bar ritual circumcision for boys under the age of 14.

The lawmakers — from the left-wing Social Democratic, Left and Greens parties — are hoping to preempt a bill that would allow Jewish and Muslim parents to choose ritual circumcision for an infant son under strict regulations including medical training for the circumciser and the use of anesthesia. The bill allowing ritual circumcision, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, was submitted last month.

Under the new proposal, the non-medical circumcision of infants would be prohibited and the procedure would have to be carried out by a trained urologist or pediatric surgeon, according to German news reports. The legislators reportedly insist that the child himself should be able to decide whether or not to allow “such a serious interference with his bodily integrity.”

The proposal was submitted to the Parliament by three lawmakers.The new attempt  is expected to meet vigorous opposition in the Bundestag.

The current campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, which is led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a minor was criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom. 

Though the bill submitted in October introduces new restrictions on a ritual practiced without interruption for centuries in Germany, Jewish and Muslim groups have praised it as a way to protect their religious freedom against increasing onslaughts by opponents of circumcision. The new measure would undermine that security.

Jewish groups sue NYC over circumcision rule


Orthodox Jewish groups have sued New York City to block a required warning to parents of the dangers of a ritual in which the circumciser uses his mouth to draw blood from the baby's penis.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Federal District Court in Manhattan by the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, the International Bris Association and several individual circumcisers. It contends that the regulation, which conditions the ritual on parental consent, is unconstitutional and violates religious freedom by targeting a Jewish practice.

The rule, adopted unanimously by the New York City Board of Health last month, is aimed at reducing the risk that infants will contract herpes from the ancient ritual, known as metzitzah b'peh.

Using oral suction to take blood from the area of the circumcision wound is common in some of New York's ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

At least 11 boys contracted herpes from the practice between 2004 and 2011, according to city health officials. Two of them died from the disease and two others suffered brain damage, they said.

Under the rule, parents must sign a consent form that says the health department advises that “direct oral suction should not be performed” because of the risk of contracting herpes.

“It is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice,” City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said in a statement.

The lawsuit says the city's conclusion that the ritual increases the risk of herpes is based on a flawed analysis and is not statistically sound.

German Cabinet schedules circumcision amendment


Germany's Cabinet has scheduled a discussion on an amendment that would formally legalize ritual circumcision but place some restrictions on who could circumcise and how.

The discussion was set for Oct. 10, the German paper Die Welt reported. To become law, the amendment needs to pass a vote in the Bundestag.

Amendment 1631d to the law code on the rights of children was devised following a controversial ruling in May by a court in Cologne that said circumcision amounted to a criminal act.

If passed, the amendment would legalize religious circumcision of male minors when performed by a person who is medically qualified; with parental consent and under anaesthesia. Under the amendment, mohels, or Jewish ritual circumcisers, would be able to continue perform circumcisions if they obtain the relevant medical qualification.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has said in a statement that “it is especially welcome to hear that circumcision will not be regulated by criminal law but by family law.” He called the amendment “a step in the right direction.”

Representatives of the Green Party, the Social Democrats and the Left Party already have protested the new proposal, according to the German news agency DPA, calling it “alarming” that the protection of a child from bodily harm seems to have taken secondary importance.

German state of Berlin declares circumcision legal


The state of Berlin declared circumcision legal.

Berlin became the first of Germany's 16 states to declare the practice legal following a Cologne court ruling in June that non-medical circumcisions on children amounted to a criminal offense, according to the German news agency DPA. National legislation is pending to legalize circumcision.

The state of Berlin has authorized only doctors, and not mohels, to perform circumcisions; the national legislation could authorize mohels. The state also required that parents be informed of the procedure’s medical risks before consenting, and that doctors do everything possible during the procedure to reduce pain and limit bleeding.

June’s court ruling has led many doctors to stop performing circumcisions in order to avoid being prosecuted. Two rabbis have had complaints brought against them based on the ruling, though one complaint was dropped last week.

Tasmanian state body recommends banning nonreligious circumcision


An advisory governmental institution in an Australian state is recommending that it ban non-medical circumcision on boys “except for religious reasons.”

The Tasmania Law Reform Institute – whose task is to modernize state laws – recommended “the enactment of a new and separate offence generally prohibiting the circumcision of incapable minors in Tasmania.” The state has “unclear” legislation on circumcision, the 101-page report says.

However, the report – which was released earlier this month – states the new legislation ought to create an exception for “some well-established religious or ethnicity motivated circumcision.”

More than half a million people live in Tasmania, according to a 2011 government census. About 150 Jews were living in the Australian state as of 2003, according to the New York Jewish Week.

Tasmania – one of six Australian states – founded the institute in 2001 along with the University of Tasmania and the Law Society of Tasmania.

Circumcision should not be performed on minors in any case without signed permission from both parents, according to the report.

The institute also wants to clarify what happens if parents disagree on whether a circumcision should be done and it says that a circumciser who fails to meet a certain standard of care should be criminally liable.

Israeli chief rabbi visits Berlin on circumcision issue


Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi said in Berlin that medical training for mohels, or ritual circumcisers, could resolve concerns in Germany regarding circumcision of male children.

In meetings Tuesday with government officials and Berlin’s Jewish community, Rabbi Yonah Metzger noted that mohels could be trained and certified by German doctors. But he emphasized that the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has to make final decision on whether a mohel is up to par.

The suggestion echoes that of the Brussels-based Conference of European Rabbis, which in July announced that Germany’s mainstream Orthodox rabbinical body, the ORD, would create an association of mohels to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists. This project already “is in the works,” Israel Meller, ORD administrator, told JTA Tuesday.

At issue is a ruling in May by a Cologne district court, which said that the circumcision of male infants may be done for only medical reasons. All other circumcisions of a minor would be considered inflicting bodily harm, according to the ruling. The case involved the circumcision of a Muslim boy, but affects both Jews and Muslims.

Although ritual circumcision remains legal, some hospitals have ceased offering the procedure while the debate rages. Meanwhile, mohels continue to perform ritual
circumcisions at private homes or synagogues, far from the public eye. Germany’s parliament has indicated it will step in with a law to protect ritual circumcision for Jews and Muslims.

Germany currently has an estimated 10 Jewish mohels, including women, who also are medical doctors specializing in urology. It is not clear whether they would receive the OK from a traditional rabbinate, however.

Jewish tradition requires that boys be circumcised on the 8th day after birth; postponement is possible in the case of illness.

Metzger addressed the Jewish community at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin on Monday, in a talk sponsored by the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center of Berlin, several Chabad-related educational institutions in Berlin, Keren Hayesod and other local Jewish associations.

On Tuesday, the rabbi was accompanied by Berlin Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal in meetings with government officials. According to Die Welt newspaper, Metzger said that a proper brit milah does not cause suffering: “We give the infant a drop of sweet wine and then he falls asleep,” he said, adding that in the rare case of complications, doctors and not mohels are usually to blame.

German rabbi criminally charged for performing circumcisions


A rabbi in Bavaria has been slapped with criminal charges of committing bodily harm, in the first known case to arise from an anti-circumcision ruling in May.

The charge against Rabbi David Goldberg, who is a mohel, or ritual circumciser , means that the May decision in the state of Hesse has been applied in Bavaria, confirming the fears of Jewish leaders here that the local ruling would have a wider impact.

Goldberg, 64, a Jerusalem native living in Hof Saale in Bavaria, told JTA he had not yet received a notice from the court. He said he would decide what to do after he had seen it. The charge was confirmed to the main Jewish newspaper of Germany, the
Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung.

The rabbi also said he did not know what act the charges could refer to, since he has not performed any circumcisions recently in Germany. “Only abroad: in Budapest, in the Czech Republic, in Italy,” he said.

Still, the rabbi said no secular ruling would stop him from performing brit milah in the country. If a family in Germany came to him with a request to perform a circumcision, Goldberg said he would ask the Central Council of Jews in Germany what to do. “A few weeks ago, they said, ‘You can continue,’” he said.

Goldberg said regional journalists had informed him of the suit, saying it had been filed by a doctor in the state of Hessen who had gathered 600 signatures on an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that supported the anti-circumcision ruling. Merkel and the German parliament have said, however, that they intend to push for legislation to ensure that Jews and Muslims have the right to carry out the religious ritual.

The original ruling in May related to a Muslim family in Cologne whose son suffered complications after his circumcision. The court found that non-medical circumcision of a minor is a criminal act. Although the ruling was local, it has alarmed traditional Jews and Muslims across the country. Virtually all Jewish denominations have joined in condemning the ruling. This week, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yonah Metzger, was in Berlin for high level meetings on the issue.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence shows that Jewish ritual circumcisions continue to be performed in Germany despite the ruling’s chilling effect. Although several hospitals have declared moratoriums on the practice for now, brit milah is being performed in private homes and in synagogues.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, said of the lawsuit: “This latest development in Hof, Germany, is yet another grave affront to religious freedom and underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected.”

Norwegian official: Jews, Muslims should replace circumcision with ‘symbolic’ ritual


Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights has proposed that Jews and Muslim replace male circumcision with a symbolic, nonsurgical ritual.

Dr. Anne Lindboe told the newspaper Vart Land last month that circumcision in boys was a violation of a person’s right to decide over his own body.

“Muslim and Jewish children are entitled to the same protection as all other children,“ she said, adding that the practice caused unnecessary pain and was medically unbeneficial.

Lindboe, a pediatrician, was appointed ombudsman in June. Her predecessor, Reidar Hjermann, proposed setting 15 as the minimum age for circumcision. According to Jewish religious law, Jewish babies must be circumcised when they are eight days old.

The children’s ombudsman is an independent governmental institution entrusted with safeguarding the rights of minors.

Ervin Kohn, president of the Jewish Community of Oslo, said that Norwegian Jews “will not be able to live in a society where circumcision is forbidden.” He noted that the mandate of Norway’s children’s ombudsman did not extend to devising Jewish rituals. Norway has a Jewish community of about 700.

In June, a spokesperson for Norway’s Centre Party, which has 11 out of 169 seats in parliament, proposed a ban on circumcising babies.

Health issue or anti-Semitism: Switzerland joins German circumcision ban


Today come reports that hospitals in Zurich and St. Gallen have suspended the practice on Jewish and Muslim boys in the wake of a similar ban in Germany ordered by a judge in Cologne.

Judges in Cologne concluded that circumcision, even when performed by a doctor, is considered “bodily harm,” since a boy under age 14 years cannot legally give consent. And now Berlin’s Jewish Hospital banned this procedure out of fear that its Doctors could face prosecution and even incarceration.  The Netherlands had banned circumcision stating that ‘it was ritual slaughter’, but recently reversed this ruling.

Great Britain’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi said that a ban on circumcision was mandated by two of the Jewish peoples’s worst enemies – the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

Believe it or not, an American city, San Francisco, was set to vote to proscribe one of the central rituals of an entire religious community, the Jewish people, who have been circumcising male infants since the time of Abraham.  Fortunately, the vote was postponed.  Many Muslims, of course, also practice circumcision, while millions of other American parents have eagerly supported this procedure for their infants for hygienic or health reasons.  To add fuel to the fire, anyone who performs a circumcision may be fined $1000 or be committed to a year in jail if this vote was affirmative.  Mark Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Committee, said, “This is the most direct assault on Jewish religious practice in the United States.  It is unprecedented in Jewish life.”  The proponents of the bill insist that circumcision is “mutilation and barbaric.  Under pressure, the vote did not materialize.

Russell Crowe (the actor) said: “Circumcision is barbaric and stupid.  Who are you to correct nature?”  Is the “You” the Jew?  ” But do not be concerned,” Russell Crowe continues.  “I have many Jewish friends.  I love my Jewish friends.  I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats, but stop cutting your babies,” he declared.  Who gave him a moral authority that he knows what is best for Jews, Muslims, and others who prefer the benefits of circumcision for their male children.

Anti-circumcision activists have been speaking out against circumcision for decades, but in the last several years the San Diego-based advocacy group has prepared anti-circumcision legislation for 46 states.  The head of the group says that “his circumcision as an infant resulted in diminished sexual sensitivity as an adult.”  Is this double-speak?  How would he know the difference?  Does he know for a fact that his limitations or an inability to have sexual gratification is a result of his circumcision?  Does he conclude that for thousands of years, no Jews or Muslims or billions of other people have had no or limited sexual satisfaction?  There are some data to suggest the opposite – that removal of the foreskin allows greater gratification.   

MEDICAL CONCERNS:

The warm, moist mucosal environment under the foreskin favors growth of microorganisms creating an environment that could lead to infection both to the man himself and his sexual partner(s)

Paraphimosis is a condition in which the skin that normally folds over the penis, the foreskin, tightens and retracts and cannot return to its normal position over the head of the penis.  If not corrected, the penis will swell and the blood flow to the head may be cut off, damaging the tissue.  It is usually caused by inflammation or infection of the foreskin and may be associated with poor personal hygiene.  Paraphimosis can only occur in uncircumcised men.  Treatment includes circumcision on an emergency basis.

Phimosis occurs when the distal foreskin cannot be retracted over the glans penis.  In the infant, the foreskin normally cannot be retracted over the glans and should not be forced.  With normal growth and stretching of the foreskin, it will become retractable in 90% of children by the age of 6 years.  However, local irritation or infection (balanoposthitis) can cause an abnormal constriction of the foreskin, preventing it from retracting normally.  Often there is pain and swelling, which may be associated with infection of the glans.  Occasionally, a urinary tract infection is present.  A circumcision is indicated particularly when there is superimposed balanitis, balanoposthitis, urinary tract infection, or obstruction.

Balanitis and balanoposthitis are infections of the glans and foreskin.  It is most commonly found in uncircumcised males and frequently presents during the preschool years.  Balanitis may be caused by entrapment of organisms under a poorly retractable foreskin—gram-negative or gram-positive bacterial organisms may be causative, and recently, group A beta hemolytic strep has been implicated.  Monilia infections (yeast) are also associated with balanoposthitis in infants.  Syphilis should also be considered. 

Signs and symptoms include swelling, erythema, penile discharge, pain on urination, bleeding, and occasionally ulceration of the glans.  Additionally, a careful examination of the base of the penis should be performed to look for a strand of hair, which may cause strangulation and edema.

Various types of injuries and trauma can involve the foreskin.  One extremely painful example is when the foreskin “gets caught” in the zipper of the boy’s pants, resulting in an extremely painful emergency situation requiring immediate circumcision.

BENEFITS OF CIRCUMCISION

The benefits of circumcision include: (1) decrease in many types of infections (2) decrease in “strangulation” of the penis; (3) lower incidence of inflammation of the head of the penis, (4) reduced urinary tract infections, (5) fewer problems with erections, (6) a decrease in certain sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, HPV, genital herpes, syphilis, and other microorganisms in men and their partners, (7) almost complete elimination of invasive penile cancer,  (8) a decrease in urological problems generally, and (9) prevention of the foreskin getting “stuck in the zipper.”

An article was published in Lancet on January 6, 2011, written by Maria Wawer, et al. from Johns Hopkins University and Rakai, Uganda.  Male circumcision has been linked to a reduction of HPV infection in men and a reduced risk for cervical neoplasia in women with circumcised partners.  The results showed a significant reduction of 28% in the prevalence of high-risk HPV infection in female partners of circumcised males.  Male circumcision also reduced the incidence of high-risk HPV in women.  The authors suggest the reduced penile HPV carriage may explain the way in which circumcision helps prevent HPV infection in women.  The authors conclude that their findings indicate that male circumcision should now be accepted as an efficacious intervention for reducing the prevalence and incidence of HPV infections in female partners.

Problems involving the penis are not rare in pediatric practice.  A study by Wiswell (1980-1985) looked at 136,000 boys born in U.S. Army hospitals, where 100,000 were circumcised, and there was less than 0.01% complications, which were mostly minor with no deaths.  But of the 36,000 who were not circumcised, the problems were more than ten times higher and there were two deaths (Wiswell and Hachey, 1993).

THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

The WHO and several Centers for Disease Control support circumcision as a preventative measure against HIV transmission.

SOCIETAL AND POLITICAL PRESSURE

There are recent alarming reports of harassment by medical professionals of new mothers (especially Jews) in an attempt to stop them from having this procedure carried out.  There has been a trend by pediatric organizations to skirt the truth in favor of what could be viewed as “New Age political correctness,” spurious “human rights” rhetoric, or perhaps fear of litigation stemming from a very, very unlikely surgical mishap.

Is it remotely possible that we are beginning to experience the events of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany – where governmental rules were “codified and classified and recorded to ensure the proper conduct of current and future generations.”?


Dr. Norman Lavin is a clinical professor at UCLA Medical School.

European rabbis protest circumcision bans, plan to lobby


The Conference of European Rabbis will lobby against recent circumcision bans by advocating legislation supporting the practice.

This week, hospitals in Switzerland and a province of Austria announced that they would stop allowing ritual circumcision.

The German lower house of parliament passed a non-binding resolution last week to protect the religious circumcision of infant boys after a district court ban on the practice outraged Muslims and Jews.

“Our fears that the court ruling in Cologne, Germany, could have a knock-on effect across Europe are now being realized,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis. “We must send out the clearest possible message that campaigners against infant circumcision are themselves threatening the human rights of our children in the most fundamental way.”

Rabbinic leaders in Austria and Switzerland have already begun the advocacy process.

“We are working with the government and hope to achieve a commitment for developing specific legislation,” said Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of Vienna.

On Tuesday, Gov. Markus Wallner of the Vorarlberg province in Austria ordered doctors to stop performing infant circumcision for religious reasons until the legal status of the procedure is clarified.

“This is a subject that has to be regulated countrywide,” he said.

The French news agency AFP reported that the children’s hospital in Graz, the capital of the southeastern province of Styria, also has ceased scheduling infant circumcisions.

On Monday, U.S. military doctors in Germany declared that they would continue to perform ritual circumcision.

U.S. military doctors in Germany will continue circumcision


U.S. military doctors stationed in Germany will continue to perform circumcisions despite a ruling that has roiled the country’s medical and political establishments.

Stars and Stripes on July 23 quoted U.S. officials as saying that a decision by a Cologne court banning circumcision for nonmedical reasons applies only in that jurisdiction, where there are no U.S. military facilities.

Should a court in a region where the U.S. military has facilities ban the practice, the policy will be reviewed, the officials told the newspaper.

A number of German and Swiss doctors have stopped the practice until the legal implications of the Cologne court’s ruling are fully understood.

Jewish and Muslim groups have protested the rulings, and German lawmakers have taken legislative steps toward protecting the practice.

German circumcision ban unites religions, worries doctors


A German court’s ban on circumcising baby boys has provoked a rare show of unity between Jews, Muslims and Christians who see it as a threat to religious freedom, while doctors warn it could increase health risks by forcing the practice underground.

European rabbis meeting in Berlin on Thursday promised to defy the ruling by a court in the city of Cologne last month. They plan further talks with Muslim and Christian leaders in Stuttgart next week to see how they can fight the ban together.

“We urge the Jewish community in Germany and circumcisers to continue to perform circumcisions and not to wait for a change in the law,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the three-day meeting.

Goldschmidt says the ban poses a threat to the existence of the Jewish community in Germany and is a new example of creeping prejudice in European law against non-Christians, after a Swiss ban on minarets, French and Belgian bans on Islamic veils in public, and an attempted Dutch ban on halal meat.

The Cologne court took action after police were alerted by a doctor who treated a Muslim boy for bleeding after he underwent circumcision. It emphasized it did not ban circumcision, but wanted families to wait until their sons were older. So far the ban applies only to the area of the Cologne court’s jurisdiction.

In a country that is sensitive to charges of intolerance and discrimination, especially against Jews because of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two, many politicians including the foreign minister have criticized the ruling.

Germany is home to about 120,000 Jews and 4 million Muslims. Many of the latter are originally from Turkey, which also condemned last month’s court ruling.

The rabbis have lobbied members of the German and European parliaments to push for legislation that would stop the ban from being copied by other parts of Germany and Europe. This could be done via a law to exempt religious minorities, similar to that which permits the religious preparation of kosher and halal meat.

Jewish and Muslim religious leaders met European Parliament officials in Brussels this week to complain about what they called “an affront to our basic religious and human rights”.

Germany’s opposition Greens promised on Thursday to help seek legislation that would entrench religious freedoms for Jews and Muslims.

“After the summer break we want to discuss with experts and relevant groups whether there is a way to tackle this problem in a legal way and to guarantee the legal rights of Jews and Muslims,” said senior Green lawmaker Renate Kuenast.

HEALTH RISKS

Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth, while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.

“Circumcision represents the basis for belonging to the Jewish community. It has been practiced for 4,000 years and cannot be changed,” Goldschmidt told a news conference.

The 40 rabbis attending the Berlin conference decided to gather Jewish circumcisers in Germany into one association to further guarantee safety standards in the operation.

“Jewish families having babies now don’t know how to behave because they are afraid. Circumcisers continuously call us to ask whether they can perform circumcisions or not. Things cannot continue like this,” said German rabbi Avichai Apel.

The head of the German Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, said the ban meant there was “an increased risk of this task being performed by lay people which, because of poor hygiene conditions, could lead to serious complications”.

But Montgomery said he sadly had to advise his colleagues to refrain from performing the operation until the legal situation had been clarified, “otherwise they could face prosecution”.

The World Health Organisation cites research showing that male circumcision can reduce the risk of AIDS, and 44 members of parliament in Zimbabwe underwent circumcision in June to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS.

Germany’s ambassador to Israel has assured lawmakers there that Berlin will try to resolve the problem quickly, while the justice minister has advised the Jewish and Muslim communities to seek redress via Germany’s Constitutional Court.

“I see that within a democracy there are different bodies taking part in the lawmaking process but from our point of view, the deadline is not tomorrow but yesterday,” responded Rabbi Goldschmidt.

He warned that many of Germany’s Jewish community, which has grown from just 3,000 in 1945 following the Holocaust, could end up emigrating if Germany cannot ensure full religious freedom.

Writing by Stephen Brown and Gareth Jones, editing by Mark Trevelyan

Germany’s Jews won’t be punished for circumcisions


Germany’s Jews and Muslims will not be punished for breaking the law if they carry out circumcisions on young boys, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said.

“For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Friday according to Reuters. “Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”

Earlier this week Europe’s main Orthodox rabbinical body held an emergency meeting in Berlin after a Cologne court ruling that said the religious ritual could be considered a criminal act. Regardless, the rabbis urged Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons.

The decision came in the ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision. The Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent. The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts.

In a press conference held Thursday at the Amano Hotel in central Berlin, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization was ready to back Jews in challenging the May ruling by a Cologne district court, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals.  Rabbi Goldschmidt did not give details about what actions his group could take.

The rabbinical conference also announced that it is joining with the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany to create an association of mohels, or ritual circumcisers, to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists

Goldschmidt, who is chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA he didn’t think “that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment.”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has condemned the court’s decision and promised to work with German lawmakers to reverse the ruling. Muslim groups also have proposed bringing a test case to German courts.

Goldschmidt said his rabbinical group applauded the Central Council’s action and wanted to back it with moral and religious encouragement on a European level. He also said that the rabbinical conference had received assurances from Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, that the German government will work on legislation to rectify the legal situation.

Seibert, according to Reuters, said that Merkel’s office would continue to work to resolve the legal issues.

The German Medical Association has advised doctors to not perform circumcisions until the legal questions are resolved, according to Reuters.

Rabbis to meet in Berlin to protest circumcision ban


Jewish religious leaders will hold an international meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to a German court ruling against performing circumcision on baby boys, which also sparked protests from Muslims and Christians in Germany.

A court in the western city of Cologne caused an uproar in June by ruling in the case of a Muslim boy who suffered bleeding after such an operation that circumcision causes bodily harm and should only be performed on males old enough to give consent.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis told Reuters on Monday that it was part of a trend to limit religious freedom in Europe that was targeting Jewish and Muslim traditions such as circumcision and the religious slaughter of animals for meat.

“We see this decision by a German court in the context of a new European intolerance towards other religions,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the meeting to be held in Berlin on Tuesday.

He cited a Swiss ban on building new minarets on mosques, a French ban on women wearing Islamic veils in public and a failed Dutch bid to outlaw kosher and halal meat prepared by Jewish and Muslim butchers as other examples of legislation inspired by resentment at growing Muslim immigration.

Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Germany denounced the Cologne verdict as an infringement of religious freedom.

Germany’s foreign minister also spoke out, arguing tolerant modern societies such as Germany should permit such faith-based traditions. Turkey protested too, while the U.N. special rapporteur on religious freedom called the ruling “nonsense”.

Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews.

The German ambassador to Israel appeared before a panel of its parliament on Monday to try to ease concerns the ruling, which he referred to as a “particularly sensitive” issue after the Nazi Holocaust, an Israeli statement said.

INFANTS

Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told the Diaspora Affairs Committee that the Cologne ruling pertained to only that region and that three German political parties were “advancing legislation to anchor the right to circumcision”, it said.

The statement released by the Israeli committee quoted Michaelis as saying: “Clearly, the subject of a ruling on the issue of banning circumcision is particularly sensitive in Germany, because of its guilt for the Holocaust.”

“But it is important to emphasize that the Jewish communities in Germany are growing and thriving,” it said.

Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon, the committee chairman, said at the session that “circumcision is one of the foundations of Judaism and the last time it was restricted was in Germany at its darkest hour”.

The Nazis killed 6 million Jews across Europe during World War Two, in addition to perpetrating legal and other forms of persecution against them for being members of their faith.

Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.

Rabbi Goldschmidt was speaking from Israel where he had also addressed parliament on the issue and said he hoped Germany might use legislation to get round the Cologne court ruling.

The Cologne court, which took action after the doctor who treated the boy for bleeding notified police, did not recommend a minimum age for circumcision.

A jurist involved in the debate, professor Holm Putzke from Passau University, says many doctors object to circumcisions that are not medically necessary, but he did not know whether other German courts would copy Cologne’s ruling.

Goldschmidt, whose organization represents about 700 rabbis, said he had witnessed many circumcisions on baby boys and adults – “and the older you get, the bigger surgery it is, needing more stitches and healing more slowly”.

Goldschmidt added that many health organizations recommended circumcision to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, while it was very widespread in the United States among non-Muslim and non-Jewish families.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams

German court ruling on circumcision riles Jewish community


Germany’s top Jewish leader called on the federal Parliament “to ensure religious freedom” following a Cologne court ruling that said circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm.

Though Monday’s decision by the District Court of Cologne does not outlaw circumcision, it is still “outrageous and insensitive,” Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Ritual circumcision by a medical doctor or a mohel with “medical competency” is “an integral part of the Jewish faith that has been practiced around the world for millennium,” he added. “This right is respected in every country of the world.”

The court ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

The decision involved the circumcision of a Muslim boy in Cologne. The parents took their 4-year-old to a hospital several days after his ritual circumcision in 2010 after they became concerned about bleeding from the incision.

According to reports, the bleeding was normal and quickly brought under control. However, local prosecutors filed suit against the doctor. A lower court ruled on behalf of religious freedom and the right of parents to decide.

On appeal, however, a higher court gave precedence to the right of the child to be protected from bodily harm and that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

The doctor was acquitted on all charges, but the ruling suggests that those performing circumcisions in the future could be committing a criminal offense, since the court holds the right of the child sacrosanct.

Berlin attorney Nathan Gelbart worries about the notion that “the parents have to accept that only the child can decide about his religion when he grows up, and that circumcision is a pre-decision” being forced on the child.

Other courts are not restricted by the decision of the Cologne court, one of 55 district courts. The ruling could be appealed to a higher court, and is not binding unless there is a decision by the High Court of Justice or High Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau who has argued for several years for a ban on involuntary circumcision, told JTA that he hoped the ruling would spark discussion in Germany about “what should be given more weight, religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated.”

In late 1999, Germany’s top court ruled in favor of religious freedom, protecting the right to Islamic ritual slaughter and, by association, kosher slaughter. The ruling came after an Islamic butcher challenged a 1995 German law banning the slaughter of animals without stunning them first, which is against the laws of kosher and halal.

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