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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Opinion: Maybe San Francisco will wake Jews up


If San Francisco succeeds in banning circumcision, some good may come of it.

Let me explain. I am a passionate advocate of Jewish ritual circumcision — the ritual circumcision of 8-day-old Jewish boys. I am even an advocate of circumcision generally. I was recently in Africa — in Zimbabwe and Zambia — where I delivered mosquito nets and seeds to the poorest of Africa’s poor. I saw giant billboards there, as well as in neighboring Botswana, exhorting men to get circumcised. The World Health Organization estimates that male circumcision reduces the rate of heterosexually transmitted AIDS by about 60 percent.

As regards Jewish ritual circumcision, I can only say that I cried like a baby at the brit milah of my two sons. All I could think of was that I had been given the gift of transmitting Jewish identity in an unbroken chain that dates back to Abraham, 3,600 years ago.

I find the arguments of those who campaign against the brit milah either specious or ludicrous. The notion that some terrible, lasting pain is inflicted on the baby is over the top. The average time the baby cries is probably well under the time it cries — and far less frantic than — when tired or desiring milk. I fully understand the conflicted feelings of the mother, and I see no reason for her to be present.

Does the baby experience pain and discomfort afterward? Yes. But it is temporary, and the baby heals quickly.

The advantages wildly outweigh the momentary pain. The brit uniquely strengthens a Jew’s commitment to Judaism and instills in the family and the community a profound identification with the Jewish people and with nearly four millennia of world-changing values.

As for the argument that the foreskin is important, I can only say that in my most self-pitying moments I cannot recall lamenting not having foreskin. As I have told anti-circumcision activists on my radio show, you have to be pretty bored with life to be preoccupied with not having your foreskin.

One might add that the same people who are profoundly upset over the removal of foreskin rarely have a problem with the removal of a living human fetus. San Francisco considers protecting the human fetus religious fanaticism, but is seriously considering protecting a newborn’s foreskin.

So, then, given my profound support for circumcision, what good could possibly come from San Francisco passing a ban on it?

If the most left-wing major city in America starts arresting Jews who have their children circumcised in that city, some American Jews might awaken to the threat to Jews posed by the left. Obviously, San Francisco’s already-existing bans on toys in Happy Meals, on soda in city-owned places and on plastic bags, and the city’s proposed ban on the sale of pets, even goldfish, have not moved many Jews (and non-Jews) to begin wondering whether left-wing governance is dangerous. But perhaps a ban on circumcision will.

Of course, not everyone who is on the left — and certainly not the traditional liberal — is an enemy of the Jews. But, aside from Islamists, virtually all the enemies of the Jews are on the left.

The worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel, i.e., to pave the way for moral acceptance of Israel’s destruction — is virtually all on the left. Universities in America and elsewhere in the Western world as well as the mainstream news media outlets around the globe are all dominated by the left, and they drum into their students’ and readers’ and listeners’ and viewers’ minds that Israel is one of the worst societies on earth.

Yet, most American Jews still walk around thinking that Christians and the right are their enemies when, in fact, they are the best friends Jews have in the world today. From the present conservative Canadian government, which is probably the most vocal pro-Israel country in the world today, to every major right-wing talk host in America (including the pro-Jewish and pro-Israel Glenn Beck, who has been libeled as an anti-Semite), to the leader of Holland’s right-wing party and member of the Dutch parliament, Geert Wilders (one of the most eloquent pro-Israel voices in Europe today), to conservative writer Kevin Myers, the most pro-Israel columnist in Ireland, to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page — the right is where our friends are.

For all these reasons, there is this still, small voice inside me that hopes that if San Francisco bans circumcision, a few more Jews will put two and two together and begin to realize that this is merely one more expression of the threat the left in America and elsewhere poses to the Jewish people.

What will it take for this generation of Jewish leftists to realize what Arthur Koestler, perhaps the most prominent Jewish leftist of a previous generation, came to realize — that leftism is “the god that failed”? A San Francisco ban on the oldest practice of the Jewish people? The City of Berkeley declaring Marines “unwelcome intruders”? PETA arguing that there is no moral difference between barbecuing chickens and cremating Jews? The ostracizing of the Jewish state from the world community by institutions dominated by the left?

Whatever it takes, the sooner the better.

Few Females Filling Mohel Role in U.S.


When Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai watched her son’s brit milah two years ago, she thought to herself, I could do this better. Not just technically, although as a pediatrician she had done numerous medical circumcisions. She felt she could bring a warmth and spiritual beauty to the ritual in ways her old-school mohel, who she said “rushed through” the ceremony, did not.

Last April, Weiss-Ishai completed the Reform movement’s Berit Mila program, an intensive 35-hour certification course for physicians and nurse-midwives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She now has performed seven or eight Jewish ritual circumcisions in the San Francisco Bay area.

Weiss-Ishai spends hours preparing for each brit milah, working with the family to make sure the ceremony fits their needs, determining the level of Hebrew they want, incorporating friends and relatives and personalizing it with readings and poetry. Doing this work is her way of helping to ensure Jewish continuity, she said.

Weiss-Ishai is one of just a few female mohels in the United States. There are about 35 Reform female mohels and just four trained by the U.S. Conservative movement, as well as a handful who learned outside the United States.

It’s not surprising that throughout Jewish history mohels have been men. Circumcision is, after all, a guy thing. Beyond the obvious anatomical requirements, it’s something the Torah commands a father, not a mother, to do for his son on the eighth day of life.

What is surprising, however, is that while half of all new non-Orthodox rabbis and cantors in this country are women, few women are choosing to become mohels.

Yet unlike rabbis and cantors, there is no halachic prohibition against female mohels. Every Orthodox authority consulted for this story agreed on that point, although most asked not to be quoted. Jewish law states only that if a Jewish male is present, it’s preferable that he do the brit milah.

“It’s a custom, a strong custom, but there’s no law except that the mohel be Jewish,” said Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila program. “People assume it’s not according to halacha, but they just haven’t encountered it. Some people think it’s a man’s job, that it just feels weird” for a woman to do a brit milah.

Unlike physicians, mohels in the United States are not regulated, and technically, anyone can act as mohel if the parents trust him or her to perform the operation on their infant son. Traditionally, it’s been a profession passed on from father to son; even today, Orthodox and many Conservative mohels learn by apprenticing with a senior mohel, usually in Israel.

The Reform and Conservative movements set up their training programs because there were so few traditionally trained mohels available to serve the non-Orthodox community. The non-Orthodox movements, especially the Reform movement, needed their own mohels because Orthodox mohels generally are reluctant to circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother.

The Reform program, which has trained about 300 mohels since it began in 1984, and the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, which has trained about 75, both accept only physicians or nurse-midwives who already are experts in medical circumcision. The programs teach them the relevant halacha, rituals and textual background to perform a Jewish brit milah.

The training is similar, though Conservative mohels generally won’t circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother unless the parents intend to convert the child.

Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), said there was no problem admitting women to the Conservative program, which is run jointly by JTS and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We considered it, we deliberated it and then we said, frankly it’s easier to train women for this role than to count them in the minyan,” Roth recalled. “We know it hasn’t been done historically, but there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t.”

The mohelot interviewed for this article said most clients choose them because of their reputation, not because they’re female.

“It works both ways,” said Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse-midwife in Anaheim, who became a mohel in 1986 and has since circumcised both her grandsons.

“Some people are pretty up front when they call,” she said. “They say they chose me because I’m female. And sometimes, you do what you think is a beautiful service and the grandfather comes up to you afterward and says you shouldn’t be doing it because you’re a woman.”

Dr. Lillian Schapiro said she “braced for a backlash” when the Atlanta Jewish Times ran a front-page story on her four years ago. It never came.

“There was one op-ed against me, but I didn’t feel personally attacked,” she said.

Gelbaum wasn’t as lucky. Beginning with a lecture she delivered in 1990 at the American College of Midwives conference in Atlanta, she’s been steadily targeted by the anti-circumcision movement. Protesters showed up at that first lecture bearing placards calling her a baby mutilator, she’s been vilified online and in print, and worst of all, she said, “They called my house, they talked to my children. They said, ‘Do you know what your mother does?'”

Gelbaum said she was targeted because she was so public. Although she’s now stopped lecturing about circumcision, she said it’s still not easy to talk about the campaign against her.

“I knew these people personally,” she said quietly. “And how much of it is anti-Semitism? Not only am I the vocal midwife, I’m the Jewish midwife.”

Female mohels said that as physicians, they feel comfortable doing circumcisions, and want to bring a Jewish aspect to what they already are doing.

Dr. April Rubin, an OB-GYN in Washington, had been doing circumcisions for more than 20 years when she became more observant. Two years ago, she completed the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, and has since done about 70 britei milah.

Some traditionally trained mohels look askance at these physician-mohels.

“They really don’t have a very solid background in the halacha,” said Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem. “They’re physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that’s unfortunate.”

The Conservative program requires applicants to be practicing members of Conservative congregations and ritually observant. The Reform program requires applicants to belong to any congregation, Reform or not, but makes no stipulations about ritual observance.

Some people choose a female mohel because of her gender, like Bay Area resident Nicole Sorger, who asked Weiss-Ishai to circumcise her son last November.

“The idea of having an old, bearded man was disconcerting, not being very religious,” Sorger said. Having Weiss-Ishai do the ceremony “broke up the idea of it being a male event, a patriarchal celebration. It made the ceremony so much more accessible to me.”

Dr. Laurie Radovsky, a Conservative mohel in St. Paul, Minn., circumcised her son 11 years ago in rural Wisconsin because no mohels lived nearby. Nine years later, she became a mohel herself.

Her male rabbi told her that women bring “a gentleness, a sensitivity” to the ceremony, but she said there are other advantages.

“With men, when you talk about circumcision, there’s an instinctive protecting of the genitals,” she said. “And as a mother, I can empathize with that mother’s feelings and tenderness toward that child. I can reassure her, perhaps more than a male mohel can.”

At the end of every brit milah, “sometimes surreptitiously,” Radovsky said she kisses the baby’s head to welcome him into the Jewish community.

“I really feel I can make a difference in the world,” she said.

 

Briefs


 

700 Gather to Protest Suicide Bombings

With the charred remains of Israeli Bus No. 19 as a backdrop, about 700 Angelenos gathered Jan. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance to take a stand against suicide bombings.

In a show of support with the community, guest speakers such as Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn; Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and Carrie Devorah, a free-lance journalist whose sibling perished on the bus, inveighed against the destruction wrought by suicide bombings.

“This is my brother Scotty,” said Devorah, clutching a framed picture of him while fighting back tears. “It’s all that’s left.”

At the exhibition, signatures were gathered to petition the United Nations to declare suicide bombing a crime against humanity. Hier said that the scourge of suicide bombings represented a clear and present danger that called for a unified response from the international community.

“This hate threatens all of us: Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths,” he said. “Today, these fanatics can murder thousands. Tomorrow, they will have the technology and know-how to murder and maim tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands and more.”

Bus No. 19 came freighted with controversy both for its message and the messenger. Some local Jewish groups opted not to attend the event, because they considered it exploitive, inflammatory and a hindrance to Arab-Jewish reconciliation. Peace Now, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles declined invitations to participate.

And then there’s the messenger. Jerusalem Connection, an Evangelical Christian group owns the bus, and the group’s leader has rankled some in the community. Dr. James M. Hutchens said in a recent interview that Palestinians are not a distinct people, that a religious war between Muslims on one side and Christians and Jews on the other is taking shape and that true Muslims believe in Jihad or holy war.

Hutchens’ beliefs prompted the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to ask event co-sponsor, the Wiesenthal Center, to call off the exhibit. The center denied CAIR’s request.– Mark Ballon, Senior Writer

Board of Rabbis to Lead Christian Clergy Israel Tour

The Southern California Board of Rabbis is taking a tour group to Israel next week, largely composed of Protestant clergy from churches often at odds with Israeli policies.

“Christians and Jews who visit Israel see different things,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “We tend to see things from the Israeli perspective; they tend to see things from the Palestinian perspective. This trip is an attempt to say, ‘Can we do one unified mission, where we visit Israel and also meet with the Palestinians, and see and do the same things?'”

Diamond organized the trip with support of the local Council of Religious Leaders, which he chairs, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds the Board of Rabbis. The Feb. 7-14 trip, with each of the 19 participants paying their own way, is centered on the council’s leadership of Jewish, Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders and will touch on Jewish-Protestant clashes over the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s calls last summer for divestment of church funds from companies doing business with Israel.

Traveling with Diamond and B’nai David Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will be local leaders from the Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, all of which have faced internal divestment debates.

Along with meeting Knesset members and Cabinet officials, the clergy tour group will meet Israeli journalists, such as Yossi Klein-Halevi; politicians from the recently elected Palestinian leadership; and Episcopalian/Anglican leaders at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Diamond said that Saturday, Feb. 12, will be a free day for the Christian clergy to tour Bethlehem and meet their Arab Christian counterparts. – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Sympathetic Ear

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, chaplain for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, went to the site of the recent Metrolink crash in Glendale to provide counseling and a sympathetic ear. As medical examiners and coroners were removing the 11th and final body from the wreckage, Kravitz rushed to their side and led them in a short prayer. – MB

Synagogue Raises Funds for Darfur Genocide Victims

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) hosted several-hundred people at its Jan. 31 Darfur awareness event, with the Encino synagogue announcing $45,000 in local Jewish donations for genocide victims in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“We fight with whatever weapons we have, and this is my weapon,” said actor Theodore Bikel, pointing to his guitar, before singing at the evening sponsored by the Conservative shul’s Jewish World Watch (JWW) group. Linking Jewish history to Africans slaughtered in Darfur, Bikel said, “It is always my fight. It is always our fight.”

Speakers stood at the bimah in front of a large picture showing a refugee mother and her child, with the headline, “Genocide in the Sudan: A Human Tsunami.” The event followed JWW’s mid-December Darfur event at the Skirball Cultural Center, which attracted more than 650 people.

Reform shuls Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills and Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, the UCLA Hillel and the Jewish Community Foundation, have been sponsoring the Darfur awareness evenings.

“God is not in the cause; God is in the response,” said VBS Rabbi Harold Schulweis. The rabbi is the driving force behind JWW raising the funds for the Santa Monica-based relief group, International Medical Corps, and its Darfur refugee work in neighboring Chad.

Another $13,000 has been donated to the corps by students at Milken Community High School, organizers said. Students have been wearing green Darfur awareness bands. VBS day school students have raised about $1,100.

Human-rights experts have estimated that about 10,000 people a month were killed last year in Darfur, most of the victims were tribal residents killed by Sudanese military and Arab terrorists.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who sits on the House International Relations Committee, told the VBS audience, “Many other countries do not seem to view the situation with the same gravity as we do.”

On April 6, Sinai Temple will host another Darfur evening with American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger. – DF

 

Bringing Back Traditions


The new Reform guidelines for converts to Judaism will have little effect on the many Reform rabbis who already employ many of the traditional practices suggested.

The guidelines, adopted last week by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm of some 1,800 rabbis, are deemed only suggestions and not requirements, and overturn a 19th-century platform which did away with such conversion rituals.

The new guidelines are the latest step in the Reform movement’s gradual return to tradition in recent years. They call for converts to go before a beit din (Jewish court), visit a mikvah (ritual bath) and for men, if already circumcised, to undergo a symbolic circumcision in which a drop of blood is drawn.

“I’ve always required everyone to go to the mikvah,” said Rabbi Steven Kaplan of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, Calif., adding that the new guidelines won’t change anything.

“With regard to circumcision, I’ve left it open. Sometimes they do the tipat dam [drop of blood], but I’ve also had where they went through a full circumcision.”

Rabbi Gerald Raiskin of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Calif., agreed. He said the new guidelines suggest “what we do already.”

For the past 20 years, Raiskin said he has required his converts to immerse themselves in the mikvah, and for male converts to undergo a symbolic circumcision. The only exception, he said, was made for adopted children who underwent conversion, and had already been circumcised.

Over the years, he said, “It’s gone from suggestion to requirement, and no one has even raised the issue.”

But Rabbi Richard Shapiro of Santa Barbara, Calif., who chairs the CCAR’s committee on conversion, said that in fact, the new guidelines place the emphasis on the process of conversion rather than the rituals themselves.

This includes the potential convert actively participating in a Jewish community for one year prior to the conversion, keeping a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

“We’re trying to improve the quality of the attention we give to people who are considering conversion,” he said. While many of his colleagues are already requiring certain rituals of converts, he said he hopes the document will influence those who are newly ordained.

“It sets a tone for where we are as a movement, so as new rabbis are ordained, those who aren’t using the practice will be influenced as they see consensus building,” Shapiro said.

As to whether the increased usage of mikvot among Reform Jews would require the building of new Reform-run ritual baths, Shapiro said, “It’s already started.

“Generally what we’ve tried to do is cooperate with all the other movements in building community mikvot, but in those cases where necessary, we’ll find other options.”

Some 450 Reform rabbis gave their input into the new document, which was five years in the making and was revised nine or 10 times.

There were only three voices of dissent among some 570 rabbis attending the conference.

One of those was Rabbi Philip Posner of Mitzpah Congregation in Chattanooga, Tenn. In the debate that preceded the vote, he argued that the Reform movement had always prided itself on allowing the individual to decide which rituals to embrace and which to reject.

But he was in the tiny minority.

“Men and women who are seeking conversion to Judaism deserve the best we can give them,” Shapiro said before the vote.

“These people are choosing not just to enter a Reform Jewish community, but klal Yisrael [oneness of Israel]. We want to provide the maximum entree to gerim [strangers].”

The guidelines stop short of asking converts to keep kosher. That was also brought up for discussion before the vote.

“We wrestled with it and went back and forth on it four times,” Shapiro said. “Because the use of that term is sensitive to some elements of our community, we decided to leave it out as a consensus-building tool.”

The guidelines also suggest making Judaism more welcoming to the potential convert, rather than turning those seeking conversion away several times, as tradition dictates.

“These guidelines underscore Reform Judaism’s willingness to make Judaism accessible to those seeking a spiritual home without attempting to proselytize members of other faith communities,” said Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the CCAR. “The guidelines signal an openness to welcoming converts while insisting that they complete a rigorous educational process prior to conversion.”

A Child’s Response


Stunned by a new medical report that minimizes the health benefits of circumcision, rabbis nationwide were left groping last week for a fitting response. But one rabbi acted swiftly and with utter decisiveness: Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the fledgling National Boards of Rabbis. He had his own son circumcised.

The Schneier circumcision took place in New York on March 4, three days after the report appeared. Some 700 guests attended, among them Israeli diplomats, politicians and figures from all three religious movements. The place was Park East Synagogue, the upscale Orthodox congregation that Schneier’s father, Arthur, has led for 40 years.

“There’s no question about it,” said a beaming Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who recited the ritual circumcision blessings. “This is absolutely the most appropriate response to that report.”

Careful observers would note that the baby appeared several days before the report did, suggesting that the ceremony’s timing may have been — despite Schneier’s savvy political reputation — more coincidence than planned rebuttal. Still, nobody present could have missed the event’s symbolism.

Nobody, that is, except for little Brendan Isaac Schneier. Judging by his howl, he seemed more focused on immediate reality than symbolism.

The medical report, for those who spent the week on Mars, was issued on March 1 by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It emerged from a task force that was formed to review existing research on infant circumcision. Its conclusion: “The academy does not recommend a policy of routine newborn circumcision.” The benefits, they said, are “not sufficient.”

Not that children shouldn’t be circumcised. It just shouldn’t be “routine.” Parents should “discuss the subject with their pediatrician and make an informed choice.” In deciding, the academy thoughtfully added, it’s “legitimate for the parents to take into account cultural, religious and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors.”

The doctors also declared for the first time that those who do make the cut should administer pain relief, preferably lidocaine via injection or smear. This ends an old debate about why tots cry when circumcised. Now it’s official: It hurts.

This won’t be the final word. It’s the academy’s fourth report in three decades. Others will surely follow. The last report, in 1989, urged universal circumcision. Its author, Dr. Edgar Schoen of the Oakland-based Kaiser Foundation, now says a “young couple would get better advice from their grandmother than from the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Rabbinic reactions to the report ranged from bravado to scorn, plus some nervousness. “I don’t think it should have a great deal of significance for Jews, because the reason why Jews are committed to circumcision has nothing to do with medical concerns,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, interviewed by telephone. “For us, it is a ritual of identification and binding ourselves to God.”

“It may influence some wavering souls,” said Yeshiva’s Lamm, “who mistakenly interpret every Jewish legal institution as health-related, as opposed to being a genuinely spiritual act. But it will not influence anyone who is genuinely committed to Judaism and Jewish tradition.”

The trouble is, many Jews aren’t that committed. Growing numbers are casual drop-ins. They have their sons circumcised because doctors recommend it, and, besides, hey, it’s Jewish. How will they react to the new guidelines?

No one knows. Despite a slight dip in popularity nationwide, circumcision is believed to remain nearly universal among Jews. But not all Jews have a brit, the traditional snip performed by a mohel, or ritual circumciser. Some — nobody knows how many — have the operation done clinically by a hospital surgeon.

Los Angeles obstetrician Robert Sloves, one of 200 physicians trained as mohels by the Reform movement, estimates that one-fourth to one-half of his Jewish patients have their sons circumcised by doctors rather than mohels. “As a mohel, I encourage my Jewish patients to have a brit,” he says. “But some simply prefer to do it in a hospital.”

Some Jews, of course, reject circumcision altogether. There are even organizations campaigning against it. America has Jewish organizations for everything. Ronald Goldman, head of the Boston-based Circumcision Resource Center, says that there may be a dozen anti-brit groups such as his around the country, trying to impress the public with the procedure’s, um, shortcomings.

Besides “traumatic” pain and potential post-op complications, Goldman cites studies that show long-term problems from loss of the foreskin. For one, he says, “penile sensation and sexual satisfaction are reduced for circumcised males.” For another, circumcised men are “significantly more likely” to engage in unconventional sexual behavior, such as oral sex, perhaps compensating for reduced sensation. Whether this figured in last year’s impeachment crisis, he doesn’t say.

Other studies indicate circumcised men are less prone to sexual dysfunction than uncircumcised men. But Goldman doesn’t mention those to interviewers.

Talking to Goldman and others, one senses that opposition to circumcision is no more medically based than support for it. The whole discussion emerges from deep anxieties and deeper mysteries. Anyone with a son knows this. The idea of cutting into that perfect, innocent body — especially that part of that body — is both terrifying and transcendent. The patriarch Abraham understood this. So did Freud.

By no accident, the commandment to circumcise is followed in the Bible almost immediately by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. The binding of Isaac was the test of a parent’s willingness to destroy a child to obey an invisible God. It was the ultimate Freudian confrontation, an act of love, disdain and transcendence all in one. Circumcision re-enacts that, on a tiny scale, with each new Jewish boy.

The air was thick with such intergenerational drama last week at Brendan Schneier’s brit. The platform where the knife fell, Arthur Schneier’s pulpit, was supposed to become son Marc’s by now. But Marc left a decade ago to start his own congregation. It was a painful episode, with feelings of abandonment and betrayal on both sides. Both say it’s history, but their eyes give them away.

Neither Schneier mentioned this history at the brit. Still, when Marc prayed aloud that his son would become a rabbi and inherit his pulpit — a joy his own father won’t know — a hush filled the hall.

Then the mohel went to work on the next generation, and the hall was filled with the merriment these ceremonies evoke for everyone present.

Everyone, that is, except little Brendan. He was howling with a pain all his own. And now, thanks to the new policy of the pediatric academy, he can cry all he wants. It’s his party.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.