Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Circumcision Is Best, But Families Opting Out Should Be Embraced—An Interview With Conservative Rabbi Joshua Ratner

"Jewish families who want to be part of congregational Judaism—whether or not their sons have been circumcised—should be not only included in Jewish life but embraced!"

Rabbi Joshua Ratner
Beyond the Bris: Can you talk a little about your background? What branch of Judaism are you associated with? 

Rabbi Ratner: I grew up in a warm, loving Jewish home in San Diego. I attended Conservative and later Orthodox Day School but never thought I would become a rabbi. I was a huge fan of the TV shows "LA Law" and "Perry Mason" and assumed I would someday become a lawyer. I left home for Columbia University and there found myself fascinated by the study of different cultures and religions. I wound up graduating with a degree in comparative religion and spent some time after college studying in Israel. Nevertheless, I continued with my plan to become a lawyer and wound up practicing law—first in New York, and later in Connecticut—for about five years.


Beyond the Bris: What inspired you to leave law and become a rabbi?


Rabbi Ratner: I found myself constantly struggling between my spiritual and my professional needs; at work, I would yearn for the chance to engage intellectually in the study of Jewish texts and wish that my daytime felt more meaningful; and when I had time for Judaism, on the weekends and over the holidays, I was either exhausted or worried about the work I knew was lurking around the corner. I also realized that the work I was doing, day in and day out, was not the kind of justice-seeking that brought me to law in the first place. Over time I realized that, by becoming a rabbi, I could engage in advocacy for causes I cared about and not have to choose between my religious and work aspirations.

Beyond the Bris: Why did you seek training in the Conservative branch of Judaism?

Rabbi Ratner: I chose to seek ordination from the Conservative Movement because it was where I felt most at home. I was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012, worked as the rabbi of a small congregation in Cheshire, CT, and now serve as director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New Haven. This provides me with a fantastic opportunity to engage in the interplay between Judaism, public policy and American culture.


Beyond the Bris: Here at Beyond the Bris we typically focus on the Jewish objection to circumcision—but after reading your recent essay about why you favor the practice, I decided to reach out to you. My feeling is that both sides (Jewish people for and against circumcision) have something to learn from each other, and I’d like to see us engaging in more open dialogue. I’m so glad that when we connected you felt similarly! There are many arguments to be made on both sides of the infant circumcision debate. As someone who favors circumcision—if you had to pick just one reason for doing it—what holds the most sway for you and why?


Rabbi Ratner: First, I want to thank you for providing space at Beyond the Bris for individuals like myself to discuss why we continue to support infant circumcision as a Jewish ritual. If I had to pick one reason, it would be the power of ritual to connect countless generations of Jews to one another and to a unique covenantal relationship with God. While this is true of many practices, perhaps none encapsulates the linking of covenant and inter-generational engagement as much as circumcision because brit milah (circumcision) is the biblical sign of covenantal acceptance. As a Conservative Jew, I also embrace modernity and am willing to override this presumption of tradition when necessary. But in the case of circumcision, I have not seen sufficient scientific evidence of harm, or other compelling reasons, to warrant the abrogation of circumcision.


Beyond the Bris: As a practice, what do you feel infant circumcision has done for the Jewish people in a positive way? Also, do you favor infant circumcision for all children, Jews and non-Jews alike? Why or why not?


Rabbi Ratner: I feel that Jewish circumcision provides a tangible, visceral connection with our history as a people and with the ongoing covenantal relationship with God that began with Abraham millennia ago. Even during times of rampant persecution, when evidence of circumcision could lead to torture and death, Jews continued to circumcise their sons. There is something incredibly powerful about being part of this religious and cultural legacy and being able to impart it to the next generation. Today, as the practice of Judaism has grown more diffuse, circumcision also serves as a great unifier of world Jewry: regardless of whether one is Reform or Orthodox, from the United States or Russia, rich or poor, circumcision is a ritual which all can do.


Because I am not a doctor, I do not feel qualified to render an opinion as to whether non-Jews should be circumcised. There does appear to be considerable evidence, however, that infant boys born in areas of widespread HIV infection do benefit substantially from circumcision.


Beyond the Bris: The pendulum has swung back and forth when it comes to the health benefits of circumcision. If, one day, the consensus in the American medical establishment changes and circumcision is seen as being detrimental to health, would you still support circumcision for Jewish children?


Rabbi Ratner: I disagree that the pendulum has swung back and forth when it comes to the health benefits of circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to support the health benefits of circumcision (and in fact has grown more supportive of the practice in recent years). So long as the medical evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that circumcision is detrimental to health, I will continue advocating for Jewish boys to be circumcised.


Beyond the Bris: Some Jewish families are deciding to hold welcoming ceremonies for baby boys that won’t be circumcised. Many of these families want to be part of congregational Judaism, have their sons bar mitzvahed, and so on. Can and should these families be included in Jewish life? Why or why not?


Rabbi Ratner: Yes, any Jewish families who want to be part of congregational Judaism—whether or not their sons have been circumcised—should be not only included in Jewish life but embraced! We all approach Judaism from our unique perspectives, and in our engagement with Judaism find a multitude of forms of religious expression. The decision not to observe a mitzvah, even one as symbolically important as brit milah, should not be grounds for exclusion.

5 comments:

  1. "There does appear to be considerable evidence, however, that infant boys born in areas of widespread HIV infection do benefit substantially from circumcision".

    There is no evidence for that at all. Last time I checked, infant boys in Africa are not having sex.

    And the USA has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, but also one of the highest rates of male circumcision:

    http://www.avert.org/worldwide-hiv-aids-statistics.htm

    " So long as the medical evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that circumcision is detrimental to health"

    Does that apply to female circumcision as well? 80% of women in Egypt are circumcised, and 75% of those were circumcised by medical personnel in modern hospitals or with safe, anti-septic conditions. The vast majority think that female circumcision is a good thing and are perfectly happy with it.

    And one does not need to "demonstrate conclusively" that it is damaging to amputate part of the human body before one would STOP doing it, that is bizarre and against all logic, reason and humanity.

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  2. "If I had to pick one reason, it would be the power of ritual to connect countless generations of Jews to one another and to a unique covenantal relationship with God."
    Would the power of the ritual not be vastly greater if the person at the centre of it had freely assented to it, at an age to fully appreciate being connected to countless generations of Jews and to a unique covenantal relationship with God? And if you say "but 7+ days is the age at which we were told to do it", isn't the fact that he is most helpless then the very reason that age was chosen? An older child or man might resist, but a newborn can not.

    Actually, there is NO evidence whatsoever that infant boys born in areas of widespread HIV infection benefit at all from circumcision. The evidence, such as it is, refers only to paid adults who volunteered to be circumcised. In 10 out of 18 countries for which USAID has figures, more of the circumcised men have HIV than the non-circumcised.

    "The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to support the health benefits of circumcision (and in fact has grown more supportive of the practice in recent years)."
    Well, actually, they've always only shifted their bottoms on the fence. They still don't recommend it. And their claim that "the benefits outweigh the risks" is not actually supported by the evidence they bring, as 38 senior European paediatricians point out: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/03/12/peds.2012-2896

    "So long as the medical evidence does not demonstrate conclusively that circumcision is detrimental to health, I will continue advocating for Jewish boys to be circumcised."
    "Conclusively" is a good high bar, especially for those who don't want to be convinced. The cultural bias in studies claiming to find benefits or no detriment is very clear. The health detriments are quite subtle, especially in the sexual area, but plenty of studies have found them. And to focus on "health" is quite restricting. Where does this leave the complaints of all the men, Jewish and gentile, whose circumcision was less than "optimal" and left them with discomfort or sexual dysfunction? Or who just hate having had part of their penis cut off without their consent?

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  3. I speak for rational Jews who weary of hearing such sophistry.

    "circumcision also serves as a great unifier of world Jewry"

    Let me reach through this cloud of abstraction and bring you back to Earth: You're talking about holding down a completely healthy child, and then proceeding to cut out a hunk of flesh from his sexual organ as some kind of sacrificial offering to appease the Creator of the Universe—and, if you're truly devout, paying some witch doctor to suck on the boy's wounded phallus; after all, it ain't a bris unless there's blood!

    That is, you are using another person's body—some infant's body—as a prop in your insane theatrical fantasy.

    You are forcibly and torturously subjecting a child to the surgical excision of a proportionally huge swath of sexually pleasing, mechanically useful, specialized tissue that grown men and their sexual partners the world over enjoy having—that was shaped over literally millions of years of co-evolution between male and female genitalia.

    "circumcision is a ritual which all can do"

    Yes. We can all cut up little boys' penises—and even suck the blood from them if we wish. Isn't that grand? Aren't you proud to be part of this cult of bloody genital mutilation?

    That's what you're saying! How can you not recoil in horror?!

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  4. roger desmoulinsJune 29, 2014 at 4:58 PM

    Americans, Jew and gentile alike, are having a great deal of trouble recognising that the mobile foreskin enhances foreplay and sex, including the sort of marital sex that every rabbi, no matter how traditional, completely approves of. Unlike many Christians, especially more than 50 years ago, Jews are not a prudish people. There are cultural reasons why many sex therapists are Jewish. Brit milah is on a collision course with Jewish sexual sophistication, and I submit that the collision has begun.

    In Europe, many/most Jewish families no longer circumcise, but do not wear the fact on their sleeves. I submit that by the end of this century, many North American and Israeli Jewish families will quietly imitate them.

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  5. . the Jewish Bible is quite clear about
    the god wanting his people circumcised; [Gen 17]
    but the context was that his people were
    not being fruitful and multiplying, [Gen 15]
    whereas circumcision would promote fertility
    by discouraging masturbation and possibly
    the transmission of diseases that cause infertility;
    therefore, we could interpret this to mean that
    what was actually required was population growth
    (eg, social rituals that promote a 3rd child)
    until the entire earth was dominated by
    the type of people acceptable to the god .
    . likewise for Kosher laws,
    the intent was promotion of communal health;
    so, the god's people can either abstain from pork
    or they can be careful that pork is properly de-wormed .
    . the Kosher laws tell us health is important,
    and that's why we follow the scientific diet
    rather than the diet of our passions .
    . the god said his next Law for us
    would be written in our hearts: [Jeremiah 31:31-34]
    that will be the age of rationality and science;
    and, in that age we will remember Abraham and Moses
    as the god's first community health providers .

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