|Rabbi Joshua Ratner
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.