Archive for October, 2013

The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past

Earlier this month the Council of Europe (an international human rights organisation consisting of EU 47 countries whose decisions are of declarative force only) published an announcement regarding “children’s right to physical integrity”. In the announcement the Council came out against various form of intentional bodily harm to children, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, sex reassignment surgeries in inter-sexed children (something that deserves an article in itself), female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”), and male circumcision.

Of course, the last item on the list gave the signal for typical Jewish hysteria. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, declared (Heb) that this is a “new antisemitism”; the Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar, also thinks (Heb) it’s “antisemitism”; Dr. Eli Schussheim, Head of the Circumcision committee at the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Health, cried out (Heb) that it is “a plot to spiritually annihilate the Jewish People,” while Foireign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor ruled (Heb) that this is “Horrid ignorance, at best, or libel and religious hatred at worst”. Great job.

The debate concerning circumcision is rich with meaning and constitutes a rare intersection of diverse world-views and value-maps. This is why I find it fascinating not only due to its pragmatical angle (will the Jews of Europe be able to circumcise their sons or not, etc,), but because it teaches us about far-reaching social, ethnic and ideological processes underway in Western society. I have written before (Heb) about the post-humanist aspect of banning circumcision. Now I’d like to touch upon its political and ideological aspects.

To start, a few clarifications: Does circumcision inflict permanent damage to the male sexual organ? I believe so. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, incidentally, says otherwise, and that there is “no scientific criteria” according to which damage can be proved. I don’t understand him. It is clear to me that removal of the foreskin changes the way the male has sex, and not for the better. On the other hand, is the damage significant? I believe not. I happen to be a circumcised male myself and can attest that everything, thank god, works perfectly fine. So: Does this negligible damage justify banning it? I believe not.

But the damage is not the story. The damage caused to the baby (or the man he will be) is not at the heart of the decision by the European Council. Proof of this can be found in the fact that all those people seeking to ban infant circumcision will stand, vehemently even, on the right of any adult to circumcise himself (or acquire a sex change operation, or plastic surgery, etc,). So the cutting of the genitalia and the damage to the body are not, in themselves, the problem. What is? The problem is that the circumcision is done without the consent and free choice of the baby.

And this is definitely a problem. On the other hand, circumcision is done without the consent of the baby just as many things are done without his or her consent: He or she receives certain food and no other, lives in a certain place and no other, learns a certain language but not another, is sent to a certain kindergarten and school and no other, where he receives a certain education and no other. In addition, parents raise their children to believe in the existence of God / his only begotten crucified son / his special chosen people / the holy virgin / dialectical materialism / the hidden hand / an endless, meaningless universe.

All of the above, done without the consent of the baby and child, shape his life more significantly than the foreskin present or missing from his penis. Even if one believes that the removal of the foreskin causes not slight but severe damage to the sex organ (and this really is unsupported by science), the damage of a bad education is greater. Education is irreversible, just as learning a language, or having a childhood in general. What our parents gave us will accompany us for the rest of our days. Therefore, there is no sense in legally banning circumcision, unless we intend to also ban raising children according to beliefs we don’t like.

Circumsision in ancient Egypt

Human Dignity

But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s say we have shown that focusing on circumcision and ignoring education, beliefs and so on is somewhat inconsistent, perhaps even dishonestly so. I wouldn’t want to defend circumcision just by showing its opponents to be hypocritical. I would like to positively explain why it is important to allow those interested to maintain the ceremony, through an ethical argument stemming from the matter itself. In order to do so I would like to more closely examine the matter of free choice. In other words, why is it a problem that the baby cannot choose to be circumcised? Why are consent and free choice so important to us? A worthy question, is it not?

So. why does free choice attain an almost sanctified position in our eyes, to the point where liberals and libertarians will insist on the rights of perfect strangers to do drugs or sell themselves as prostitutes as long as they truly chose to do so? I think it is so important to us because free choice, our autonomy, our use of will, our freedom to decide one way or the other – all these are essential things that define us, that ground our identity and our dignity, our self regard.

In other words, one of the sources of our own identity nowadays is our free will, and this is why it is considered almost sacred. So much so that we are willing to give up values we care about, and feel unpleasant, just so others can express their free will (up to a point, of course).

Now, here’s something interesting: for many people, even today, religious beliefs, religious traditions and the right to chose them and act upon them are also among the things that define them, their identity and their self-regard. One’s religious faith is among the essential parts of his or her inner life. Therefore, he or she greatly desires to be allowed to live by it and express it. This is also why he or she will sometimes be willing to die for it.

This is not new, but what is new is that in our era liberal democracy recognizes the importance of faith (or lack thereof) to the individual, and therefore insists on religious freedom within its boundaries, letting everyone express their belief – or disbelief – allowing no religious or ideological coercion. Because our religious – or agnostic, or atheistic – persuasions are such an important part of what defines us, what constitutes our identity and dignity, religious freedom is so important to us, and is protected by liberal democracy.

Back to circumcision. When we approach the matter, it wouldn’t be right to weigh freedom of choice against unjustified bodily harm. In such a case obviously we would uphold choice and forbid the bodily harm, even if negligible. But we need, for a moment, to enter the mind of the upholders of tradition. If we take their faith seriously, and we must, we see that there are highly important values on both sides: on the one hand, freedom of choice, denied to the baby; on the other, religious and communal identity, given to him by parents allowed to do so. This is part of the package his parents wish to bequeath unto him, to bring him up by. This is part of the elements of their identity, their self-respect. It’s an essential part of themselves, no less than their free choice. So if we see it thus, both sides of the debate carry values it is important to all of us to preserve.

And now we must decide – which of the two tips the scale? Had the harm to baby been severe, or the social/ethical context been oppressive and degrading (degrading and oppressing what? The very same human dignity we’re trying to defend; the very same human dignity for which we also defend freedom of expression!), then I would think that banning it is justified, even at the cost of denying the parents their freedom of religion.

Is this the case? I think not. I don’t think infant circumcision is problem-free. Definitely not. But I think one can say that in the end the harm done is limited, and the context non-oppressive, and therefore I don’t think that freedom of choice justifies banning the action, which represents such an important element in the lives of those believing in its religious significance. Why? Because it assaults their dignity and the essential values of their lives no less, and I believe far more, than un-chosen circumcision harms the baby’s self-regard.

One more small thing: there’s no point in yelling that there is no god. We will not decide for others what to believe. We will in fact accord them the freedom to believe as they choose, and keep whatever tradition they see fit (within certain boundaries, of course, not to be discussed here). And we require that in the name of their faith or tradition our own freedom of choice would not be limited, nor harm done to our beliefs or the values at the basis of our world-views and self respect.

Isaacs Circumcision as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany 1300


So what’s up with these Europeans? First of all, I do not believe antisemitism is involved here (the enthusiasm with which it is thrown into every discussion is pathetic). The motive is something else entirely: What we have here is high moral sensitivity (which can be observed in the spread of vegetarianism and veganism – note that the opponents of circumcision also express a worthwhile moral principle and motivation), along with an anti-clerical, anti-theistic tendency, prevalent in current-day Europe, mixed with some confusion.

The spirit of the French revolution is returning, wishing to cleanse the land of religious manifestations. It focuses on acts and attire because that is much easier than banning beliefs. The Council of Europe also spoke about piercing and so on, but we should monitor whether the places that are advancing actual legislation to ban circumcision are also moving to bar parents from piercing their children’s ears or allow them to have tattoos. If not, this is a sign that what the legislator is annoyed at is not the damage to the body, but the impetus to the damage, in our case religious belief. This is, therefore, an attempt to harm the religious freedom of Europeans.

But wait, aren’t there things we’ll ban even though banning them would harm religious freedom? Of course there are. For instance, female genital mutilation. And why? Because by and large it entails much (much) greater damage to the genitalia, and even more importantly, because the context (as I mentioned before) is utterly different: in the case of male circumcision, it is about acceptance of the boy to the community, an enhancement to his dignity and to his social importance. Female circumcision is part of an array of means to suppress woman and control her body; it reduces her dignity and her social standing.

One of the articles on the matter in Hebrew noted that “many of the delegates supported amending the motion so that it won’t include a mention of the parents’ religious rights.” I believe this is the story. The attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights. And I find this astonishing. It’s astonishing because by doing so Europe denies its roots. Not its religious roots, but its democratic ones, since the formation of European democracy was based among other things on recognition of the essential place held by religious beliefs in the individual’s life and with the intent of enabling individuals of differing religious beliefs to live together. Religious pluralism – stemming from deep recognition of the value of religion – was one of the building stones of European democracy (although less so than the American version, and not at all in revolutionary France). Therefore these testimonys (and one can add the French “Burqa Law” here) of denying this heritage mark an interesting process.

Jesus's circumsision, Master of Tucher Altarpiece, 15th century

Please note: All of the above is critique of a proposed law banning circumcision. I have nothing against people trying to persuade others not to perform the procedure, and therefore of course nothing against people, Jews included, who do not wish to perform it. I am speaking here only of the right of those who do want, out of traditional-religious considerations, to perform it.

The Rebirth of the Friction Between Religion and State

2013-10-16_122303Under the banner “Multi-Faith Gathering for Peace”, thousands of people marched two weeks ago in Quebec protesting a proposed Charter of Values which, if passed by the state’s government, will prohibit public workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. In order to prevent any unavoidable subjective interpretation of the term, the Charter makes clear which religious symbols are deemed conspicuous: the Muslim Niqab and Hijab, the Sikh turban, the Jewish Yarmulke and the Christian cross (if large and worn around the neck).

Quite clearly, Quebec, today a part of Canada, is thus following in its ancestral progenitor’s footsteps, seeking to “purify” the public sphere of any religious symbols, just as France did in 2010 with its own law “prohibiting the concealment of the face in public space”, meant to do away with the Burqa and the Chador. No doubt, there is also quite a bit of Islamophobia here, just as in France, though I would suggest that at the bottom of this Islamophobia lies, among simple xenophobia and prejudice, a generous amount of old-fashioned enlightenment-style anti-religious sentiment.

Thus taken, Quebec’s Charter of Values seems to me not, in essence, about spreading or upholding liberty or equality. In truth, I would say, it is more of a reactive and clumsy attempt at defending an extreme version of separation between religion and state, one that was tried for the first time during the early years of the French Revolution, tried again in countries of the former Communist Bloc, failed horribly both times, but continues to live as a phantom in the minds of anti-theists for whom the idea of religious belief insults a particular conception of human dignity.

“The Kantian imperative to have the courage to think for oneself”, wrote Terry Eagleton once, “has involved a contemptuous disregard for the resources of tradition and an infantile view of authority as inherently oppressive.” Ironically, the same Kantian imperative is today enforced by the resources of the state, whose authority, as shown all too clearly in both the French and the Communist revolutions, can be just as much oppressive, if not a whole lot more.

What the current events in Quebec reveal to us is the rebirth of the friction between religion and state, brought about not only by the injection of fresh “belief” by Muslim immigrants to European countries, but also by the rising of new forms of Christian believers in North and South America, renewed struggles and cooperation inside Islam, and a new interest in the Jewish religious life in Israel. It is the frontline where believers and atheists, traditionalists and anti-theists meet, and where, all too often, liberal agnostics find themselves in the awkward position of fearing religious fundamentalists while at the same time envying their conviction.

The idea that religion is the result of some sort of faulty line of reasoning, and thus will gradually disappear as humanity learns to think strait (another inheritance from the Enlightenment), has today been almost completely abandoned by students of the sociology and psychology of religion. As Peter Berger observed, what modernity has indeed brought us in the religious sphere is not religions decline, but its plurality.

“Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing” writes Berger, pointing out that what is characteristic of modern society is increasing divergence of religious forms and practices. And while this is far better, I would believe, in the eyes of religious people then the simple dwindling away of faith, it does pose not a small challenge for them, as they now have no choice but to contend with alternative answers to many of the questions their religious life asks. In other words, far from killing religion, what modernity has allowed is a competition between different religions, which, in an open and tolerant society, leads unavoidably to diversity.

If this diversity is not to be the first step on the way to a religious war, it is crucial that the very same open and tolerant society be the background for profound inter-religious dialogue. Speaking of the Enlightenment as we have, we must happily admit that what it has also bequeathed to us is the framework in which different faiths can live side by side, which is liberal democracy. It is by firmly maintaining the principles of liberal democracy on the one hand, and frank and candid dialogue between religious leaders and believers on the other, that a not only a tolerant atmosphere can be maintained, but also actual religiousdevelopment, as religions learn from each other.

Most of all in the Middle East, where religious tension, as well as diversity, is extensive, direct interfaith dialogue is essential. Extremism on all sides must be denounced by religious leaders, and an example set by them through meeting, recognizing and respecting both sides’ representatives and faiths. This will not only (and most importantly) contribute to the religious aspect of our mutual coexistence here, but may even be found beneficial if a multi-faith cooperation is needed in case of an attempt to restrict individual and public religious rights by the state, such as in Quebec. It does, however, call for courageous religious leadership, and the honest will to act not only when a person’s own free exercise of faith is jeopardized, but when the others’ is. I truly hope The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land will rise to the challenge.


Published on The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land’s Internet site.

A Point About the Fundamental Difference Between Haredi and Traditional and National-Religious Judaism

In 1792, three years into the French revolution, a letter was received by Edmond Louis Dubois-Crance, a leading figure of the new regime’s legislature, warning him him of the path chosen by the forces surrounding him. Jean Baptiste Salle, a physician and playwright (ah, those were the days) warned that:

The principles, in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analyzed in this society-no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect. […] Under the pretext of full and complete sovereignty of the people, the state will suffer no legal restriction; They present man always in the image of an angel, and desirous of discovering what befits him, ignore what he really is; In an endeavor to persuade the people that they are wise enough, they give them dispensation from the effort to be that! […] I would gladly, if you like, applaud the chimera of perfection that they are after. But tell me, in divesting in this way man of what is human in him, are they not most likely to turn him into a ferocious beast? "

Salle opposed the attempt by the revolutionaries to force a “perfect”, “rational” and “scientific” model upon the French people – a model that utterly ignores the true condition of humans and instead insists on explaining to them what their condition is, and therefore what they “really” need. He accurately predicted the consequence: A year after the date of his letter the “reign of terror” began, and the blade of guillotine required frequent honing. For doubting the righteousness of the revolution Salle’s neck was also placed under it, and he was beheaded in 1894.

The French Revolution was not the first attempt to force upon a multitude of people an ideology they did not want – the Catholic Church preceded it, of course – but it was the first to do so with no regard for reality, or as Salle put it on the basis of “principles in their metaphysical abstract”. The religious traditions that forced themselves on the masses grew from customs built throughout the ages, and therefore from a dialogue with human nature and that of the world. The leaders of the revolution thought that the opposite should be done – sever ties with the past, cleanse the memory of all that was stored in it, and start from scratch. The results proceeded accordingly.

This foreword seems detached from present times and from ourselves, but I believe it is deeply connected to the state of Judaism in our times. I would like to characterize the state of “Ultra-Orthodox” (“Haredi”) Judaism in Israel today, distinguishing it from religious Judaism which is not haredi. Contrary to the widespread impression, Haredis are not those who are “very strict” in their observance of Halakha. Indeed, there are different levels of observance between different orthodox communities, but these do not mark the essential or deepest difference between those who are Haredi and those who are not. In order to understand this difference, I will quote a statement made a few weeks ago by Rabbi Amiel Sternberg, head of the Religious-National “Har Ha’Mor” Yeshiva. Regarding the manner in which Halakha should be ruled, the Rabbi said:

The gaze of the leaders should be turned to the beit midrash and from there they shall learn how life should be. When they go to lead Israel in the ways of the Torah (it’s not just Torah but the fundamental paths of the nation), their viewpoint should turn to the Torah and the beit midrash and according to these they will lead the people. But if they take judgment and discernment according to the disordered life in the marketplace, they will corrupt the leadership and will not be able to correctly direct the nation’s way of life.

Proper Torah leadership, therefore, not only does not take life itself into account, but deliberately ignores it. Real life can only distract the Halakhic ruler from the Torah, whereas Torah in its metaphysical perfection is the pure light according to which one must advance. It is from the Torah that we learn “how life should be.”

Rabbi Sternberg is not a “Haredi” in the sociological sense. He is neither Litvak nor Hassid, does not dress like a Haredi, and as mentioned above he heads the National-Religious Har Ha’Mor yeshiva. What makes his worldview Haredi is the deliberate disconnection between it and the changing conditions of reality, and the view of Torah and Halakha as frozen, pure metaphysical entities, according to which the world must align itself. Rabbi Sternberg, therefore, is a National-Haredi (what is known in Hebrew acronym as “Harda”L), not because he is “strict in his observance of Halakha”, but because his approach is different than that of classical Religious Zionism.

The approach of original Religious Zionism can be characterized by an openness and willingness to engage in a continual dialogue with reality. The slogans “Torah and Labor (Avoda)” and “Torah and Science” emphasize the connection to modern conditions, which guided Religious Zionism – that of modern orthodoxy, “Ha’Mizrachi” and especially “Ha’Poel Ha’Mizrachi” and the Religious Kibbutz movement. All this was presented in explicit, conscious opposition to the Haredi way, which even before the establishment of Israel favored seclusion, passivity, radical conservatism and an ever-increasing number of constrictions and “customs” of all sorts.

When we observe such symptoms in Religious Zionism, we are in fact witnessing a return of parts of it to the Haredi ethos, while relinquishing the ideological and pragmatic step of opening to the world. The Harda”L stream of thought declares, in effect, a crisis: It has despaired of the classic path of Religious Zionism, whether due to fear of modernity which presents ever greater challenges, whether due to disillusion with secular society which for some reason refuses to repent and return to the fold of religion, or whether due to loss of hope of imminent salvation. It joins the Haredi world not by being more strict about Halakha, but by changing its approach to reality.

But as we can see from the first quote brought above, this very attitude, of a theory or doctrine that must be forced upon reality, is itself modern, and there is nothing traditional about it. It was born at a time when religions lost their power and people (in Europe) developed delusions regarding the possibility of discovering a single rational formula that would put all of life, private and political, in order. There has never been such an idea in traditional Judaism, and definitely not regarding Halakha, which has always included a multitude of opinions, schools of thought, congregations and levels of observance. Most of all, Halakha has always been engaged in a fruitful dialogue with actual life. The Haredis and Harda”Ls have in this case adopted a European (mostly French) modern mindset and turned it into their distinguishing feature. And yet they claim to be the ones defending tradition.

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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