My Debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

guest post by Eli Ungar-Sargon

A few weeks ago, my good friend Mordechai Levovitz mentioned on Facebook that he would like to see a debate between myself and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the subject of circumcision. I was aware of the fact that following a brief back and forth on CNN, Rabbi Boteach had challenged Lloyd Schofield, the man behind the ballot initiative in San Francisco, to a longer form debate. I was also aware that Schofield had declined the challenge. I wrote to Rabbi Boteach suggesting that he debate me instead. Much to my surprise, I received an email a few days later saying that Rabbi Boteach was interested. The terms we agreed upon were that there would be 10 minute opening statements followed by 5 minute rebuttals, and an hour and a half of Q&A. We also agreed that I would be provided with an unedited copy of their video in addition to which I would be able to shoot my own video of the event. The debate was scheduled to take place at the Manhattan Jewish Experience on July 18th. I prepared for the debate and flew out to NY with my camera and tripod in tow.

A few hours before the event, I was having lunch with my mother and sister on 72nd street when I got an email from Boteach’s people requesting that I call them urgently. They informed me that I would not be allowed to shoot video of the debate and that no cameras other than the MJE’s official camera would be allowed in the room. No explanation for this change was forthcoming and I had to take it or leave it. Despite advice from close family and friends to pull out on account of this blatant breach of terms, I went ahead with the debate and at the last minute, set up an audio recorder. The debate itself was spirited and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite the glaring absence of a moderator. But my absolute favorite moment of the evening came just after the debate was over. Rabbi Boteach came up to me and by way of apology for all of the drama said “You have to understand. No offense, but I just didn’t know who you were.”

Upon returning home, I asked Boteach’s people for an unedited copy of the video as per our original agreement. They refused. Luckily, I had my audio recording which I posted on the Cut website and on YouTube. It was not long before Boteach’s people posted their video, which turned out to be the first 40 minutes of the debate shot from a bizarre dutch angle at knee height and compressed to within an inch of its life. Here are the two versions of the debate:

Filed under Circumcision, Health, Religion

73 Responses to “My Debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach”

  1. Breach of terms…. why am I not surprised? Let me be the first to say that this is strong evidence that Rabbi Boteach and MJE lack integrity of the most basic sort, and that anything and everything they say about ethics, religion, god, ritual and peoplehood should be viewed in light of that.


    Jew Guevara · July 27th, 2011 at 8:36 pm
  2. I watched the video – both versions. I admittedly went into it as a supporter of circumcision and a G-d fearing, Torah observant Jew. I found it frustrating that Rabbi Boteach so often strayed from central debate points to delve into an area that is important and one more of his expertise, but nevertheless not the central issue. Modern secular values are eroding holy sexuality, but that isn’t the matter at hand. Whether or not circumcising your child who is too young to have a say is the matter at hand. I get that. I believe that the argument can and has been made that it is NOT in fact immoral, and that the first half of your premise is wrong. But I concede that R. Boteach sadly didn’t spend the time you invited him to making that argument as he should have. Having said that, you came off as derisive and disrespectful to your debate opponent, making it unneccessarily personal. This weakens your credibility significantly. You proclaimed a respect for your faith at the beginning but made no efforts to actually make the reconciliation you claimed to. It didn’t appear, as you describe, that you try to wrestle with your view of circumcision (which you posit is fact) and the Torah laws as coming from G-d. I would have liked to hear you do it.

    Maybe the question and answer period brought out such things. But if you are going to criticize the Rabbi for where he should have done better, try to be a little objective. If your arguments are so solid why the extremely transparent disgust for the Rabbi and everything he stands for?


    Ima2seven · July 27th, 2011 at 8:43 pm
  3. Ima2seven-If the “first half of my premise” is wrong, that is something that needs to be demonstrated, not simply stated. I have yet to hear a compelling ethical argument in favor of infant circumcision. I’m not sure what exactly you mean when you say that I “came off as derisive and disrespectful.”I was very respectful to the Rabbi, despite the circumstances outlined in the above post. I also didn’t really make it personal at all. Perhaps you are referring to the closing line of my opening statement in which I said that the Rabbi was pretending that there is no conflict. That may have sounded personal, but it was really just a statement of fact based on every article that the Rabbi had written on the subject along with all of his TV appearances. Rabbi Boteach was going around and telling people that the only reasons people could be against circumcision is if they were out to promote a radical secularist agenda, or they had psychological problems. You’re correct in pointing out that I didn’t get much of a chance to discuss the Halachik or religious ramifications of postponing Brit Milah, but that’s not the direction that the Rabbi took the debate. If you want to see me struggle :) feel free to check out my film (www.CutTheFilm.com). When you say “if you are going to criticize the Rabbi for where he should have done better…”What exactly are you referring to? Where did I attempt such a thing? Certainly not in the above post. And my so-called “transparent disgust” is a figment of your imagination. At my weaker moments I am impatient with people who haven’t realized or refuse to acknowledge that Brit Milah poses a conflict of values, but I have never expressed anything remotely resembling disgust.


    Eli · July 28th, 2011 at 12:07 pm
  4. Eli,
    I have watched your film and I listened to the entire debate between you and Rabbi Boteach. A few reactions and questions:
    1) The Rabbi missed a very good opportunity to address the ethical issue that you presented and in my mind came off as sounding apologetic, defensive and narrow-minded. On pure debating I think your presentation was much tighter and better organized. More focused.
    2) I understand your argument (I think) but am very puzzled how someone who has the father that you do and the grandfather that you do could come to such a conclusion regarding circumcision (they were in your film). That is of course unless you say something like, ‘my strong pride in my Jewish identity blah blah blah asking questions blah blah blah (I’m not dismissing that tactic in any way, I use it all the time). What do they have to say about your work on this issue?
    3) Of the three possible reactions you laid out, rejecting religious ritual, preferring the religious ritual in spite of ethical conflicts, and pushing the religion forward – I would like to hear some of the ideas that you propose that might help push Judaism forward on this issue. Simply saying ‘we should let boys decide for themselves at such and such and age’ is insufficient. What are your internal Jewish/Halachic/philosphical moves forward. How would it look in your ideal ethical Jewish future. How does it still remain authentically Jewish?
    4) What do you say to the Jews that still circumcise their boys at 8 days old? Do you attend brit milah ceremonies anymore? 6 weeks ago my wife and I gave our first-born son a brit. I will not say that it was easy to watch or hear him cry when the cut was made but for me there was no choice. Am I an unethical person?

    If nothing else Eli, I applaud your courage to be a person who is taking on a very sensitive issue and trying to do it in a Jewish way.


    Uri Allen · July 28th, 2011 at 1:05 pm
  5. Eli’s opening comments are printed here.
    www.beyondthebris.com/2011/07/eli-ungar-sargon-debates-kosher-sex.html

    There is an article about the debate here.
    intactnews.org/node/98/1311519437/jewish-circumcision-debate-celebrity-rabbi-debates-director-cut


    A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision · July 28th, 2011 at 2:28 pm
  6. Uri-1) Thanks! 2) Not sure I really understand the first part of the question. In preparation for the debate I watched some of Rabbi Boteach’s debates with Christopher Hitchens. If the choice is between their two worldviews, I would go with Hitchens every time. But I think that this is a false choice. The new Atheists have some legitimate criticisms of religion, but they also fail to understand how integral religion is in how they themselves view the world. They think that if they vacuum God out of the equation, they’ll be safe. If only it were that easy! Religion has shaped the way we think about the world in such profound ways that it is virtually impossible to excise it from our experience of reality. So why try? What we’re all really after is creating a better world to live in. Whether we choose to call that religious or secular is totally immaterial. Again, if the term “religious” means fundamentalist, or pre-enlightenment apologetics, then I am as opposed to it as Christopher Hitchens is (maybe more so). Ironically, the persistence of circumcision as a “medical practice” is evidence of the fact that no matter how enlightened or scientific we think we are, at the end of the day, what we really are is human. My father is very supportive of what I’m doing. He understands and agrees with everything I just said. I’m not sure that he’d come out against Brit Milah, but he gets that there’s a conflict and he respects my position on it. I’ve only ever had very limited conversations with my grandfathers about the subject. 3) I don’t consider myself to be a great Halachik mind and I don’t see my function in this world as being the one who does the legal work of proposing actual Halachik solutions. If I can disabuse people of their misconceptions and get them to think and feel differently about a subject through my films, I feel that I have done my job. Having said that, I would like to point out that there are no actual Halachik implications to delaying Brit Milah. In fact, non-Shabbat observance has much graver Halachik consequences. Furthermore, as I mentioned in the debate, a majority of American Jews actually prevent their sons from ever having the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of Brit Milah, by doing it in the hospital. It seems obvious to me that from a religious perspective leaving a boy intact ought to be preferable to hospital circumcision. Finally, due to the timing of Brit Milah, it has no meaning as a ritual (educational or otherwise) for the person receiving it. All of these considerations should be taken into account when trying to move the tradition forward on this. I could describe a vision for the future of the ritual, but I really feel that such articulation should be done by others. 4) I try to tell people that they have a choice, that they don’t have to do this to their children. I try to get people to see my film. I do not attend Brises anymore. I’ve had my consciousness raised to a point where I can’t stand to be in the room when people are doing this to a baby. I don’t know whether or not you are an unethical person, Uri. My inclination is to believe that you are an ethical person. But you seem to be under the impression that you didn’t have a choice when you circumcised your boy. Here we disagree. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response!


    Eli · July 28th, 2011 at 7:42 pm
  7. Eli,
    When you say in public that one way forward on this issue is for the religion to evolve, yet you propose no steps to bring about this evolution you fall short in my mind. Why not go all the way? You have found the physical, medical, ethical and sociological evidence that you need, why not find the rabbinic justification as well? Instead what you say is “it seems to me from a religious perspectuve…”. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim what the religion would want or see as preferable and then not propose a way forward that would help the religion make advances. Failing to make that move calls your motives into question for me. Are you trying to help Judaism become more evolved and ethical or are you trying to wag a finger and just ‘raise awareness’ as many activists like to say? Perhaps this is one reason why some in the Jewish community have been hostile to you (if that has happened) and your message.
    The big halachic problem in my mind has less to do with the timing of it but rather who is obligated in the mitzvah. That is to say it is not the Jewish male himself but rather that boy’s father who is obligated. You will say that this creates more ethical problems not less. Perhaps.

    You think that infant male circumcision is physically harmful, medically irresponsible, and morally wrong. I get it. What about adult circumcision or young child circumcision? At what point is a male able to decide that he wants to be circumcised? Are you only against infant circumcision or all circumcision? Would you encourage Jewish males over the age of 18 to choose to be circumcised and enter the brit?

    As far as not having a choice, I always have a choice. But nothing is absolute. For the kind of community that I am living in and for the kind of Jewish house/family that I am trying to create there was no choice. Some choices that we make in our lives make other choices out of bounds.


    Uri Allen · July 29th, 2011 at 3:15 am
  8. Uri-I’m not a Rabbi and that is not what I do. I don’t recall anyone criticizing Sandi DuBowski for not proposing Halachik solutions in Trembling Before God. I’m not sure why admitting that certain things are beyond my area of expertise calls my motives into question in your mind. What do you imagine my motives are, I wonder? The first step is getting people to see that there’s a problem. Once enough people accept this, we can start having a conversation that will hopefully lead to someone much more qualified than I to propose an actual Halachik solution. I happen to think that the solution to the conflict of values inherent in Brit Milah is much simpler to negotiate than the conflict of values inherent in something like homosexual sex. But we’re not there yet. And in truth, what’s much more interesting and exciting to me than working out a Halachik solution, is getting people to think differently about it. Incidentally, the thing that people in the Jewish community tend to really be upset with me about is the film I’m working on right now, not Cut. This is disturbing on many different levels, but that’s for another time. I am only against circumcision before the age of consent. Good arguments can be made that this age varies from individual to individual, but it is accepted practice to standardize around a single age so as to avoid abuses. I’m aware of the chain of responsibility when it comes to Brit Milah. It does start with the father. So the father would have to neglect performing a mitzvat aseh. I understand that. But that’s the entire cost of postponing the ritual. A small price to pay, in my mind. In rare instances, it will also save lives. I understand the calculation you made. My father made the same calculation. I just think that you both made the wrong decision. When God, or tradition, or society demands that you harm another human being, I believe the correct response is disobedience.


    Eli · July 29th, 2011 at 3:53 am
  9. “So the father would have to neglect performing a mitzvat aseh. I understand that. But that’s the entire cost of postponing the ritual.”
    He would have to neglect a mitzvat aseh that earns him a punishment of karet. Not sure that is a small price. At least the tradition doesn’t think so.

    I don’t think you’re film and Trembling Before God are doing the same thing. As I see Dubowski’s film, he was trying to show how hard it is to be a Gay Orthodox Jew. I think you are trying to get people to not give their sons brit milah. Maybe I question your motives because I don’t understand how someone who grew up in the kind of home that I imagine you grew up in could come to such a conclusion and market it in such a way that seems to me to be in the direction of disdain for your upbringing. That’s just the feeling I get.

    As far as your not being a Rabbi – fair enough. There is a Halachik process question here to be sure. When we find ethically/morally problematic elements in our tradition do we jettison them as soon as our ethical problems arise or do we say ‘this is our tradition’ and let’s find a reasonable solution to address our concerns. I prefer the latter though I understand the former very well.


    Uri Allen · July 29th, 2011 at 7:37 am
  10. “So the father would have to neglect performing a mitzvat aseh. I understand that. But that’s the entire cost of postponing the ritual.”
    He would have to neglect a mitzvat aseh that earns him a punishment of karet. Not sure that is a small price. At least the tradition doesn’t think so.

    I think it goes even further than karet, to something which Uri addressed briefly earlier in the thread. There are cultural norms and social mores that are at risk in addition to the soul of the father (for the traditionally observant). The Rabbis spend a good amount of time in their literature constructing polemics against foreskins and those with foreskins. (Nedarim 31b-32b )It’s not just blind hatred, there are cultural, social and anthropological reasons for the literature. If we abandon as central a custom and commandment as brit milah there are far greater dangers than the individual.

    It seems obvious to me that from a religious perspective leaving a boy intact ought to be preferable to hospital circumcision.
    this I actually agree with. I support wholeheartedly ending medical and cosmetic circumcision.


    Justin · July 29th, 2011 at 9:06 am
  11. Justin writes:
    I support wholeheartedly ending medical and cosmetic circumcision.

    Pragmatically speaking, this seems short-sighted. The fact that a lot of American non-Jews are circumcised, and that it is considered “normal” in American culture, takes much of the pressure off the Jews doing religious circumcisions. If this weren’t the case, the anti-circumcision movement would be more successful at efforts such as the one in San Francisco.


    BZ · July 29th, 2011 at 9:56 am
  12. perhaps I should have been more specific — I don’t support legislatively ending medical circumcision, but rather I support culturally ending medical circumcision.


    Justin · July 29th, 2011 at 10:36 am
  13. Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on this in this recent interview.
    www.beyondthebris.com/2011/07/defying-convention-interview-with_27.html
    She’s also written some very insightful material on pikuah nefesh and how it relates to the circumcision dilema.
    www.noharmm.org/pollack.htm

    Intactivist moyel Moshe Rothenberg also has some insights about how modern Jews should live our principles by bypassing circumcision.
    www.nocirc.org/symposia/second/rothenberg.html

    Those of you who thought that the intactivist movement was anti-semetic, may want to learn about some of the Jews who believe that circumcision should be against the law.
    intactnews.org/node/103/1311885181/jews-speak-out-favor-banning-circumcision-minors


    A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision · July 29th, 2011 at 10:51 am
  14. Uri-The punishment of Karet is actually not something that the father suffers at all. It’s applied to the son if he dies intact. Get your religious facts straight. I find your distinction between my film and Trembling to be bizarre. Clearly they don’t deal with the same issue, but our goals seem to be similar. Namely, the questioning of a religious status quo that we find morally unacceptable. Davka because I don’t stray into Halachik territory in my film you can’t accuse it of “trying to get people not to give their sons Brit Milah.”As I stated above, my purpose is to start high-level discussions. The fact that I don’t hide where I think this should go does not support your distinction. I don’t think that Sandi hides his feelings either. My so-called disdain for my upbringing is a figment of your imagination. Maybe you don’t like to be challenged by someone of my background, because I don’t just roll over when you bring up your understanding of religion. You’ll have to pardon my tone here. I don’t appreciate having my motives questioned.
    Justin-See the above comment on Karet. Once again, you are manufacturing so-called consequences out of whole cloth. Your unstated cultural, social, and anthropological reasons, don’t outweigh the ethical transgression of infant circumcision, for the same reason that cultural, social, and anthropological reasons are not enough to justify female genital cutting.
    BZ-If I read you correctly, you support the circumcision of millions of Americans a year, because it makes you more comfortable as a religious Jew. This is a morally reprehensible position that you should reexamine.


    Eli · July 29th, 2011 at 11:00 am
  15. Eli, I do not have to pardon your tone. In fact now that I think about it, it is precisely your tone that bothers me. Many liberals (and conservatives for that matter) think that if one would only know the ‘facts’ about a particular issue then they would reform their ways and see the light. This is nothing but hubris. I am capable of listening to numerous sides of an issue, understanding them and still disagreeing. I am happy to engage in machloket lshem shamayim when that is what it actually is. You however are engaged in something quite different in my opinion. Your background or my background is not the issue. I respect whatever Jewish learning you have done and I hope that you respect mine. What I can’t tolerate however is being told by you or anyone else for that matter (except my teachers and Rabbis and not all of them at that) that what I choose to do as a religious Jew is wrong. That is between me and the KBH.
    I’m sorry that you don’t like having your motives questioned. Based on what I saw in your film, what I heard in the debate and this conversation here – it’s hard for me to believe that you are simply trying to “start high level discussions”.


    Uri Allen · July 29th, 2011 at 11:30 am
  16. Uri-You are the one who brought up the fact that you gave your son a Brit Milah and you asked me outright what I thought about it. I’m sorry that you didn’t like what I said. Maybe you shouldn’t have asked. The reason that I don’t like having my motives questioned is because it’s ad hominem and completely besides the point. Me, my background, my motives, are not the issue here. So I beg your pardon for descending to your level. I don’t like engaging in ad hominem posturing. My purpose was to show you that this is not a good way to go about discussing an emotionally charged topic.


    Eli · July 29th, 2011 at 11:43 am
  17. Eli,

    Without trying to sound like a nudnik — it seems to me that any Jew who eloquently advocates an antinormative (e.g., anti-circumcision) position has to expect their motives to be questioned. (Especially if they claim their Jewishness as part of the reason for their antinormativeness.) This is not an attack, just something I’ve noticed over the years.


    Neal Ross Attinson · July 29th, 2011 at 12:07 pm
  18. Neal Ross Attinson-Agreed. But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant when it comes up.


    Eli · July 29th, 2011 at 12:29 pm
  19. “So I beg your pardon for descending to your level.”
    Now who is engaging in ad hominem attacks?

    “My purpose was to show you that this is not a good way to go about discussing an emotionally charged topic.”
    Thanks for the lesson in debate.


    Uri Allen · July 29th, 2011 at 12:41 pm
  20. I’m sure it doesn’t. But it might tell you something useful.


    Neal Ross Attinson · July 29th, 2011 at 12:44 pm
  21. Neal Ross Attinson-Not sure what you have in mind, but my take away lesson from this conversation is never to answer the question “Do you think I’m an unethical person?” LOL.


    Eli · July 29th, 2011 at 1:12 pm
  22. “As far as not having a choice, I always have a choice. But nothing is absolute. For the kind of community that I am living in and for the kind of Jewish house/family that I am trying to create there was no choice. Some choices that we make in our lives make other choices out of bounds.”

    Uri,

    I’m curious. I assume that you are correct about this. Indeed, I agree, and this motivates me not to live within that kind of community – I want to live within a community in which a choice not to circumcise is within bounds. Although I disagree with those who choose to circumcise, I will attend a bris (but I will find an excuse to make myself scarce for the cut). I will also give my opinion, but only if asked (if asked at a bris, I will deflect). But if not circumsizing is out of bounds, why are you so engaged on the issue? Is it merely that you are concerned about my (and others’) authenticity?


    Dan O. · July 29th, 2011 at 2:32 pm
  23. Can you envision a future of Judaism that abolishes circumcision completely? What do you think of the current Bris Shalom/Brit B’lee Milah movement?

    If the surgery of circumcision isn’t required, is it almost certainly forbidden?


    A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision · July 29th, 2011 at 5:16 pm
  24. Dan O.
    For me it’s a bout living in a community that has shared values and practices. I don’t feel that I had no choice in the matter because of some accident of circumstance or peer pressure or something like that. Rather, I cannot imagine living in a community where becoming a part of the Jewish people, for boys, did not happen through brit milah. I would feel like a stranger in a community like that, an outsider. I want to be able to share with all of the other fathers in the room the experience of deciding to give your son a brit and share with every other Jewish man what it means to have had one. Choice is the false idol of modernity and post-modernity. The fact that I can choose it does not make it valuable. I do not believe that the individual is the ultimate source of value in the world. I am more interested in meaning making rather than choice.

    As far as authenticity goes. I have a hard time with that word. I’m not exactly sure what it means. I think it has more to do with the shared values and embodied practice that I spoke about above. Making sure those things are in line with each other and whatever tradition from which they derive and living in a community that celebrates that together. If authenticity is something like an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ kind of thing, I”m not interested in that. If it’s good for you then go for it. I may disagree with the practice but you are free to do as you wish. I don’t care to wag my finger at people in judgement (at least I try not to as best I can).

    Why am I so involved in the issue? I am really only involved with it on this blog. But there are two reasons. The first is, because if you think circumcision is wrong don’t do it. If you want to do it for any number of religious, cultural, cosmetic, medical reasons you should have that option to. The SF ban (thank God it was removed from the ballot) is not about giving people a choice but rather is about revoking choice. I don’t understand how anyone can get behind an initiative that removes personal choice.
    The second reason is that I am generally suspicious of anyone who tells me that a particular issue is morally/ethically black and white. There are few such things in the world and I would prefer to see the complexity in life than boil everything down to black and white.

    @A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision
    I cannot imagine a Judaism like that.


    Uri Allen · July 30th, 2011 at 1:50 pm
  25. Uri said: “The first is, because if you think circumcision is wrong don’t do it. If you want to do it for any number of religious, cultural, cosmetic, medical reasons you should have that option to. The SF ban (thank God it was removed from the ballot) is not about giving people a choice but rather is about revoking choice. I don’t understand how anyone can get behind an initiative that removes personal choice.”

    Well if that’s the case, why worry? There’s no chance any ban is going to happen. None at all, not ever. I’m against circumcision, because I believe it is a violation of rights. But I wouldn’t support a ban because it cedes the high ground in the debate to reasonable traditionalists like you who see autonomy attaching to families rather that individuals. Still, I’m happy to let the tradition die a natural death. I’m just that confident about the ideological appeal and strength of individual autonomy.

    You also said, “The second reason is that I am generally suspicious of anyone who tells me that a particular issue is morally/ethically black and white. There are few such things in the world and I would prefer to see the complexity in life than boil everything down to black and white.”

    You’re arguing that circumcision is morally permissible. That’s a moral claim. It’s as stark, and black and white as any other.

    Second, moral objectivity is a deeply humbling philosophical viewpoint as is any form of realism. The reason it is humbling, is that a realist must be aware that one could be wrong. Waving a hand in the air about complexity, on the other hand…

    Thirdly, you may know a lot about Judaism, but you know very little about modern moral philosophy if you think that according to it the individual is the principal source of value. No, according to the lion’s share of modern moral philosophy (and this is an oversimplification, to be sure), the individual is the primary source of *rights*. There is so much more to value than rights. But we don’t often get ’round to addressing other kinds of values because people are, in general, so disrespectful of others’ rights that we’re always stuck untangling that mess. Also, Libertarians scream most loudly.

    One thing that comes along with kind of moral skepticism you espouse is the need for an alternative theory of what it is to get things right (otherwise, we could all just be nihilists). In your case, getting it right seems to involve operating within a coherent worldview. We can argue what coherence comes to, but I read your invitation to Eli to come up with Halachic backing for his views as a challenge to make his view on circumcision cohere with his being a Jew. It seems to me you find it somehow inauthentic to live so incoherently.

    According to realists, authenticity is just one value among others. An overwhelming concern for authenticity (and avoiding hypocrisy) results in inflexibility.


    Dan O. · August 1st, 2011 at 9:08 am
  26. “You’re arguing that circumcision is morally permissible”
    No I’m not. I’m arguing that there are other things at play here besides a strict yes/no on morality.

    “Second, moral objectivity is a deeply humbling philosophical viewpoint as is any form of realism. The reason it is humbling, is that a realist must be aware that one could be wrong. Waving a hand in the air about complexity, on the other hand…”
    I wonder how humble one feels when they keep telling everyone how humble they are? I can see your point though, it’s just not how I view the world.

    Modern philosophy and rights.
    Rights are good and your point is well taken about value being pushed off so that rights can be sorted out. My only problem with that is that I also live a life that is based on certain kinds of obligations (I’m not getting into God here). Sometimes those rights and obligations are in conflict. Which system gets preference? My Jewish tradition teaches me that sometimes is Judaism, sometimes it’s the secular system of which I am a part and sometimes it is a very serious question with varying kinds of responses. That is what my realism looks like.

    “One thing that comes along with kind of moral skepticism you espouse…”
    I don’t believe I have any moral skepticism, only suspicion of people who are 100% confident that their understanding of morality is correct and should be that way for everyone. Everything (ok most things) are about a persons’ interpretation not absolute, everlasting meaning.

    “It seems to me you find it somehow inauthentic to live so incoherently.”
    I do find it troubling. I think Eli can believe exactly what he does regarding circumcision and bring support and evidence from within the Jewish tradition also. For me this would help understand his motivations which he says stem at least in part from his own Jewish identity. I may disagree with his use of sources or the kinds of Jewish evidence that he brings but at least we would be on the same field. Those who want to defend their religious practices against people who are speaking the language of strict morality are not having the same conversation. That is part of the reason why the debate was so awful and got off the rails (there was also no moderator but…).
    My parameters for authenticity I think are pretty broad. There are many ways to be Jewish that I would call authentic. I didn’t challenge Eli because he is a Jew but rather because he suggested that there could be some kind of Jewish way to progress the issue, from the inside. If he is not representing the internal Jewish conversation he should not have mentioned anything about it. And then for me the incoherence disappears. I still disagree with his position but not because it is in some way ‘inauthentic’ in some Jewish way. Eli is not speaking as a Jew but rather an independent film maker. There is no authenticity problem there. But the second he starts talking about Jewish ways to advance an anti-circumcision agenda he would be best served to do so, IMHO, by drawing evidence from Jewish sources for some insider credibility. This is what all change groups have done within Judaism, from the early reformers to women to homosexuals. All of them strove to find expression of their cause inside Jewish literature. They would not have been taken seriously without it.

    I think we have a disagreement on what authenticity means. That’s fine. I am inflexible about many things but I don’t think it is because I am overly concerned with authenticity. Like I said before, if you tell me that you are representing position A and I find that you are not, I can call you out on it. I don’t see the problem with that. It’s also not a problem for that person to say, except that one thing that you mentioned. Complex isn’t it? ;)


    Uri Allen · August 1st, 2011 at 10:46 am
  27. I just want to point out that the answer to all of Dan. O’s mental acrobatics, which I, myself, engaged in during my tender youth, is circumcision itself. It is, by definition, a supra-rational act, not bound by fluid moral theory or evolving philosophical models.

    As a highly evolved intellectual, Dan O. can think himself into a paper bag and then set it alight, and the rest of us with him. Circumcision is an act of humble surrender, a recognition of the limits of intellect, reason and choice; It is irrational and irrevocable by design, and not our design. We shouldn’t allow whatever prudent medical or cultural arguments that exist in its favor to cloud the issue. That a child isn’t given the option to choose is precisely the point.


    Victor · August 1st, 2011 at 9:23 pm
  28. I would also like add to Victor’s sound assessment that the trauma is also the point–the trauma for the baby and the trauma for the father (and mother in recent generations). Nearly all indigenous peoples have traumatic indoctrination rituals, many much older than Brit Milah.


    Justin · August 2nd, 2011 at 8:36 am
  29. by older, I meant the age of the person being indoctrinated, not the ritual itself… although that, too, may be true.


    Justin · August 2nd, 2011 at 8:37 am
  30. Now we’re getting somewhere! The vision that Victor and Justin just outlined is what I consider to be fundamentalism. Advantages: Consistency and intellectual honesty. Disadvantages: Reducing a proud and interesting interpretive tradition to something boring and problematic. But I’d go further. I’d say that arguing that we are commanded to do something unethical because it is unethical puts the whole concept of Oral Law in peril. For if human agency is completely removed from the equation and our job is simply to obey, what’s the point of the Oral Law? Simply to give us the which-shoelace-to-tie-first explication of Divine Will? Needless to say, I think that counterexamples to this approach abound in the proud history of the Jewish tradition. It would have been entirely foreign, for example, to the Rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud, who shaped the tradition along the contours of their own moral concerns.


    Eli · August 2nd, 2011 at 1:16 pm
  31. What Justin says about the importance of trauma in circumcision sounds very plausible as an explanation for the practice. But Victor’s idea that circumcision illustrates the limits of rationality, intellect, and the value of autonomy seems pretty anachronistic. I mean, did God strike that particular deal with Abraham as a response to post-enlightenment liberalism?

    I’m not of very tender age, and I’m afraid that at my rate of progress, I’ll never achieve a level of sagacity required to reach such a conclusion. I just don’t follow.


    Dan O. · August 2nd, 2011 at 1:48 pm
  32. @Eli,
    you’re so oversimplifying things by labeling such a perspective as fundamentalist. as you’ve already made abundantly clear — if a position disagrees with you, it is unethical, and one who upholds such a position is a fundamentalist. how nonsensical. you still have yet to prove that brit milah is unethical. generations of Jewish men have done just fine in their life without a foreskin, better than many who have had foreskins. what’s more, brit milah at 8 days has nothing to do with Oral Law, it is Written Law. You say examples abound, show me. I can show you many where customs and traditions do not fit your interpretation. No one is removing human agency, rather, there are those who feel compelled to continue this ancient and meaningful tradition BECAUSE of human agency. Again, the burden of proof is on whether or not this practice is unethical. You simply hold that it is, I simply hold it is not — teiku, as the gemara would say. What truly puts Oral Law in peril is the whims of the individual overriding the norms of the community. This proud and interpretive tradition you claim to be protecting has maintained the practice of ritual circumcision for 8 day old boys for, at a minimum, three millenia — but now you come to save the day after thousands of years of unethical families? give me a break.

    @Dan. O, Victor’s claim, simply put, if I understood it correctly, is that we as mortal humans will never comprehend the ways of God and there is virtue in submitting to that humble stature. Some will agree, others will not.


    Justin · August 2nd, 2011 at 2:38 pm
  33. Justin-You seem to be trying to dance at two weddings simultaneously. Either Victor’s assessment is sound and the fact that Brit Milah is unethical is the point, or Brit Milah is ethical, which would render his assessment invalid. I never suggested that disagreeing with me is a sufficient condition for being called a fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is an approach that is based on an unyielding literalist reading practice. It takes for granted that God’s will on certain matters is clear and concludes that the role of human beings is to follow without question. If you want to argue that circumcision is: ” by definition, a supra-rational act, not bound by fluid moral theory or evolving philosophical models.” you are in effect engaging in a fundamentalist-style reading of the Jewish tradition. Contrary to your misrepresentation, I have actually *made an argument* for the idea that infant circumcision is unethical. You may disagree with me, but you haven’t actually provided a compelling counterargument. Vague appeals to tradition do not constitute an argument. Anyone familiar with the history of the Jewish tradition is familiar with examples of practices that were once adhered to, but were eventually legislated out of Jewish practice. The obvious ones that come to mind immediately are the killing of the rebellious son and the death penalty. Both of these examples were legislated out of practice by the Rabbis who clearly had ethical problems with them. There are other more recent examples. I believe Dan O. brought up women not being allowed to learn Torah. If you think that it is ethical to circumcise an infant, you have to make that case. I have provided a clear argument for why I find the practice to be unethical. I did this in my film and more recently in the debate. You haven’t earned a teiku.


    Eli · August 2nd, 2011 at 3:35 pm
  34. “Victor’s claim, simply put, if I understood it correctly, is that we as mortal humans will never comprehend the ways of God and there is virtue in submitting to that humble stature. Some will agree, others will not.”

    Justin – I don’t think that’s Victor’s claim at all. He claimed it was, “irrational and irrevocable by design, and not our design.” How is that about humility, and not about knowledge?

    It seems to me that your position is different than Victor’s. You seem to care about the integrity of the tradition; a position that seems more similar to Uri’s as I understand it. Victor seems to think, instead, that the integrity of the tradition somehow speaks to the denigrated state of contemporary ethics. That’s a reactionary point of view. I have respect for the traditionalist point of view (although I do not agree).


    Dan O. · August 2nd, 2011 at 3:43 pm
  35. if you think Victor is saying that brit milah is unethical I think you’re wrong. He’s saying the fact that it is challenging and that it is not rational. irrational does not equal unethical. there is no such thing as a fundamentalist style of the Jewish tradition if one is engaged in an evolving tradition. You and I agree that Judaism is a deep, rich, evolving tradition. I simply do not believe that it should evolve to get rid of brit milah. I do not consider brit milah to be unethical for the following (but not limited to) reasons: 1) the physical harm inflicted on the baby in an overwhelming majority of cases does not produce any quantifiable negative effects. 2) the practice of connecting ourselves and our children to an ancient spiritual tradition serves to provide a means of expressing collective values and a reminder of one’s duties in the world; 3), as I mentioned, Jewish men have succeeded admirably in the world without their foreskin while others with foreskins have languished, so clearly the foreskin is not the determining factor in a well adjusted adult life. 4) the ritual serves to remind the father of his obligations to the child, to God, to community and to past/future generations. Again, that it is traumatic is exactly what makes it a coming of age (for the father) and indoctrinating (for the son) ritual. I’d rather have a non-essential glans removed in post-natal infancy than a number of other rituals practiced by other indigenous peoples.

    In terms of the examples you cited for the changing tradition — both involve death. brit milah does not. plus, the rabbis understood that there NEVER was a case of the rebellious son, so this is not an undoing, but rather a case where the Torah teaches a law that was NEVER enforced, and the reason is for its interpretive value. Same for capital punishment — the laws exist to teach us, not to be enforced. The idea that women were never allowed to learn Torah is a fallacy until the last few hundred years. There were women in medieval Baghdad who taught Torah, Talmud, Midrash and Scripture and this in a society where women were not even allowed to be in public! Not to mention there are references in the Talmud to women who had acquired great knowledge in learning. That women were eventually excised from learning is not a product of the tradition, but of customs of the communities Jews found themselves within. There is no connection between the laws you cite and brit milah. Again, the laws the rabbis were uncomfortable with stemmed from the fact that death was connected to it. after all, if you kill someone you are a murderer and that entails a hefty punishment from God, according to rabbinic theology.

    I understand that you have a holdup with circumcision. that’s fine. don’t circumcise. but why do you feel like you’re helping Judaism by removing what many consider to be one of its most meaningful traditions? I think, as I stated, that medical circumcision is a travesty. I think that secular Jews who circumcise is ridiculous. As I said to my parents when they told me to convince my sister to circumcise her son. I said, I wish she had a reason to circumcise, and I told them that if they observed one shabbat and kept strictly kosher for 1 day, I would talk to her about it. I think your argument is lost when you say the tradition needs to be changed. Changes occur because of a perceived need, not because of the holdup of an overwhelming minority.

    As you said, there are examples of practices which changed over time. we no longer rest the dead on the earth after the moment of death. we no longer practice polygamy. the modern world has seen even more, such as the ordination of women, the marriage and ordination of homosexuals, so on and so forth. these are all great. isn’t there a reason, then, that after 3000 years there is still brit milah!?

    You think this is the first generation Jews were uncomfortable with the practice? The rabbis would not have needed to write polemics around it if people were 100% comfortable with it. don’t give yourself that much credit, friend. that it has survived should tell you something about how the majority of observant Jews feel about it. Focus your attention on medical circumcision and cosmetic circumcision and secular circumcision and you’ll have many allies. once you start to say that one of the world’s oldest religions is wrong in one of its most foundational practices, well, you’re walking a tight line.


    Justin · August 2nd, 2011 at 4:03 pm
  36. @ Dan O.,
    Victor, as I understand it, is an Orthodox Jew. I am simply trying to translate my understanding of traditionalist perspectives. Uri and I agree on many (most?) things when it comes to the “integrity of the tradition” and understanding it in a modern world. I think that Victor is saying that it is about humility in that there is a general principle that God’s ways are too mysterious for mere humans to comprehend. There are two types of commandments, mishpatim which have rational implications and hukkim which do not have a rational basis. We observe hukkim out of humility in that it is a recognition that God’s ways are beyond our comprehension. I agree with you that Victor can espouse a reactionary view, but I think that contemporary Orthodox Judaism is reactionary…


    Justin · August 2nd, 2011 at 4:28 pm
  37. Justin –

    I respect your point of view (and Uri’s). But again, I really don’t see the close relation between your view and Victor’s.

    To put it philosophically, you made an epistemic claim (about how we can know about what we must do). Victor made a metaphysical one (that God operates contrary to degenerate human reason). Your claim about humility is easier to accept. I don’t accept it, as a matter of fact, but it doesn’t seem obviously false.


    Dan O. · August 2nd, 2011 at 6:13 pm
  38. Justin-You seem to be engaging in a midrashic interpretation of Victor’s words. “Circumcision is an act of humble surrender, a recognition of the limits of intellect, reason and choice; It is irrational and irrevocable by design, and not our design.”
    Sounds to me like Victor is making the argument that circumcision is unethical and
    it doesn’t matter, because God commanded it. To your argument: 1)I have brought evidence which demonstrates that this is untrue. Circumcision is always harmful as it removes the most sensitive part of the penis and renders that organ immobile. If you want to argue that circumcision is not harmful, you have to account for these facts. Not to mention the men who have lost more than just their foreskins to the practice. The fact that the harm is “not quantifiable” is besides the point. If I break someone’s nose and they lose their sense of smell, they may not be able to quantify exactly how much of their sense of taste they have lost, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t harmed their ability to enjoy food. 2) This idea has no bearing on whether or not the practice is unethical. It could accomplish all of this and still be unethical. 3) See 2. Just because the practice doesn’t usually ruin lives, doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. 4) See 2. Not sure what “Non-essential glans” refers to. Maybe you should watch my film. You are mistaking the Rabbis’s method for their intent. I get where that mistake comes from. In the Orthodox world you are supposed to pretend that no one really ever changes anything. It’s always just a better understanding of what was always there to begin with. Circumcision DOES have to do with death. People die from circumcision all the time. Furthermore, the Rabbis were well aware of this, as I showed in a previous thread. Finally, there isn’t a single religious authority, past or present, who considers Brit Milah to be a Khok. Its reason is clearly stated.


    Eli · August 2nd, 2011 at 6:23 pm
  39. circumcision itself. It is, by definition, a supra-rational act, not bound by fluid moral theory or evolving philosophical models.

    This, to me, is where Jewish arguments about circumcision get a little confused. If one begins with the a priori assumption that circumcision (as well as the rest of the mitzvot) are “not our design” but God’s and must therefore be obeyed, then I agree that the argument against it becomes much less compelling. But the vast majority of Jews in the world aren’t observant of nearly any mitzvot, including ones which are considerably less painful and less a violation of others’ autonomy than circumcision, and which are accessible to all Jews, not just the ones with male anatomical features?

    So why ought those Jews to circumcise? Because it’s commanded? So what? They don’t observe many other commandments. Why should they start with something which involves ripping off someone’s foreskin?


    miri · August 2nd, 2011 at 6:38 pm
  40. “So why ought those Jews to circumcise? Because it’s commanded? So what? They don’t observe many other commandments.”.

    To put another way, what you’re saying, miri, is like telling a poor, hungry person who sees a $1 bill on the street, “why bother picking it up? you’ll be poor and hungry whether you pick it up or not”.

    That a Jew wants to perform a mitzvah, any mitzvah, is an expression of their spiritual character. Maybe their sole reason for being born was to perform this one mitzvah of circumcision, and nothing else. To belittle their desire to perform this mitzvah but not others is unseemly. You don’t know the reward for a mitzvah, or the effort and kavanah required of this person to perform it.

    That circumcision is a mitzvah beyond reason and intellect makes it all the more powerful, especially for Jews who don’t know or perform other mitzvahs. To do something that makes a great deal of sense, which has an obvious benefit to you, that doesn’t take a lot of dedication and willpower. To do something you don’t fully understand, simply because the source of your existence asked you to… what higher nullification of self, of ego, of sheer transcendence can there be?

    “Na’aseh v’nishma”, we will do and we will hear.

    Much to say, but I’m on cell… gotta go. Maybe Justin can elaborate for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase.


    Victor · August 2nd, 2011 at 9:42 pm
  41. I would have jumped in a few comments ago but it was just so much more interesting reading everyone else’s comments. Plus, I have a comment awaiting moderation for some reason.

    One comment to Dan O – your philosophical categorization is helpful. I simply don’t think that most people live their lives adhering exactly to one philosophy or another. Philosophy, in my mind, is more descriptive than it is prescriptive.


    Uri Allen · August 3rd, 2011 at 3:14 am
  42. I also seem to have a comment awaiting moderation for some reason. I think the fire of our makhloket leshem shamayim (dispute for the right reasons) must be consuming the Jewschool servers :) . Whether or not my comment ever makes it up, I should point out, Justin, that you are once again misquoting Talmudic sources. There was a dispute in the Talmud about whether or not there ever was a boy killed for being a rebellious son. I’d also like to add that if there was ever any doubt about what Victor meant, his latest comment should make it abundantly clear that my initial reading of his meaning was accurate. Na’aseh Vinishma as a maxim conforms rather well to my description of fundamentalism.


    Eli · August 3rd, 2011 at 3:41 am
  43. Eli,
    With all due respect, if Na’aseh V’nishma is a fundamentalist statement then Judaism itself must be so as well.
    I have difficulty with that in one breath you make statements about what Jewish texts mean and how they should be interpreted and in the next breath say that you are not qualified to do so. So which one is it? My suspicion is that it is easier for you to not have to decide and just be a guy who made a film about an ethically problematic ritual/procedure who also happens to know a lot about Judaism. No accountability is great isn’t it?


    Uri Allen · August 3rd, 2011 at 4:02 am
  44. Uri-I don’t agree. I think that one can find elements in the Jewish tradition to support fundamentalism and Na’aseh V’nishma is a great example. It’s there. There’s a cool story that goes along with it in the Midrash. But accepting that it’s a part of the tradition and saying that it defines Judaism, are two very different things. There are also over 150 instances in Rabbinic literature that detail confrontations with God. That’s there too. So the question really is one of emphasis. I don’t think I’m avoiding accountability at all. On the contrary, within my conception of what it means to be a Jew, I’m doing my part. I’m sorry that I don’t have all the answers you’re looking for. But I have identified a problem and I have enough knowledge to explain it and not fall for the usual apologetics. I feel like I’m disappointing you on some level, because I’m not a Rabbi. You’re in good company. I should introduce you to my mother :) . But that’s not who I am and that’s not the life I’ve chosen. I’m a filmmaker and I aspire to make quality films that will hopefully change the way people think and feel about certain issues. There’s nothing easy about the path that I’ve chosen. It would have been much easier to just join the ranks of the new Atheists and attack religious fundamentalism all day long. For the reasons I outlined above, that’s just not me. I take full accountability for my actions and I don’t seek to hide what I think about this ritual. That doesn’t, however, mean that I need to be doing anything other than getting people to talk about it intelligently.


    Eli · August 3rd, 2011 at 4:37 am
  45. “But accepting that it’s a part of the tradition and saying that it defines Judaism, are two very different things.”
    Agreed. How does one evaluate what is essential, foundational and formative and what is just there. I am of the opinion that one cannot base this assessment purely on structure or content respectively. There is a deep interplay between the two that must be investigated. Of course at the end of the day one’s interpretive rubric may lead to different conclusions and that is certainly a desirable outcome. But this only works to my mind if the rules of interpretation are the same for everybody. At the end of the day everyone must acknowledge, at least to themselves, that the essential act that we are all engaging in is interpretation and not Truth (capital T) distillation. If we can all do that then we are indeed having machloket leshem shamayim. Harei zeh meshubach.

    Eli, I am not looking for you to have all the answers. That is an unreasonable expectation. As far as disappointment goes, I guess it comes down to someone espousing deep Jewish identity and disregarding what I, an others, consider to be a major institution within our tradition without which I am suspicious of our being able to survive. It’s not personal. This is not to be alarmist only to say that many of the groups in history that have sought to destroy the Jews aimed their attacks on brit milah (in addition to Torah study and other things). What does it say about our historical legacy and shared future destiny if we eliminate brit milah from within. For me that would be giving up on everything that Judaism stands for and throwing in the towel. I am not willing to do that just so I can have a clean ethical conscious. Of course that is contingent on the fact that I find ethical problems with the ritual. I am with Justin’s reasoning on this one.


    Uri Allen · August 3rd, 2011 at 4:59 am
  46. I’m not disregarding Brit Milah. I’m criticizing it as it’s currently practiced. And I’m not proposing that Brit Milah be abolished from within. Merely that it be postponed to the age of consent. I’m not sure why you think that the Jewish tradition can’t survive without infant circumcision. Hell, it survived the destruction of the temple and became something much more interesting for it. My response to Justin’s argument seems to be lost in the ether, but I’m not very impressed. Arguing that Brit Milah serves positive religious and social functions does not address the crux of my argument. And saying that the harm is “not quantifiable,” the closest our friend gets to actually making a counterargument, misses the point. If someone breaks my nose and I lose my sense of smell, I may not be able to quantify the loss that I experience, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced a loss. Food, for example, will never taste the same again. And of course, infant circumcision is the only Jewish ritual currently in practice that actually literally kills people. I know that it’s rare, but it does happen. But you’ve just told me that whether or not there is an ethical problem doesn’t matter to you. And you see, I think it should. And here we come back to what it means to be Jewish. When push comes to shove and your back is against the wall, how do you react to this sort of a conflict? And I can’t think of a more Jewish response than disobedience.


    Eli · August 3rd, 2011 at 5:24 am
  47. @Victor

    “To do something you don’t fully understand, simply because the source of your existence asked you to… what higher nullification of self, of ego, of sheer transcendence can there be?”

    And but by the grace of God’s Law, our nullification doesn’t come by sacrificing our sons instead of their foreskins?


    Dan O. · August 3rd, 2011 at 8:11 am
  48. “When push comes to shove and your back is against the wall, how do you react to this sort of a conflict? And I can’t think of a more Jewish response than disobedience.”
    Not all value conflicts are the same. I’m not sure disobedience is Jewish, but disagreement certainly is.


    Uri Allen · August 3rd, 2011 at 8:48 am
  49. And another thing, one would need to think very carefully about the implications of moving brit milah to the age of consent and how/if that would change the nature of the ceremony, the feelings of the father and of the community, and of course the man/boy (age tbd) who is being circumcised. In order to preserve circumcision as a widespread Jewish ritual for those of consenting age there would need to be a severe shift in Jewish education such that a consenting man/boy would actually choose to have this done to him for all of the spiritual, religious, communal, cultural reasons that we have been discussing. Without this kind of commitment and education about Judaism and Jewish practice, hell even with it, I can’t imagine that people would choose this route. And as Justin has been pointing out, a distinction needs to be made between brit milah and medical circumcision.


    Uri Allen · August 3rd, 2011 at 8:54 am
  50. “To do something you don’t fully understand, simply because the source of your existence asked you to… what higher nullification of self, of ego, of sheer transcendence can there be?”

    And but by the grace of God’s Law, our nullification doesn’t come by sacrificing our sons instead of their foreskins?

    Dan, you seem to be confusing al qaeda with akeidah. You are relating to G-d the way you would relate to a corporeal authority figure. There’s this me vs. Him approach to your logic. “I want to keep my foreskin,” you’re saying, “and G-d wants to take it away from me. What more will he want tomorrow, the selfish brute, my very life?!”

    I have news for you: G-d doesn’t get off on our suffering. He doesn’t need our sacrifice to entertain Himself, or drink our blood for his pleasure. The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah. We don’t circumcise our sons for G-d’s benefit; we do it for our benefit, and for the benefit of our children.

    This is why the notion that circumcision is unethical is meaningless at its root. The Torah is Toras Chaim, the Torah of Life. Its ways are sweet and pleasant, and its paths are peaceful. The Torah doesn’t need to conform to your evolving ethics and morality. Like the blueprint for the physical forces which bring the world into being, the Torah is the blueprint for the ethical foundations of creation. How is it possible that connecting to the source of your existence – that’s what a mitzvah is, a connection – can be unethical or immoral? It’s absurd.

    Great is milah, for our patriach Abraham was not called “perfect” until he was circumcised, as the verse says, “Walk before me and be perfect. I will set My covenant [briti] between Me and you…
    -Rambam, Laws of Milah 3:8

    So G-d, outside of whom nothing exists – outside of whose continuing will human logic and reason return to nothingness as if they never were – only calls Abraham “perfect”, physically and spiritually, after he is circumcised. Is G-d, who brings us, our consciousness, our reality into existence every instant, “unethical”? I can’t think of a greater logical fallacy.

    The situation whereby an individual’s “ethics” would ever need to contend with G-d’s “ethics” can only be the case if we exist outside of G-d. If you are an independent entity, and G-d is an independent entity, just stronger than you, then you can argue with him in a zero-sum way what is “ethical” and what isn’t, what your rights should be and what they shouldn’t be, what will benefit you and what won’t. But you’re not an independent entity. No part of you exists outside of Him. To employ a crude metaphor, you’re not even a zit on G-d’s nose. We’re no less transient than the shadow of G-d’s speech. Have you meditated about what it really means to not exist outside of Him? As a friend of mine says, you can be for G-d, or you can be against G-d, but you can’t do without G-d.

    For the agile minded, yes, there is a dialectic of struggling with G-d in Torah and Talmud, but we’re talking about a different class of individuals, giants of learning and spirituality, and in any case, that’s a completely different discussion, and not a simple one. There is a big difference between being Moses, and walking around with a Moses complex.

    To wrap this up: We don’t perform mitzvahs to satisfy G-d desires, just as we didn’t give sacrifices on the altar when the Beit Hamikdash stood for that reason. G-d didn’t need the blood of goats and he doesn’t need circumcised flesh. We perform these mitzvahs because we want to be close to Him.

    We are following a blueprint, a self-help guide for how to get out of our heads, our sense of self, to relinquish our ego, which in truth exists only in the realms of klipah and sitra achra. The mitzvahs are for our own benefit, for our spiritual and physical health, a carefully scripted program to help us wean ourselves from vanity and nothingness, to come into harmony with our essence and approach the source of our existence.


    Victor · August 3rd, 2011 at 6:00 pm
  51. “I have news for you: G-d doesn’t get off on our suffering. He doesn’t need our sacrifice to entertain Himself, or drink our blood for his pleasure.”

    “We are following a blueprint, a self-help guide for how to get out of our heads, our sense of self, to relinquish our ego, which in truth exists only in the realms of klipah and sitra achra. The mitzvahs are for our own benefit, for our spiritual and physical health, a carefully scripted program to help us wean ourselves from vanity and nothingness, to come into harmony with our essence and approach the source of our existence.”

    This is the response I wanted. You are bringing the ego back in through the back door, which makes my initial concerns entirely relevant despite your earlier summary dismissal. You are giving reasons for that which you earlier said was beyond reason.

    I’m not pretending to be smart. I’m merely following a formula, laid out in the Euthyphro, trying to illustrate a single point: You cannot justify the practice such as ritual circumcision from outside the religious context in which it is integrated (and from within, no justification is required). That is what Uri and Justin seem to understand, and you do not.

    I believe that rights are politically fundamental, and also that the political context trumps religious practices. Political freedom makes religion possible, and not the reverse. I have no interest in arguing matters with people who disagree on that point, I just try to make sure they don’t get into office.

    Nullification of one’s ego is no excuse to violate another’s rights. It’s ironic, actually, that you think that the respect for a child’s rights involves the self-aggrandizement of ego. To me, to care for while respecting the rights and autonomy of child is an expression of ego-nullification.


    Dan O. · August 4th, 2011 at 8:26 am
  52. “Political freedom makes religion possible.”
    Fascinating. There is a strong current in the evangelical right wing that disputes this point, arguing that religious freedom, nay, Judeao-Christian cultural dominance + the free market = political freedom.

    Some Jews agree.


    Jew Guevara · August 4th, 2011 at 8:33 am
  53. That is what Uri and Justin seem to understand, and you do not.

    I don’t agree, I think the issue here is semantic. Uri and I are using secular language to get our ideas across. Victor, however, is using the language of the tradition and mysticism. I think Victor’s point is that Eli is cherry picking the tradition when and where he wants to while stepping wholly outside the bounds of the system. According to the believer, this system is not just an accident or the creation of humans — it is the very fabric of the universe. I think the issue here is that you are speaking past each other because you’re actually have two different conversations.

    In the Jewish tradition, and in halakhah, a child has no rights. I’m not even sure in democratic political philosophies a child has rights… rights aside, rights do not equal autonomy. Judaism is not concerned with the rights or autonomy of an infant. This is another reason why it should be clear why calling someone a ‘philosopher’ is an insult in the Talmud…


    Justin · August 4th, 2011 at 9:59 am
  54. “Political freedom makes religion possible, and not the reverse.”
    Political freedom PROTECTS religion but does not make it possible (I’m not yelling I just don’t know how to do italics on this blog).

    “I believe that rights are politically fundamental, and also that the political context trumps religious practices”
    That’s the whole ball game right there folks. No amount of internal religious rationale with ever satisfy someone who holds this belief. My own preference is to devise some kind of system where sometimes politics wins and sometimes religion wins. What is so extraordinary is that my view of Judaism actually facilitates this kind of back and forth evaluation between religion and politics! It’s not perfect but it’s always interesting.


    Uri Allen · August 4th, 2011 at 10:24 am
  55. “I don’t agree, I think the issue here is semantic.”

    Really? Well, then I’ll take you at your word. I’ll agree with Eli, then, and say the view is really quite like fundamentalism. I thought the distinction between fideism and fundamantalism is pretty stark, and not at all merely different ways of saying the same thing.

    “In the Jewish tradition, and in halakhah, a child has no rights. I’m not even sure in democratic political philosophies a child has rights.”

    Nonsense, of course they do. Rights of the potentially autonomous are different in character than the rights of the autonomous, but they are rights all the same.

    We can argue about the extent of those rights, and whether those rights include protection from bodily modification. If we were to argue about that then all sorts of arguments about the difference between FGM, surgery to ‘correct’ sexual ambiguity, and circumcision would become relevant. I know that I tend to extend children’s rights further than the legal and political mainstream (which is why I don’t support the circumcision ban), but we’re not having that argument.

    I’m really shocked at the radical nature of the position you’re talking yourself into. Would you debate Aguduth Israel’s position on mandatory reporters of child abuse on Halakhic grounds *only*? If so, we have absolutely nothing to say to each other. I apologize for according you the respect of a position you do not hold.

    @JG – I am sometimes shocked by the views of other Jews. My politics is overwhelmingly influenced by my Israeli mother, for whom that kind of political submission of politics to religion is unthinkable. I try to resolve myself against the scorn my mother feels towards the religious. It’s unseemly (to use Victor’s phrase). But when someone says that children have no rights, it gets hard not to show scorn.


    Dan O. · August 4th, 2011 at 11:38 am
  56. let me clarify when I say something like according to halakhah a child has no rights, this is not in support or defense or in opposition, it’s simply a fact. a minor has no rights in Jewish law. I don’t personally live a life which follows halakhah. I do not own my wife, I drink wine produced by non-Jews, I eat food cooked by non-Jews, so on and so forth. my opinions don’t need to be halakhic 100% of the time, for my own life, and I do not need halakhah to conform to my opinions.

    all I’m trying to point out is that Victor is speaking a specific language. That language comes from a tradition that views itself as internally consistent (even when it’s really not). It also views the Master of the World as having intimate involvement in each of our lives and existences and were it not for God we would not exist. God gave the Jewish people (according to this view) the unique task of keeping order in the universe. We keep order in the universe by observing mitzvot. Like Victor said, this is not for God’s benefit. God can do whatever God wants, far be it from God to need us for anything. Rather, since God did choose the Jewish people for this task, the Jewish people are obligated in the commandments as delineated in the Written and Oral Torah. There’s much more to say but I’m running late…


    Justin · August 4th, 2011 at 11:48 am
  57. as if a bar mitzvah wasn’t painful enough- now the poor boy has to step into a world of pain… ??
    is the idea of waiting till an age of consent proposing that it will be the same mila? pria and removal of orla? i think the traumas on ones manhood will be considerably greater by the time any real da’at has entered our young whippersnappers… but seriously again-@Eli— is the propoal of putting it off till consentual age implying to still make the Cut?
    thanks for an awesome use and investment in this forum to all!


    shaul · August 4th, 2011 at 12:16 pm
  58. shaul-The status quo is that Jewish baby boys are forced into a world of pain. Most of the time, Brit Milah is done without any sort of analgesia. It’s difficult to quantify pleasure and pain, but it should be noted that one of the extremely painful parts of infant circumcision is the tearing of the synechea. At birth, the foreskin and glans are fused and the first step in any circumcision is to tear the membrane that connects them. This membrane disintegrates over the course of childhood (or in some instances later) when the foreskin becomes mobile. I understand your point about circumcision posing a different sort of psychological burden on someone who is conscious, but different does not necessarily mean worse. The truth is that we don’t fully understand the psychological consequences of infant circumcision. We can point at things like the interruption of breast feeding cycles and the like, but beyond that, it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty. Ronald Goldman Ph.D. has done some work on this and believes that the psychological effects are profound. One thing that I think is clear is that infant circumcision is more dangerous than adult circumcision. Infants are far more susceptible to infectious disease than adults. I am in favor of abandoning the practice of *infant* circumcision. What a person does to his own penis when he reaches the age of consent is not my concern. From a Jewish perspective, I have argued that the religious cost of abandoning infant circumcision is not as high as people think.


    Eli · August 4th, 2011 at 1:12 pm
  59. You are giving reasons for that which you earlier said was beyond reason.

    I am trying to explain the value in pursuing something that is beyond reason.

    You cannot justify the practice such as ritual circumcision from outside the religious context in which it is integrated (and from within, no justification is required).

    Exactly right. If you look, I said this from the beginning. There are no justifications for the practice of circumcision outside the Jewish faith. And inside the Jewish faith, the mitzvah is its own justification.

    But then, outside a “religious” context, there is plenty that you can’t justify either. How do you justify murdering living plants and animals for food? Why should others die so you should live? What is the morality in that? What right do you have to bear children? They didn’t ask to be born. Aren’t you violating the unborn child’s choice to not be born? And so on.

    I believe that rights are politically fundamental

    This sentence says that a human being’s innate rights stem from the political context, that they’re based on the political environment. You’ve described the wet dream of every despot.

    …and also that the political context trumps religious practices.

    Yes, the Soviet Union would have loved you. That’s where I come from, Dan, and that’s how I know you are wrong, and deeply misguided. Your intent is seemingly to shield yourself from what you perceive to be religious coercion, but in the process, you give the state power to regulate, even subjugate faith. This is an open leap into tyranny.

    Political freedom makes religion possible, and not the reverse.

    You just said that religion is a consequence of a given politic. You’re confused. Political freedom enables unmolested religious expression. However, even in conditions of political repression, faith and its expression endure. Again, the Soviet context is helpful.

    I don’t think you have a solid grasp of the relationship between human rights and the state, and role and basis of each, at least in the way they are construed in the American experiment.


    Victor · August 4th, 2011 at 1:50 pm
  60. @Victor, I give up. If you hear Soviets when you read me, then that’s not my problem.

    I gave an argument according to which circumcision appears to be a a violation of rights. I temper this position by indicating that I don’t believe it’s serious enough or realistic to assert that right given the US cultural context. The response given me is that rights just don’t matter in the context in which circumcision is justified, which a view that could be extended to just about any religious practice (like arranged child marriages), but, really, I shouldn’t worry because God is Good. But oh, and by the way, I should be lampooned as having a totalitarian view of human rights.

    That’s the big picture. I hope I’m not the only person who appreciates the irony.


    Dan O. · August 4th, 2011 at 4:01 pm
  61. btw, I mean there to be an ‘is’ to be in the phrase ‘which is a view that could be extended…’


    Dan O. · August 4th, 2011 at 4:02 pm
  62. I believe that rights are politically fundamental, and also that the political context trumps religious practices. Political freedom makes religion possible, and not the reverse.

    Dan O., I’m not interested in lampooning you. I took your statement and elaborated on its component parts. This is a really problematic, or… I should, say non-normative set of beliefs. Perhaps you phrased yourself in a way you didn’t intend. Do you recognize that human beings have innate rights, independent of the political, social or cultural context?

    That’s actually an interesting point. Jew Guevara:

    There is a strong current in the evangelical right wing that disputes this point, arguing that religious freedom, nay, Judeao-Christian cultural dominance + the free market = political freedom.

    If you read the Declaration of Independence, it mentions a very interesting notion:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    Note that the basis on which the founders laid the system of rights and freedoms is, essentially, Judeo-Christian notions of Divinity. If there is no G-d, and if G-d didn’t endow human beings with rights, then on what basis can those rights be asserted?

    Of course, today, we really do “hold these truths to be self-evident”, the entire world does, for the most part. But why should that be the case, in an abstract sense? Without universal rights given by G-d to all people, why is it wrong to enslave an “inferior” race, however one defines it?

    I’m familiar with Ayn Rand’s G-dless moral system, but I’ve never considered this question from the opposing pole. That these truths really are self-evident because we know them to have been endowed by our Creator, to whom we are all subject, as it were, and not manufactured in the abstract by human intellect.


    Victor · August 4th, 2011 at 9:16 pm
  63. The degree to which everyone in this conversation is intrinsically tied to our notions of divinity is startling. Everyone arguing against circumcision on the basis of “infringement of rights”, ethics and morality, etc., is using concepts borrowed from a G-d-centered understanding of existence. These notions of rights and morals would otherwise have no vested value.

    They’re standing atop an intellectual and ethical pyramid built on a foundation of awareness of the divine, attacking the theists for their immoral barbarism.


    Victor · August 4th, 2011 at 9:23 pm
  64. I was particularly hoping to hear Eli’s thoughts on Bris Shalom/Brit B’lee Milah and other proposed alternatives to circumcision.


    IA · August 7th, 2011 at 1:51 am
  65. @Victor –

    No, I don’t believe in innate rights absent some social or political context or other. But I also don’t believe in humanity absent a social or political context. Also, I believe that some social and political contexts are preferable to others, and they can be ordered pretty objectively.

    The language in the Declaration is stolen (by Jefferson) from Locke, who had a very odd moral epistemology. He thought that all morality was self evident with ‘Murder is wrong’ being known similarly to ‘The sum of the angles in a triangle add to 180′. Morality being analytic, it has nothing at all to do with awareness of God. After all, even the Godless can do geometry. I don’t think you have an ally with Locke.

    “I’m familiar with Ayn Rand’s G-dless moral system, but I’ve never considered this question from the opposing pole. That these truths really are self-evident because we know them to have been endowed by our Creator, to whom we are all subject, as it were, and not manufactured in the abstract by human intellect.”

    Why can’t rights depend most directly upon our nature (an essentially social one, btw), given to us by God? That’s my view. I think it’s a pretty common view. It has the benefit of allowing us to utilize our God-given intellect to dispute and negotiate upon matters of morals, without depending upon tyrants clothed in religious garb. Again, the actual language is agnostic between your view and mine, but I can tell that the primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, agreed with me, not you.

    So, as for this, “They’re standing atop an intellectual and ethical pyramid built on a foundation of awareness of the divine, attacking the theists for their immoral barbarism.”

    What does this any of this have to do with theism? Let’s see the argument. Socrates waited, but Euthyphro was too busy trying to get his Pop hung for the love of God. I predict I’ll also die before you produce the argument.


    Dan O. · August 8th, 2011 at 9:05 am
  66. No, I don’t believe in innate rights absent some social or political context or other.

    Why can’t rights depend most directly upon our nature (an essentially social one, btw), given to us by God? That’s my view.

    How are these statements consistent?

    If rights are innate, then they are independent of social or political context. Our nature, given to us by G-d, is that we have innate rights.


    Victor · August 8th, 2011 at 1:00 pm
  67. *sigh* first of all, the language of “rights”s foreign to Judaism. Jews don’t have rights, we have obligations. Americans have rights. There are significant differences in these two approaches, but A primary one is that talking about the rights of anyone, infants, or otherwise, makes no sense. if you want to successfully argue for any kind of change in Judaism, the first thing you have to do is abandon that language and talk in the language of obligation. (It’s not easy. I’ve done it for discussing gender egalitarianism, and it really isn’t easy, but it’s necessary).
    So let’s start here: infants don’t have a right to bodily integrity, or anything else. Nor do children, nor adults. Talking about obligation instead of rights has some advantages: for example, having a right to get enough to eat doesn’t get the poor very far; but an obligation to feed the poor theoretically will get the poor fed (having a right is one thing, but it goes nowhere without some activist body enforcing it. On the other hand if everyone has an obligation, then each person is failing if they don’t feed the poor, even without some institution handling it.
    Secondly, I’m not impressed by the idea of waiting until puberty or whatever for circumcision. Milah is an obligation, and I have not seen evidence that it does harm, other than pain for a short period of time (full disclosire: I have a son, he was circumcised, and I had trouble with that ahead of time. During the milah, my son didn’t even cry (and he’s not particularly reticent about crying) which makes me think that the mild topical did just fine. Moreover, I’ve presided over milah for *slightly* older children and it didn’t seem to be that traumatic for them either.
    Maimonides does say that he regards it as a reminder that men need to keep their sexuality in service to God and to “control” it, but I haven’t noticed that jewish guys have any less interest or ability to enjoy sex than non-circ’ed guys.


    KRG · August 8th, 2011 at 2:00 pm
  68. @KRG

    I understand negative rights as obligations of respect (i.e. Kant saw it as an obligation to respect the actual or possible volition of a rational will). If you prefer to translate things as so and so is obliged not to X such and such as opposed to saying that so and so’s X-ing infringes upon such and such’s right not to be X-ed, feel free. I really don’t see how that makes no sense.

    @Victor

    I assure you they are consistent. Usually, when someone says another is contradicting themselves, an argument is expected. It’s missing. (Pounding the table isn’t an argument.)


    Dan O. · August 8th, 2011 at 3:29 pm
  69. No, I don’t believe in innate rights absent some social or political context or other.

    Why can’t rights depend most directly upon our nature (an essentially social one, btw), given to us by God? That’s my view.

    How are these statements consistent?

    I assure you they are consistent. Usually, when someone says another is contradicting themselves, an argument is expected. It’s missing. (Pounding the table isn’t an argument.)

    I think you’re having trouble comprehending me. Those two statements of yours conflict with each other. One says that, “I don’t believe in innate rights”. The other says that, “rights… [are] given to us by God.”

    “I don’t believe in innate rights” ≠ “rights… [are] given to us by God”

    You don’t see a conflict between these two statements? Do you understand the meaning of “innate”?

    Is there anyone else still reading this thread who confirm whether these statements are in conflict or not.


    Victor · August 8th, 2011 at 6:49 pm
  70. Victor –

    The difference is that I believe that human beings are essentially social creatures, and that human rights are essentially social features. That is, I don’t believe that humans exist absent a social or political context.

    I’m okay with ‘innate rights’ only if innateness isn’t intrinsic to an individual. Genetics are both innate and intrinsic. Rights are innate and social (and therefore relational, and not intrinsic). We neither have nor express our natures without others. Our natures aren’t limited to stuff from the skin in + our relation to God. That’s what you seem to believe, and I don’t.

    So, no, I have no trouble comprehending you. I just reject your assumption.


    Dan O. · August 14th, 2011 at 10:44 am
  71. [...] Ungar-Sargon of Cut fame, whose blogging here at Jewschool has generated some interesting conversations, is off and running on his next project—a [...]


    Video survey: Racism in Israel | Jewschool · August 29th, 2011 at 5:52 pm
  72. I landed on your site after watching “Boteach and Ungar-Sargon Debate on Circumcision” video on YouTube. This just re-emphasises for me that debate is a poor way to try and come to understanding or consensus about circumcision. Shows how red herrings can be so effective in confusing the facts. The rabbi is a very effective debater and controls the debate very well.

    Unfortunately Eli is not so accomplished and takes the tack of responding to all the points the rabbi brings up, including the red herrings, thus causing him to be constantly on the defensive.

    It is very clear the rabbi is highly biased and not a very good thinker, but he is a polished debater.

    Thanks for the heads up, intersting to listen to.


    Puberty 101 · September 3rd, 2011 at 3:30 pm
  73. Obama is not a socialist. However, pragmatism requires that we realize that there is a diffrence between some theories in a book and actual practice. There is no capitalism which does not have some regulations and limits. We tried that old inflexable adhearance to the ideology of the multinational corporate “entities.” After 30 years of it, we should have learned; “trickle down” really means piss on the middle class.


    Ngan Molands · December 3rd, 2011 at 12:27 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik