Rabbis assail attacks on circumcision

Rabbi and mohel Mike Rovinsky holds Benjamin Miller, son of Dr. Aaron and Nanci Miller, during a bris ceremony last week.

REPPS HUDSON, Special to the Jewish Light

Moves in California to ban circumcision, even those with religious basis, sure have caught the attention of rabbis here.

So far, no vote banning the ancient, fundamental and what some call “tribal” rite of Judaism for males has passed.

But several rabbis contacted by the Jewish Light, from Orthodox to Reform, see the ballot initiative as a malicious assault on one of Judaism’s cherished tenets.

They note that the legal effort to ensure the rights of infants not to be circumcised against their will fails to include an exemption for religious reasons. They regard this as a basic flaw in proposed local ordinances.

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Circumcision also is widely practiced by followers of Islam, the second great Abrahamic faith.

Both faiths claim Abraham as their ancestor and cite God’s commandment to Abraham in Genesis 17 to remove his foreskin as a sign of his covenant with God.

In May, a group in California led by Matthew Hess gathered more than 7,100 signatures, a sufficient number to put the issue on the November ballot in San Francisco.

A similar measure may end up on the November 2012 ballot in Santa Monica, Calif, which is outside of Los Angeles.

Hess, who writes an online comic book, “Foreskin Man,” calls himself an “intactivist.” His website does not say whether he was circumcised.

His comic features, among others with equally subtle names, “Monster Mohel,” which the Anti-Defamation League charges with using “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery.”

His other hostile figures include a white doctor, Dr. Mutilator, and Ghinjo, an apparently African woman, who both cut children’s genitalia.

This California effort calls to mind a ban on circumcision in Russia and Eastern Europe during the Soviet era and in ancient Roman and Greek times. During the Nazi period in the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish males could be identified and therefore persecuted because they were circumcised.

Hess’s comic strip clearly draws a parallel between male circumcision, for whatever reasons, and the female circumcision (cliterectomy) practiced in parts of Africa.

“This appears on the surface to be the same argument, but it is not at all,” said Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth. “It appears to be a fairly transparent attack on both Jews and Muslims. This appears to come out an anti-minority, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim movement…This is a real attack on the separation of church and state.”

The two procedures are “not analogous,” said Rabbi Seth Gordon of Traditional Congregation. “Is it harmful to the child? All one has to do is look at the evidence of Jewish males throughout history, the roles models they are and their contributions to society. The argument that male circumcision is harmful is nonsense.”

Rabbis here doubt that anything will be on the ballot soon in Missouri, but they have begun to lay out the case for circumcision.

A local mohel, Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, makes the distinction between the way he prefers to perform the ritual on the eighth day after a Jewish boy’s birth and the way circumcisions usually are done in a hospital.

Circumcision up to about seven months after birth can be done in a way that is relatively painless for the boy, he said.

After that, when done in a hospital, the procedure can be “extremely invasive and painful for the parents as well as the child,” he said. “In a hospital, the baby is strapped to a bed. If the boy is older, he will have a local injection [for pain]. There can be lots of cutting, pulling and stretching.”

Rovinsky added that when he can he does Jewish boys on the eighth day, “I take as little skin as necessary, to follow the shape.”

“The boy is lying on a pillow, in loving arms,” he said. “By the time you blink, it’s over.”

He compares the standard hospital procedure to his own preferred approach this way: “It’s a suit off the rack as opposed to tailor-made.”

Rovinsky was interviewed last week while he was in Minneapolis to perform a circumcision. He estimates that he performs 400 to 500 a year, many on non-Jewish boys, including Muslims.

He explains his preferred way of circumcising a boy on two websites (www.brismilah.org to explain the Jewish ritual and www.easycircumcision.com/ for the general public).

Dr. Waheed Rana, a spokesman for the local Muslim community, said in Islam “there is no injunction for circumcision, but the Prophet said this is a tradition.”

He added that most of the males in Islamic tradition will be circumcised “within one or two days of birth” by a physician.

If the male is circumcised when he is older, Rana said, his family may turn the occasion into a cause for celebration.

As do other rabbis contacted by the Light, Rovinksy sees the movement to ban circumcision as anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim.

“I don’t like playing the anti-Semitic card,” he said. “But the fact that the [proposed legislation] doesn’t allow for religious ritual means to me that it’s blatantly anti-Semitic.”

Regardless how fundamental circumcision is to Jews, it can seem difficult to explain to non-Jews. Many non-Jews in the United States have been circumcised for many years because their parents believed they would be cleaner and therefore healthier. The World Health Organization estimates that about 75 percent of all males born in the United States are circumcised. Some studies have shown that circumcised males have lower risks for cancer and AIDS.

Aside from whatever health benefits there are, Bennett says the practice helps to identify a community, whether small or large.

“It’s a tribal ritual at its core,” Bennett said. “It is something this community goes through, that marks this community.”

But, he added, Reform Judaism allows for parents to decide not to have a bris for their son if they choose.

“Circumcision is not the determining factor in determining one’s Judaism,” said Bennett. “He would not have been tribally initiated into our people.”

For girls in Jewish tradition, there is no comparable procedure. So many years ago, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation started what she called a new tradition for girls: washing their feet.

“We wanted to do something for the little girls,” Talve said. “It was not to take anything away from the boys. But it was to give the girls a ritual too that would welcome them into the Jewish people.”