Friday, March 31, 2006

Circumscribing Circumcision

"Re "Doctors Advocate Pain Relief for Circumcision"(Science Times, Dec 30):Circumcisions performed by mohel, Jews authorized to perform theprocedure called bris, take about one minute, thus minimizing pain. The standard surgical procudure last more than 10 minutes.

It is a biblical prohibition to cause anyone unnecessary pain. Although the study in question recommends a series of injections into the shaft of the penis, the pain from these injections may be equivalent to the pain of circumcision. A much safer and effective topical analgesic, applied one hour before the procedure, exists. Thirty percent lidocaine in an acid mantle base is effective and should be used even during ritual circumcision.

Signed Rabbi Moshe Tendler Dec 31, 1997.

Rabbi Tendler is refering to an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine a few months ago which compared an analgesic cream to placebo in terms of pain relief. The babies who received the analgesic cream cried less on average. So while the cream may not be 100 effective in all babies, it can provide relief for many .

One person inthe New York Times article is quoted as stating that the foreskin is generally anesthetic (pain free) and therefore there is no need for an anesthetic. I would respectfully disagree with this statement.

Ozzie Orbach"

See here.

I went to a bris yesterday morning and based on the baby's reactions it was pretty obvious that no anesthetic was used. And I know this is hardly a unique way of going about the bris. I also recognize that the cream is not the optimum solution for this kind of pain and especially for post-operative pain, but it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

How widely are such anesthetic procedures used in the Orthodox world, and why aren't they used more often? Is there any Halachic reasoning that would lead people to not want to use anesthetics?

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Problem with Liberal Judaism

There's a problem with all liberal forms of Judaism. In fact, it's inherent in their very being liberal. This is true for Reform and to a lesser extent Conservative but it is very much an issue with the Reconstructionists. The problem is that all these movements are saying that traditional beliefs are not true and that they must then go on a kind of salvage operation to figure out what parts can be kept and which parts must be left behind in the light of modern knowledge.

But what this leads to is a sense of a loss of legitimacy or a loss of genuineness. People don't want their religion or philosophy or way of life to be salvaged leftovers to showcase in a living room. They want to be sitting and using certified and complete antique sets. This is part of the reason why Orthodoxy is so strong today. It holds that sense of genuineness and of being "real" Judaism and not some form of Judaism-lite. It holds it that way because an Orthodox Jew can pick up a Jewish text from millennia ago and find direct correspondence with how he lives today. Orthodox Rabbis have to understand Talmudic logic, not just for heritage appreciation, but really because they apply it all the time to Halachic issues that arise.

Other forms of Judaism have to accept these same vaulted texts as meaningful to Judaism but at the same time must reject as not true often large parts of them. Classic texts are seen as Judaism's past in liberal movements, but are Judaism's present in Orthodoxy.

How to get past this apparent discrepancy and to give liberal Judaism the sense of legitimacy while still using traditional sources is a pressing issue. Ideas like continuous revelation and an evolving religious civilization are useful, but they still don't jive well with rejection in a historic religion. I'm certainly open to suggestions.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Quotes that May Surprise You

"The Palestinians [Jews] living among us have, for the most part, earned a not unfounded reputation for being cheaters, because of their spirit of usury since their exile. Certainly, it seems strange to conceive of a nation of cheaters; but it is just as odd to think of a nation of merchants, the great majority of whom, bound by an ancient superstition that is recognized by the State they live in, seek no civil dignity and try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another. The situation could not be otherwise, given a whole nation of merchants, as non-productive members of society (for example, the Jews in Poland). So their constitution, which is sanctioned by ancient precepts and even by the people among whom they live (since we have certain sacred writings in common with them), cannot consistently be abolished — even though the supreme principle of their morality in trading with us is "Let the buyer beware." I shall not engage in the futile undertaking of lecturing to these people, in terms of morality, about cheating and honesty. Instead, I shall present my conjectures about the origin of this peculiar constitution (the constitution, namely, of a nation of merchants)." -Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View

"The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition. Such are the extreme Turks that wander around in the north, the Kushites who live in the south, and those in our country who are like these. I consider these irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey." - Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, chapter 51.


I was thinking the other day about the absurdity that technical Halacha forces on women of whom their husbands refuse to give them a get. They are agunot, chained women, who cannot Halchically re-marry and are forced to remain in marriage limbo. This is an intolerable and unjust situation which cannot be tolerated. Of course, this situation is symptomatic of the larger issue of gender inequality in Orthodoxy but this one issue ought to be rather easy to solve.

The two parties (or, more accurately, the husband and the father of the bride) already sign what is essentially a pre-nup before the marriage ceremony. That is the Ketubah. Why haven't the Orthodox taken the message already initiated in Conservative circles by introducing a new clause in the document which gives over to a beit din the power to issue a get. Or if not that, then have the groom sign some other sort of conditional get that comes into effect if he does certain actions. I'm fairly certain that this is all acceptable under Halachic guidelines.

And if that is questionable, or if people don't trust a beis din, then have them sign a secular legal contract which obligates the man to hand over a get if certain conditions are met. This could be taken to actual secular court and the husband (or ex-husband) could be met with a court order to pay fines or punished because of breach of contract if he refuses to give his wife a get.

Am I so out of line here? Or are these solutions just obvious to me?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Religious Excuses

I know I haven't posted much in past recent while but I've been rather busy in the real world (TM) and well, y'know, priorities. Though, to be honest I still am busy, but taking a break now and again is a good idea.

Now to the issue at hand. Let me begin with an anecdote. I went to class on Purim Tuesday and the professor when he was taking attendance actually stopped during the roll call, looked at me and asked "Why are you here?"

"Why am I here?" I asked surprised. "Am I not allowed to be here?"

"No," he said, "but last night a different Orthodox Jew said that he couldn't come into class because of a holiday. Was he lying to me?"

"No, he wasn't lying. Today is a holiday. It's just that while the day has certain things that need to be done, the times when you do them can be rather flexible."

I didn't want to get into the details of the difference between a holiday like Purim compared to Yom Tovim. I didn't think he would understand and he probably didn't care.

Anyway, this got me thinking about other times when I know Jews have lied or stretched the truth about Jewish observance to get out of other responsibilities. It doesn't apply to the above instance since the person really may have had other responsibilities, I don't know, but I do know of instances where, for example, people had a test pushed off or skipped class because of chol hamoed Succos. They'll tell the professor that they have to be excused because of religious reasons, but they're just dishonestly using their religion.

This has a series of negative effects. One, it gets goyim very confused about Jewish observance and if they find out the truth then they won't trust Jews the next time they really can't come in for some Yom Tov. Second, it puts other Jews who weren't "in" on the conspiracy in a sore position as they may want to come to class but they don't want to rat on these other guys. And thirdly, it makes those Jews who do come into work on those days look less committed and goyim might expect them to come to work on other holidays too.

I, for one, hate getting special treatment because of my Judaism. I hate using my Judaism as an excuse for things. There was one time I had a test scheduled during a holiday. I didn't push off the test; I took it a day early! Those who use their Judaism to get out of their responsibilities simply cannot be holding proper respect for their religion. You are lowering your whole way of life to be used as an excuse why you can't do something. Being Jewish is great, but when a conflict arises it should generally be the one with the special way of life paying the bill, not those who are sticking to the regular schedule.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Does Judaism have a Catechism?

by Seth Ward

"What I propose to do here is to outline a few basic beliefs that are both part of Judaism and are apparently shared by a majority of Jews. I do not wish to reduce Judaism to a few simple beliefs: others have done this far better. Nor do I propose that this is a comprehensive statement, or even that such a statement is possible. And it should be clear that this is an attempt to delineate a list of shared beliefs of Jews, not a system of Judaism. I do wish to put this in the form of beliefs, to answer the claim that Jews really do not have any deeply-held beliefs.


Does Judaism in late-twentieth Century America have principles of more orless common belief? I offer the following eight, and have grouped theprinciples for convenience in traditional categories: God, Torah, Israel.


1. We believe it is right to act as believers.
2. We deny all polytheism, idolatry, and irrational beliefs. Or: Thou shalt not be a Christian.


3. We believe in the shared Torah: Jews share a heritage of beliefs, practices, literature and history. The classic, Jewish name for this heritage is Torah.
4. We believe that Torah, which means "teaching," demands education.This perhaps should be put more strongly: study of Torah, widely defined, is part of our religion.
5. We believe that Mitzvot matter.


6. We believe the Holocaust is an event of unique importance and meaning for us as Jews and for all people.
6. We believe in the Land and Language of Israel (I know, he wrote two sixes. Maybe he miscounted.)
7. Kol yisrael arevim ze lazeh: We are one: Judaism is a corporate, communal identity.
8. We believe in salvation through survival.

These eight beliefs do not create a fully articulated system, but underscore the degree to which Jews share attitudes towards God, Torah and Israel--to give traditional terms. Judaism, like other religious systems, has to do with believing, behaving and belonging, and the principles articulated here I hope will help contemporaries do just that.

We are the people who recite "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One" and--even for those who do not entirely believe this, or do not believe it at all, act at least in part as if they do. We staunchly deny alternate systems, including and perhaps especially Christianity; while there is a bit of self-definition by negation of the other involved here, it also reflects an age-old antipathy to polytheism and idolatry, rightly or wrongly applied. We believe in our shared heritage, we believe in a mandate t o educate, and we believe that our actions matter, perhaps more than our beliefs. We believe in our people, its history, its languages, its land, and in the importance of the Holocaust and of the Land of Israel. And we believe in the necessaity of "Jewish continuity"--the corporate survival of Judaism, perhaps giving this concept some of the great power associated with the notion of "salvation" in other religious traditions.

Not all Jews subscribe to all these principles the same way. But many of us do, and multiple ways we relate to God, Torah and Israel help define the ways we differ from one another. But the universality of the elements of this discourse also define a commonality which exceeds the forces which divide us."

I'm not making any big statements on this essay. Read the full thing here. I just thought it was an interesting perspective and wanted to share.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Political Procreation

Is procreation a political statement? I guess it could be. What I'm referring to is the fact that in today's progressively overpopulating world, it could be a real political statement to have children. Maybe in the past it was considered an obvious move - I mean, of course you have children. But today, given that the world's upper limits of provisions are in view, it may certainly be in the earth's and certainly in humanity's best interests to scale back the production curve.

This is some open Malthusian pessimistic view of the future, but I think almost everyone would agree that the world has finite resources and that it won't be able to support the exponential growth of humanity. At some point the Earth will reach saturation. And at that point, the world will not be a pretty place for anyone on Earth. If the governments interfere, you'd have to see things like forced low birth rates like in China today. Or perhaps worse like forced sterilizations or forced euthanasia. Can you imagine a world where nobody was allowed to live past 55? It could happen. If the governments did nothing to interfere then you'd see fierce competition and fighting among humanity as the strongest would fight for resources while leaving the weaker, sicker, poorer and older without enough to survive. Either way, it is a terrible scenario for future humanity.

Keeping that in mind, would it not be downright selfish of us to have more than the two or three kids which is the replacement rate? Is it fair to the world as a whole for families to have five or six or ten or fifteen children? They're just forcing the overpopulation of the Earth one step further. Every additional mouth to feed means that there's less to go around for everyone and that somebody will end up hungry. That situation doesn't really affect us today, but it could in a 100 years or 500 years in the future if current rates of procreation remain.

However, on the other side of the issue is the point that the Jewish people have been severely underpopulated because of relatively recent catastrophic events. Should we, as Jews, then make a directed effort to increase world Jewry to make up for the loss? And certainly in Israel where the very existence of the Jewish state hangs in the balance of a Jewish majority, shouldn't those Jewish residents do what they can to create more Jewish citizens? I think that is clearly the political goal made by many settlers to the state.

So, the question I pose here is whether we, as Jews, hold a higher responsibility to humanity as a whole to try and keep global population to a manageable level or do we hold a higher responsibility to our own Jewish goals to further Jewish causes by increasing the Jewish population?

My view: the world hardly helped the Jews when we were being decimated sixty years ago and our miniscule numbers on the world stage have a tiny effect on the world's whole population figures. Let the Chinese worry about overpopulation.

Memoir of a Strange Conversation

I walked into a conversation about religion between two friends of mine. One is a Muslim and the other is an Orthodox Jew. It started out on evolution (of course). Now, keep in mind that both of these guys are (supposedly) scientifically inclined. One is going pre-med and the other is going for some PhD in Neuropsychology or something.

Anyway, so my OJ friend started talking about evolution. I'm not sure how it started because that's when I walked in. It sounded like something interesting was in the air. My Muslim friend asks him, so do you believe in evolution? And he answers, not really. He said he believed in "generational" evolution, but not in common descent from a single organism. He later explained that generational evolution is when every generation has some evolution. I had to ask how that was different from regular evolution and he had no answer. Maybe he meant it was regular change every generation on the dot or something. I'm still not so clear on that. My guess is that it's a typical Creationist stance where he believes the whole of evolution is microevolutional changes within already created types.

After that, my Muslim friend replies with a quick response about how nature has never produced any beneficial mutations. All mutations, he says, are negative. So then my OJ friend and I both give him a few examples of recent positive mutations in viruses, bacteria and insects that we were familiar with. My Muslim friend then jokes in a half-hearted way, "It's terrible. I make a point and you guys just shut me down like that." So I say, "Hey, that's the power of debate."

So the next question that my Muslim friend asks us, so do you believe in Adam and Eve? I take the opportunity to take a long swig of the coffee that I've been holding. My OJ friend says, "Yeah, sure." Then he looks over to me with the coffee squarely in my mouth, gives a nervous laugh and squeaks, "Why not?"

I just kept drinking.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Point of Purim

The month of Adar has arrived and Purim is on the docket once again. GH brings up the topic of the historicity of the Book of Esther and I remember that I did likewise this time last year. Now, I didn't have the intention of going on about this topic again, but I'd like to get to the heart of the issue rather than arguing particulars as I had last year.

The fact of the matter is this: The story of Purim contains a number of events that I would consider unlikely. These are items internal to the text. Somehow Esther is taken from the home of a known Jew, Mordechai, and is yet able to keep anyone from figuring out her ancestry. For some reason the author thinks that the King of Persia would be unable to overturn past decrees. Somehow Achashveirosh would allow wholesale genocide to pass without him even being aware of who was being killed and somehow Achashveirosh would allow armed struggles to go on throughout his empire. Kinda fishy.

There is also the appearance of the book wherein it reads like a fairy tale. If you read it, just plain read it, it sounds more like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast than a historical report. The whole story is just so neat. Too neat, as it were. Books like Kings or Ezra and Nechemia read more like history. If you just read them, they sound like accounts of events, though sometimes embellished. Just on prima facie consideration alone, I'd consider the Book of Esther suspect and I'd give those other books of Tanach tentative legitimacy.

All this being the case, I acknowledge that it is possible for the Book of Esther to be historical. Certainly modern scholarship hasn't proven it impossible. But on that same note, I don't know any convincing reason for why we should give it legitimacy when its appearance holds the hallmarks of fiction. What we need is some independent corroboration for the events of the Book of Esther in order to consider it historical. But such evidence is sorely lacking.

So now we must go beyond this. Maybe the story is true to some degree, maybe its not. But even if the critical thinking observant Jew can convince himself of its historical legitimacy, he must concurrently realize that the facts are not conclusive for that opinion and he cannot demand the same view be held by all other critical thinking Jews if he values freedom of thought and hates unthinking acceptance of dogma. Therefore, we need to establish value within the implied message of the Book of Esther and the holiday of Purim. This message, I think, is clear and worth celebrating.

The story goes that the Jews were in exile and were in danger of being destroyed. Yet they weren't and the day was saved for all. Hoorah! This has obvious parallels throughout the past two thousand years of Jewish history. The Jews have been in exile and have been in danger of being destroyed time and time again, yet somehow they have persevered and today we may be in a distinct upswing of Jewish success throughout the world on all levels of society. Today, it can be argued, is one of the best times a Jew could be a Jew.

What Purim then is, is a day to celebrate our persistence, our success, and really our very continued existence while thumbing our collective noses at those who would have the presumption to think that they could destroy us. Did Haman exist? That's debatable. But Hitler did. And so did Antiochus and Titus and Luther and Torquemada. They had their chance and where are they now? History. "On the day that the enemies of the Jews expected to prevail over them, and it was turned about: The Jews prevailed over their adversaries."

Now lets have a drink and eat some candy.