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Have always and will always December 1, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Religion.
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It is often argued that beliefs (especially religious beliefs) are a private matter, and that it’s wrong to criticize people’s deeply-held faith. The problem with “let everyone believe whatever they want”, however, is that our beliefs inevitably influence our actions. If, for instance, you believe that doing X is extremely important, you’ll naturally try to get others to do it. In extreme cases, you might even try to force people to do X for their own good — or for the good of their children. For example, I believe that saving children from disease and death is extremely important; so if a parent were withholding lifesaving medication from their child, I would advocate using the power of the law to override that parent and medicate the child. Most people would presumably agree that such action is reasonable — but it’s only reasonable insomuch as the underlying beliefs (e.g., regarding disease, death, and medication) are themselves reasonable.

On the other hand, consider this:

The Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals in Jerusalem has upheld a ruling demanding that a mother pay NIS 500 [$140] every day until she agrees to have her son circumcised…

The panel of three rabbinical judges of the Supreme Rabbinical Court said in their decision on Monday that the mother was objecting to the procedure as a way of gaining better terms in the divorce settlement and dismissed her appeal…

The mother said, however, that after looking into the matter she decided she did not want the boy to be circumcised on ethical grounds.

“I don’t have the right to cut his genitals and wound him, and the rabbinical court does not have the right to force me to,” she told Channel 2 news…

“The Jewish people have always and will always see in the brit mila [circumcision] the completion of the act of creation,” [the judges] continued.


“This matter lies within our purview because the minor’s educational experience will be defined by the decision on circumcision,” the rabbinical judges wrote in their ruling…

In Israel, rabbinical courts are entrusted with the marriage and divorce of Jewish couples. As such, they can rule on a wide range of issues when they hear a case.

The woman appealed to the Great Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem but the court refused to overturn the lower court’s ruling. “If the issue of circumcision is now left to every individual to decide, how will the rest of the world view this? It would be unthinkable to have authority in this matter stripped from the rabbinical sages of the people of Israel.”

Authority in this and all legal matters needs to be immediately stripped from rabbinical sages, priests, mullahs, and all others who value faith and adherence to tradition over reason and evidence; while the irrational belief systems that motivate them need to be treated with the same scorn those “judges” showed a mother and her son.

One of the highest April 8, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Law, Religion.
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Suppose that in some community of your city, a newborn baby is taken by his parents to a tattoo parlor, where they have the family emblem tattooed on his backside. The tattoo subsequently becomes infected, causing the infant to suffer brain damage and, eventually, die.

What would be the appropriate response? Should we shrug our shoulders, maintaining that parents are free to do whatever they want with their children? Or should we hold the parents (and the tattoo artist) accountable?

And what kind of parents would perform such a procedure on an infant, anyway?

Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.

In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.

One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.

Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice. None of the parents of the two boys who were recently infected signed the form, according Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Varma said it was “too early to tell” if the babies will suffer long-term health consequences from the infection.

Since 2000, there have been 13 cases of herpes associated with the ritual, including two deaths and two other babies with brain damage.

Neonatal herpes infections can cause death or disability among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“First, these are serious infections in newborns and second, there is no safe way an individual can perform oral suction on an open wound,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Third, these terrible infections are completely preventable. They should not occur in the 21st century with our scientific knowledge.”

Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”

We must not inform parents of the demonstrable dangers posed to their child, because safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles, and if, God forbid, there was a danger, we rabbis would be the first to stop the ritual, and since we haven’t stopped, there must not be any danger. So mind your own business.

Still, perhaps we should identify the infected mohel and stop him from harming more children?

The health department could take no action against the rabbi who performed the circumcision because the parents would not reveal his identity.

Safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles. Not, however, the highest.

Not any more June 26, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Religion.
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A step in the right direction by a German court:

Circumcising young boys on religious grounds causes grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled Tuesday in a landmark decision that the Jewish community said trampled on parents’ religious rights.

The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,” a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent.

“The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” the court added…

“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision,” the court said. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.”

What arguments do outraged members of Germany’s Jewish community offer in defense of their tradition? It’s rather pathetic.

The head of the Central Committee of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the ruling was “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.”

But “self-determination” needs to be determined by each individual for himself. A community doesn’t have the right to force an unnecessary medical procedure on anyone, least of all a child who hasn’t had the chance to determine whether he wants to be part of that community or not.

The judgement was an “outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries,” added Graumann.

Just like slavery used to be.

“This religious right is respected in every country in the world.”

Not any more.

Radical, blind, fanatic, distorted May 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Language, Religion.

In an editorial about the San Francisco initiative to make male neonatal circumcision a misdemeanor crime, The Jerusalem Post uses (or rather, abuses) language in order to disguise bad moral argument. They begin by proclaiming that we are facing “a case study of what happens when a radical interpretation of human rights combined with hatred of tradition can blind better moral judgment.” Here, on the other hand, is their own “better moral judgment”:

By marking his most impulsive organ, man makes the unequivocal statement that he is not an animal governed by the laws of nature. Rather, man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. The right of San Francisco’s Jews to pass on this religious message to their children, in a practice that experts say does not cause undue pain, has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment and which might have medical benefits, should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.

Notice the contrast between the extreme, decisive words they use to characterize the other side — radical, hatred, fanatics, distorted — and the lame weasel words they use to make their own case: Does not cause undue pain? Has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment? Might have medical benefits? That hardly sounds encouraging when considering cutting off parts of one’s body — but that is not even the point, since we’re not talking about an adult circumcising himself: we’re talking about forcing an invasive procedure on another person, without his informed consent. So pretending that the issue is about man marking himself in order to make a (silly) statement about his aspirations, or about passing religious “messages” to one’s children, is disingenuous and contemptible. Appeals to tradition are irrelevant here; and opposing the imposition of medically unnecessary surgery on infants is not radical or fanatic. The Post’s moral judgement has been blinded by religious dogmatism, and they’re using duplicitous language as a smokescreen.

Never let logic and science interfere with your gut April 22, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom.
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In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer discusses a recent San Francisco initiative to criminalize neonatal circumcision — the proposed ban would make it illegal to remove the foreskin of a boy under the age of 18 on the pain of a $1,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment. Well, perhaps “discusses” is too generous: Pfeffer apparently doesn’t think that the genital mutilation of children is a subject that calls for careful reasoning and sound argument — he offers us puns and sarcasm and appeals to emotion instead.

Pfeffer admits that circumcision cannot be justified merely because it’s tradition (“just use your imagination and think of the long list of atrocities and crimes against humanity that come under the heading of ‘coveted rituals'”), and that there’s no compelling medical rationale for it either; but apparently none of that matters, because:

This is not a debate for logical or scientific arguments. I find it hard to articulate a sound moral justification, but I know that if I will again be blessed with a son, he will be circumcised.

Well, then, case closed. Still, you might be wondering why Pfeffer is so intent on circumcising his sons, and why he is against the San Francisco initiaitve. He does eventually attempt to make an argument:

My real objection to the intactivists [those opposing neonatal circumcision] is not based on reason or religion, it is my gut feeling that they are infernal busybodies. They are the kind of people who under the guise of liberal values, want to invade my home, family and dinner plate and I feel it is our duty to stand up to them. No infant genitalia were harmed in the writing of this column, but I did go through half a pack of Marlboros, sitting and writing at an outdoor table of my local Jerusalem cafe.

All the butts were responsibly deposited in an ashtray and the second-hand smoke wafted harmlessly into the spring sky. Such conduct would have cost me a $500 fine in San Francisco. I’m sorry if that’s the best argument I can come up with, but I want to live in a country where I can choose to kill myself slowly with nicotine ‏(financing the health system with my cigarette taxes in the process‏) and be allowed to responsibly continue whatever family tradition I prefer.

Didn’t Pfeffer previously say that tradition was not a sufficient defense? In any case, I agree that Pfeffer should be free to kill himself in any manner he chooses — so long as he doesn’t harm anyone else.  If Pfeffer would try thinking with his brain instead of his gut, he would realize that neonatal circumcision is not analogous to an adult choosing to smoke; it’s more like a parent jamming cigarettes into his infant child’s mouth and forcing him to inhale (in the name of family tradition). While doing so might provide more taxes to finance the health system, I doubt Pfeffer would want to defend such a practice. But then, why bother to defend your views at all, when you can just follow your gut?

More defense for the indefensible June 4, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Eradicating the barbaric practice of neonatal male circumcision, though a worthy goal, undoubtedly does not belong at the very top of our moral “to do” list: there are other practices which cause far more damage, like female genital cutting. However, circumcision is a good test case for examining attitudes towards morality and tradition, since most of the arguments presented in support of circumcision are the same ones used to justify other, far worse, practices. The problem is that most people – even educated, liberal people – don’t seem to see any moral issue with circumcision at all. They take for granted that parents have the right to force a painful and medically unnecessary procedure on a child if they so choose. Why would any parent choose to chop body parts off an infant? The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the religious belief that circumcision is commanded by God, as a mark of his chosen people: “My covenant shall be in your flesh.” Religious moderates are often uncomfortable with this motivation, however, so they rationalize, trying to spin circumcision as being in the child’s best interests. I previously addressed the “health benefits” rationalization, an argument that could have the potential to justify circumcision if the medical case were compelling – but it is not.

Another argument I have encountered claims that since most males in the community are circumcised, an uncircumcised child would be ridiculed for being “different.” Therefore, circumcision will spare the child significant psychological pain. This argument would be extremely weak, it seems to me, even in the case of children who really are born looking different than “normal” – those with a big nose, pointy ears, etc. These kids may very well be made fun of because of their appearance (as most children are at some point), but should parents be forcing cosmetic surgery on such children before they are even old enough to speak? Doesn’t every person have the right to make such decisions about their own body for themselves? In any case, though, applying this argument to circumcision is completely absurd, because being uncircumcised is not a deformity or a birth defect: it is the natural state of the male body. The only reason an uncircumcised child would be considered different is because other parents circumcise their children! To use this very fact as an argument in favor of circumcision is to sustain a vicious cycle.

The first question to ask someone who makes the “conformity” argument is what they would do if they happened to be raising their children in a place where circumcision was not the norm, and their sons would be made fun of for being circumcised. If they would circumcise anyway, then apparently they are not that concerned about exposing their children to ridicule after all. But a better thought experiment with which to challenge every parent who supports circumcision is this: What would you do if you lived in a society where, by tradition, parents branded their children’s buttocks with a hot iron on their first birthday? If anybody can find a significant difference between this scenario and circumcision, let me know.

The sad thing is that some people – even kind, moderate people – will bite the bullet here, and claim that if branding were the norm in the community they wanted to belong to, they would go along with it. There is probably nothing more that can be said to such a person (except to ask them how they would feel if they were the victim of such a custom). The trouble is that people are so mightily attached to their traditions, religious traditions especially, that they are incapable of evaluating them objectively and considering the possibility of giving them up. It is important to remind ourselves that the traditions we inherit can be completely arbitrary, based on the circumstances of our birth. If we had been born in another country or at another point in history we would find ourselves just as attached to completely different traditions. Moral progress is only ever made by examining traditions critically, keeping the good ones and discontinuing the bad ones. People have a strong need to belong to a group and be accepted by their peers, but haven’t we learned that doing something just because everyone else is doing it is inexcusable?

It is not an accident that so many of the “clubs” which endorse immoral behavior (female genital cutting, suicide bombing, etc.) are religious. Religion causes good, decent people to do terrible things they would otherwise have no reason to do. Religion discourages critical, independent thinking, and makes a virtue out of blind obedience to authority and tradition. The disastrous effects of such dogmatism on our world go far beyond circumcision.

Defending the indefensible May 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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When asked why they think they have the right to circumcise their infant sons, religious moderates will invariably mention various health benefits of circumcision, like increased protection against HIV. I find this defense to be both unsatisfactory and disingenuous. First of all, the fact that a procedure provides some health benefit, e.g. reduces the chances of HIV transmission by 50%, is not sufficient to justify forcing that procedure on a child. There are many other factors which must be taken into account: how painful is the procedure and how dangerous, is it reversible, does it have negative side effects, to what extent is the child at risk without the procedure, are there less invasive alternative means of protection, can the procedure be safely deferred until the child is old enough to provide informed consent, etc. Circumcision is both painful and not without risks, has negative side effects, and is practically irreversible. For most of us, the chances of contracting HIV sexually can be virtually nullified by practicing safe sex (and I would think that STDs are hardly a pressing concern for newborns). Therefore, the ethical course of action is to wait until the child is old enough to make an informed decision for himself. If the health benefits of infant circumcision generally outweighed its disadvantages, we would expect medical organizations like the AMA and the AAP to recommend routine circumcision for all male infants. They don’t.

To see why I accuse religious moderates who use this defense of being disingenuous, you must ask them this: If it turned out that circumcision provides no health benefits at all, would you stop performing it? If they admit they would not, then they must concede that they are not promoting circumcision for health reasons, and it is dishonest of them to suggest otherwise. The plain truth is that this painful and invasive procedure is forced upon infants because of their parents’ religious beliefs (for example, see what Maimonides had to say about circumcision). I think this is indefensible.