Two rabbis walk into a dialogue

I’m delighted to see that two rabbis have entered into a dialogue on religion. One is Jeffrey Falick, the Atheist Rabbi, whose blog is hosting the debate; the other is Frederick Klein, an Orthodox rabbi who took up Falick’s challenge.

Lately HuffPo, or PuffHo, or whatever it’s called, has been hosting various rabbinical voices attempting to talk sense to us new atheists. There’s David Wolpe and Adam Jacobs, and there was that debate where Hitchens and Harris were terribly rude and gnuish to Wolpe and his colleague Bradley Artson Shavit.

I’m thrilled about all this. As a Jewish atheist I’ve had endless discussions with Jewish friends about atheism, faith, God, morality and tradition. It’s been tough to find many other Jews who will stand up and say, “I’m an atheist.” My guess is that they would somehow feel un-Jewish, and that for them Jewishness is at some level sustainable only through passive acceptance of rabbinical tradition. Even if they don’t believe a word of it.

I remember once asking a Lubavitch rabbi what his position on evolution was. He sent me a link to another Lubavitch rabbi rambling on for an hour before a room full of Lubavitchers. His point was that anything that conflicted with the Torah was, well, unacceptable. End of discussion.

Let the Lubavitchers wall themselves off from reality until moshiach arrives. In the real world, the dicussion continues unabated.


24 thoughts on “Two rabbis walk into a dialogue

  1. The time I remember best being collared in the street by the black-garbed was in the centre of Jerusalem. I let it go on till I was able to narrow him down to what he really wanted of me, which was for me to give up the rest of my life and study with him until such time as I would realise that his beliefs were correct.

    1. They used to send me shlichim when I worked on 47th St. in Manhattan. They’d bring Purim gifts and little booklets of the Rebbe’s thoughts. “Wanna put on tefillin?” “No, not today, I’m at work.” “OK. Maybe another time.” And that went on for four years. Very nice people, but missionaries. It was all to get me in the Mitzvah Tank with my sleeve rolled up, davening for moshiach. Blah.

  2. Missionaries, yes, but limited missionaries. If you’d said to them you weren’t Jewish, they’d have left you alone.

  3. Marc, you may have heard of the initiative to make infant male circumcision illegal in San Francisco. At the risk of annoying you with shameless self promotion, I did a post on that issue. Couple of them, actually, but one in particular I’d really like your opinion about.
    This is my call to the Jewish community. As a Jew, I’d really like to hear from you.
    Am I totally off base here? Or are there Jews who will agree with me?

    1. Darwin – No, it’s a very real issue among Jews. Oddly, it’s probably the one issue even the most atheistic Jewish parent wouldn’t cave on. I think a lot of this is because we’re constantly hearing how much cuter circumcised penises are to those on the other end. I know I’ve heard this.

      I agree that a sea-change will probably happen in the near future. Here’s another view. I think the more discussion, the better. ; )

  4. Clarification. That should have read: Since you are a Jew I’d really like to hear from you. I’m not Jewish myself, though I have many Jewish friends and feel a close affinity for the Jewish community. I have quite the collection of kipas from the many weddings and bar mitzvahs I’ve attended over the years. Ah, the kipa. Now there’s an acceptable expression of devotion. Keep the kipa, just delay the bris to the age of consent. 🙂

  5. I think it’s considered a kind of litmus test; not doing it makes you some kind of traitor – way worse than binge-eating on Yom Kippur. Maybe you were relieved, as the father of a girl, that it’s so far a non-issue. As the father of a boy, I’ve found it’s the one question everyone with even a bit of Jewish background finds a way to ask. Curiosity always beats politeness in the end on this one. The answer: I could not justify it. I have no religious reason for it and no possible cultural reason for forcing him into a physical change he could not undo would be any more justified. So he’s an exceptionally well-informed four-year-old, because he needed to know why he and daddy are different. His options are open; it’s not my job to close them and if it becomes important to him one day then the pain involved will also be his choice. My grandfather refused to have my father circumcised, but my great-grandfather, who was a mohel, did it behind his son’s back.

  6. @Stewart Bless you. I think if anybody had circumcised my boys behind my back, mohel relative or not, he’d still be paying for it. Probably would have put my kids through university on the court settlement. So glad to hear you allowed your son to make his own choices. And this is what I don’t understand. What is the problem of waiting for the age of consent? Are parents afraid their son won’t want to do it? If your son ever decides he wants to be just like his dad, or really commit to his culture, you can hand him a few hundred bucks and send him to a doctor, or a mohel. Not an option given to every kid. A great gift you gave to your son. The gift of respect.

  7. In the case involving the three generations preceding mine, incidentally, it was nothing but extreme assimilation that led to the refusal, rather than anything highly principled to do with my father later having a choice; we’re talking about a time when children were expected to do as they were told and not talk back.

    When my own son was born, I saw it as a “push has come to shove” moment. Although I felt fairly sure he would grow up used to whatever state I put him in or in which I allowed him to remain, the only thing that caused the subject of circumcision even to be discussed was the knowledge that a great many people with whose views I strongly disagreed thought it was important. This, amazingly, in spite of my son’s non-Jewish mother and my own less than 51% Jewish parentage. The real point is that, even if I had felt very strongly that it should be done for any reason (religion, tradition, hygiene, aesthetics), I owed my son the choice. If I had it done to him and he later asked me “why?,” I’d better be able to look him in the eye with a reason better than “peer pressure” to offer him.

    1. Stewart – Yeah, you nailed it. Having a girl really was a sigh of relief. I’m not even embarrassed to say that, because it’s true. Culture is still an important force in one’s life.

      Not that my family would even care one way or another if we had a boy and did or did not circumcise him. Your tale of forced circumcision is reminiscent of Edgardo Mortara – though he was baptized (in secret), not circumcised. It’s a question of not forcing anything more on children than is already forced on them through biology and culture. You did well by your son.

      Logically, I can’t accept that Jewishness is related to something so ridiculous as the appearance of one’s genitals. And, since there’s no longer any God, it’s getting harder and harder to justify such practices.

      Jews shouldn’t be afraid of this, either; redefining what it is to be Jewish is part of being Jewish. Does that make sense?

  8. @marc “we’re constantly hearing how much cuter circumcised penises” Yes. Sigh. I have one relative who said she did it to her boy because it “looks neater”. I asked her if she considered using pinking shears for a floral effect. I also thought my dick looked better without the hose attachment, until I read up a bit and discovered what I had lost. Now my glans looks like a dried up and cracked mudflat to me, a constant reminder of our sexually repressive culture and unfounded medical hysteria.
    Thanks for the info. Of course I wasn’t expecting to tell Jews anything they hadn’t heard from their own people. Just want to add my voice to the conversation.

  9. @ marc “Logically, I can’t accept that Jewishness is related to something so ridiculous as the appearance of one’s genitals. And, since there’s no longer any God, it’s getting harder and harder to justify such practices.
    Jews shouldn’t be afraid of this, either; redefining what it is to be Jewish is part of being Jewish. Does that make sense?”

    Ah, I was hoping I’d hear from Jews who feel this way, hence my call to the Jewish community. Tell the world that mutilating a baby’s penis is not the halmark and definition of Jewish culture. Thanks.

  10. “What is the problem of waiting for the age of consent? Are parents afraid their son won’t want to do it?”

    I confess that I know this from Hitchens rather than from any Jewish education I received, but the quotes at this link, which I am trusting till otherwise informed are accurate, ought to be read in answer to your above questions:

    1. Stewart, I just read your long comment over at B&W.

      “If a few of them sometimes sacrifice tact for bluntness and directness (in the face of an assault from religion that never abates) and it helps even one child in the situation I used to be in realise that there are others out there, it will have been well worth it. I have no doubt that, historically speaking, it is true that there were atheists during my childhood, but they were not anywhere I could find them when I so wished I could find even one.”

      I’m writing this here because I’d never expect you to read it if I posted it as comment #189. Great stuff. I think that’s it in a nutshell: to make the world a safer place not to believe in gods. No child should think he or she is the only unbeliever in the world. ; )

      1. Thanks, Marc. I probably would have seen it at B&W; I’m still trying to follow that thread. I actually lost that comment just before completing and nearly gave up on rewriting it, but thought some of it really needed to be said.

        Have you found any use for the Civics exam jpeg I sent you?

  11. @ Stewart Thanks for this link. As I read Maimonides, the purpose of circumcision is to reduce sexual pleasure, because sex is morally wrong, and to reduce the frequency and quality of intercourse. It’s done to infants without their consent because few adults would consent to it, because it won’t hurt them as much as it would hurt an adult, and because the father hasn’t quite become protective yet, and won’t for a year or so. If this is the purpose, who can argue with this logic?
    I say this with deep affection for my Jewish friends and no offence intended, but I sure hope you guys can redefine your culture. Because it looks pretty sick from the outside.

  12. @Marc “It’s not only Jews who circumcise, but Muslims as well, and generations of Americans of all stripes. That’s just for the record.”
    Don’t I know it. I’m circumcised, non-Jewish and non-American. So it’s not like I’m kvetching just at Jews. 🙂

  13. No, I mean my idea for a question for a revised Italian civics exam. Mailed you with it on the 21st, just after the amended crucifix. If you didn’t get it, tell me and I’ll resend.

  14. //////There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    * Jews Against Circumcision

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    The Kindest Un-Cut Feminism, Judaism, and My Son’s Foreskin by Professor Michael S. Kimmel

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors /////

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