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A Terrifying Abandonment
Circumcision, a once treasured ritual of the Jews, is in danger of becoming vestigial.
The Brit Shalom, a Jewish naming rite given to newborn boys on the eighth day after birth not involving circumcision, is meant to replace the more traditional Brit Milah. This is a ceremony advocated by many Jews who see the current practice in Judaism as barbaric and without a place in the modern world. Their arguments: circumcision is harmful and traumatic to the newborn; is not medically necessary; is contrary to the interests of the baby. It is easy to say these things–and even believe them–only if you fail to grasp their implications on the future of the Jewish Community. The surgery is indeed painful, but so is learning not to touch a hot teakettle, falling down on the first attempt at walking, and failing a test at school. Not to mention the fact that there is evidence refuting the claim that the ceremony has any lasting negative effect on the baby at all. But even if there is a lasting effect, if we all grow up without any pain or trauma, how can we feel compassion?
And the price Jews will eventually have to pay for forsaking this ancient rite is grave: American Jewry will dissolve at an ever-accelerating pace and sooner rather than later die out completely. The Brit Shalom is a sign of the incredible atrophy that Jewish traditions are experiencing in America. A true Brit Milah is an essential part of the Jewish life cycle and identity. For the newborn, it provides a sign marking them forever a part of the Jewish People. It assures adults at the ceremony that the Jewish people will always exist, from one generation to the next.
Last spring, I took a trip to Israel with my school. One aspect of this trip was visiting a small town on the border of the Negev desert for the holiday of Yom ha’zikaron, the Israeli day of remembrance for her dead soldiers. At the settlement’s commemoration, people whose relatives had died spoke and sang, and the name of every soldier from the settlement who had perished in war was read. One moment I will never forget: a mother reading a heartfelt poem about her son who had died. Her grief resonated within all present. The entire community of the town was there. After the ceremony, we retreated to the youth hostel where we were staying to discuss the night’s events. Another moment I remember quite clearly: one girl expressing her shame for being sad that night because she knew no-one who had died in one of Israel’s wars or in a suicide-bomb attack.
“No,” replied one of the Israeli group leaders. “You don’t just have a right to be sad on this day. You have an obligation; no matter where you live; you must always cry for Israel’s dead.” That comment has always stuck with me. We have a deep-rooted obligation to be a part of Israel’s community, no matter where in the Diaspora we may live. We must never forget where we came from.
It may seem intellectual to say that our ancient traditions are impractical and obsolete in today’s world. It may be easy for Jews to say, “Yes, we may be Jews, but we are also Americans–and that comes ﬁrst.” While saying such things does not entirely strip away a person’s heritage, it certainly does have such an effect on one’s children. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-1, a person who rejects tradition and intermarries has a 10% chance of having their grandchildren identify as Jewish. In Judaism a central concept is m’dor l’dor; from generation to generation. One person’s beliefs or adherence to tradition does not matter much in the grand scheme of things; what matters is that person’s children and grandchildren. This is what makes attempts to reform and dilute Judaism so scary: the fact that the children of these movements will not identify themselves as Jews. Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, in stripping away ritual and deeming it impractical in the modern world, may have good intentions, but there are dire consequences of their actions. Jews are losing touch with their heritage.
It has been said many times before: assimilation is a second Holocaust for the Jews in the number of Jews being lost. In 2001 the intermarriage rate was 47% and is likely higher today. Did Jews survive almost 2,000 years of exile and persecution by forgetting their tradition and marrying anyone they fell in love with? Children are brought up in households where only one parent is Jewish, giving them an extremely mixed message concerning their identity. These children are extremely unlikely to have any meaningful connection to Judaism. Even as a teenager growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—one of the world's largest Jewish communities–assimilation’s detrimental effects are apparent. For the ﬁrst 11 years of my education, I attended a Jewish day school and the majority of my friends are Jewish. Still, a very slim minority took note of any Jewish tradition, often only attending synagogue on the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if at all. The feature event of a Bar Mitzvah was the party, complete with a DJ, “your-face-superimposed-on someone-famous” booths, and a mechanized version of “Hava-Nagilah,” sung into a microphone by an African-American gentile. What has happened to the distinct culture, unity, independence and community that Jews once prided themselves on?
Judaism is not only a religion but also a nation, and the way we have kept the nation together, even when we were scattered across the globe, is by upholding our tradition. Our 3,000 year old, unifying tradition has always protected us while, at the same time, has distinguished us from our neighbors.
Forgetting this will kill us. Throughout history, the Jews have been persecuted and murdered for their faith. Jews were publicly burned to death in the Autos de fe of The Spanish Inquisition in 1492, a persecution from which my own family fled. The Blood Libel was propagated against us and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Jews. Jews were cordoned off in ghettos in medieval Italy. Jews were expelled from England. Massive pogroms were conducted against the European Jews intending to destroy their community. Horrible anti-Semitic sentiment was prevalent across Europe, prompting riots and angry crowds to lash out against Jewish communities. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish general in the French army was falsely convicted of treason in 1894 while thousands cheered. And in 1941, Germany under Hitler destroyed the European Jewry while citizens pretended not to notice. It would have been so easy for these Jews across history to save themselves: all they had to do was renounce their Judaism. But they held fast. And so, in forsaking their traditions and letting go of their roots, the Jews today are deeply betraying the millions of Jews spanning history who gave their lives so that we could be have our traditions today.
It is possible to think that such hatred has subsided, but even now, in the 21st century, terrible danger is brewing against the Jews. On a recent Saudi television program, a woman is interviewing a small girl, and at one point asks: “Why don’t you like [the Jews]?”
“Because they are apes and pigs.”
All across the globe, even today, anti-Semitism is growing. The number of videos on the internet depicting massive crowds chanting, “Death to Israel!” is uncountable. Israel is the only country prohibited by the United Nations to sit on its Security Council, and is the target of myriad resolutions even as the U.N. chooses to ignore the massive human-rights violations taking place all across the Middle East. It is now as important as it has ever been to band together and afﬁrm our identity as Jews. There is a widely-held misconception in the world that we are invulnerable; this could not be farther from the truth.
Even while our pariah status has made Jews targets, tradition has invariably been the unifying factor that has protected us. One of the reasons that Lord Balfour supported a Jewish state in what was then Palestine was the fact that Jews every day prayed for rain in Israel–not just isolated sects, but every single Jew. Jews are perhaps the only nationality to have survived 2,000 years without a home. What substituted a homeland? Tradition. Without self-governance, without a home, Jews worldwide were united by tradition and the burning desire to one-day return to Jerusalem. Without this unification Jews would have died off long ago.
It is now the festival of Hanukkah, celebrating the Jewish victory over the Seleucid Empire led by King Antiochus. Antiochus sought to destroy not us, but our tradition, and he imposed drastic laws forbidding the Jews to openly practice their religion, prohibiting them from performing Jewish tradition, including circumcision. One day, a Jewish zealot named Matittyahu Maccabeus saw a Jew sacriﬁcing to an idol. Killing him and destroying the altar, his passionate act ultimately grew into a full revolt, driving out the Seleucid Greeks against all odds. Many Jews were killed in the war. Hanukkah thus represents the importance of defending our tradition, even unto the point of death. The brand of Hanukkah we see today represents a glossed-over version of the story. We do not at all see the aspect of defending our tradition; we do, however, see electric Hanukkiot in storefronts and the over-emphasization of the family-friendly themes of the holiday. It strikes me as a tad ironic when people “Christmasize” Hanukkah. It represents a major change in the values of Jews today.
Jews must stop their course before it is too late. The forsaking of circumcision and the dilution of tradition are harbingers of a terrible truth that looms on the not-so-distant horizon: Hitler’s ﬁnal victory over the Jews.