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July 26, 2017 4:14 pm

Phony New York Times Trend Story Touts ‘Jewish Parents’ Avoiding Circumcision

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times, which last memorably touched on the topic of circumcision with an unfortunate illustration involving a pencil sharpener, is, alas, at it again, this time with a 1,500-word article headlined “When Jewish Parents Decide Not To Circumcise.”

It’s not at all clear why the Times finds this newsworthy to such an extent, or even at all. The story provides no statistics or data indicating that circumcision is on the decline among “Jewish parents.” In fact, the Times concedes, “Rabbis and public health experts interviewed said that the great majority of Jewish parents still circumcise.” That raises the question of why those who do not do so are worthy of a long and respectful Times treatment, or whether it’s just another phony Times trend story, like “women who dye their armpit hair” or “modern people who wear monocles.”

There are only two anecdotes in the Times article, and not a single one involves a child that has two “Jewish parents” on the scene.

The lead anecdote involves the child of Dana Edell, 41, who “is raising her son as a single mother” and “decided not to circumcise.” The Times story doesn’t say anything about the father of this child. It doesn’t report whether he is or was Jewish, or whether he had any part in the decision on circumcision. This is relevant, because under Jewish law, it’s the father’s obligation, not the mother’s, to circumcise the child. If the father doesn’t do it, the responsibility devolves to the local Jewish court of law.

The second anecdote is anonymous. It involves:

A 46-year-old father who asked to be identified only as Aaron because he was discussing intimate details about his son said he was surprised by how powerfully he felt about circumcising….

Aaron’s wife, who is not Jewish and grew up in a country where circumcision was not the norm, was opposed to it. She did not want to inflict pain on her newborn baby. The decision became “the hardest thing my wife and I have ever had to deal with,” Aaron said.

Ultimately, eight months into his wife’s pregnancy, Aaron agreed not to circumcise their son.

“I didn’t want it to end our marriage and tear apart our family,” he said.

A more accurate Times headline, in other words, would have been, “When a Non-Jewish Mother Decides Not To Circumcise” or “When a Single Mother Decides Not to Circumcise.”

The Times acknowledges that the “practice is rooted in Genesis, when God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all of his descendants as a sign of their contract with God.”

That doesn’t quite do the biblical passage full justice. Genesis 17:14 also states of those descendants of Abraham who are not circumcised that their souls will be cut off from their people, and their covenant invalidated. The Mishnah lists failing to circumcise a son as one of 36 offenses that merit the biblical punishment of karet, or being cut off from the people.

Nor does the Times quite capture — or even mention — the emphatic nature of other Jewish sources in favor of the commandment, or mitzvah, of circumcision. The Babylonian Talmud discusses it in the book of Nedarim, pages 31b to 32a — “So great is the mitzvah of circumcision that if not for it the Holy One, Blessed be He, would not have created His world… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa says: So great is the mitzvah of circumcision that all the merits that Moses our teacher accrued when he performed mitzvot did not protect him when he was negligent about performing the mitzvah of circumcision, as it is stated: ‘And the Lord met him and sought to kill him’ (Exodus 4:24)… so great is the mitzvah of circumcision that it is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah.”

The Babylonian Talmud also addresses the matter in Shabbat 137b: “Were it not for the covenant of circumcision … the world would cease to exist.”

Whatever the source of the Times’ apparent hostility to Jewish ritual circumcision — whether it stems from a general hostility to religious ritual overall, or from a particular animus directed specifically at traditional Judaism — it’s unseemly. One might hope the Times would simply “cut it out,” but that would risk veering into a category of humor better avoided.

The hostility to the Jewish ritual, by the way, is shared by a substantial number of Times readers, at least to judge by the comments accompanying the online version of the article. One comment describing circumcision as “a cruel bronze-age practice to inflict upon an unwitting child” was up-voted with a thumbs-up recommendation by at least 59 Times readers. The second-most-popular reader comment, recommended by at least 34 Times readers, opined, “It is preposterous that, in this day and age, it is even an open question — for Jews or anyone else — whether it is appropriate for a parent to lop off part of her or his son’s body as an expression of the parent’s belief system.”

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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