Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mila, not Brith

A few weeks ago, my Son was born (my first and last child), which reminds me of some of the craziness surrounding newborns. I’m talking about the Brith, of course. The myths and stories surrounding Circumcision are plentiful, starting from the story of the massacre of the Shechemites in Genesis 34 (The sons of Jacob ask the residents of Shechem to circumcise all their males, as a condition of peace among their two people. Then, as the men of the Schechemites were sore following the procedure, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi killed all the males as revenge for sleeping with their sister Dinah) and up to an official Position Paper on Neonatal Circumcision by the American Academy of Family Physicians (in which they state no position…).

I’m not a fan of circumcision. I don’t think it does any serious good, and the risks are terrifying. However, my wife is very much for it, so I’ve decided not to oppose it, if we do it in a medical clinic, with a proper medical (as opposed to religious) procedure. I hope that it succeeds and there are no complications (now or in the future). However, I’m still baffled by the fact that even today, thousands of Israelis still go through this procedure “out in the open”, having a Rabbi with no medical training perform this in their living room or on some hotel table, surrounded by hundreds of people, each carrying their own germs and viruses. It’s performed with no anesthesia, as the poor child screams and squeals on the table. Mind you, the Rabbi has to perform a cut that is only a few millimeters long, using nothing but his (often quite old) eyes and (often quite large) hands. About 1 in 50 of these crude acts of butchery end up in complications (about 4 times as likely as when done by a doctor at a clinic). Even when the procedure goes well, about 5% of circumcised kids have to have surgery later in life to widen the urinary opening.

The full Hebrew term for the Brith is “Brith Mila”, meaning “Covenant Circumcision”, because that’s the original covenant that was between Abraham and God. Being the Atheist that I am, I care even less for the Brith than the Mila, of course, so whenever someone asks me when it is, I say “Mila, not Brith”. It’s surprising just how many people don’t understand what I mean by that. It’s like saying “Marriage, not wedding” or “Eating, not a meal”.

Friday, August 13, 2010

You can pass over this one...

Passover is one of those holidays even non-Jews have heard of, but it has some interesting aspects in Israel. The premise of the Holiday is celebrating the exodus from Egypt. In case you don’t recall, when escaping Egypt, the Israelites wanted to take some bread with them for the road, but in their rush, they couldn’t wait for the dough to rise, and ate flat-bread. To celebrate this anniversary, the Jewish people are commanded to eat flat-bread during the entire 7-day holiday, and so during this time of year, Jews consume Matzos. Matzos are made with un-leavened dough, and this already makes no sense, because the Israelites did use leaven…they just didn’t let the dough rise. The Jews, as frequently is the case, have taken all of these 10 notches up. First, they declared that un-risen dough is not enough, but it has to be completely unleavened. Second, not only are you required to eat the crappy flat-bread, you are forbidden from eating any leavened dough product for the entire week. Had enough? Heck no! If you are an orthodox Jew, you are required to BURN every piece of leavened dough product in your home. By the way, this goes not only for dough– those who keep the religious law go as far as eliminating many other non-dough products like coffee or even toothpaste, out of fear that some invisible spec of leavened wheat found its way into it. Some take it even farther, burning any consumable that may touch you, like soap.

Some religious groups are easier, and allow you to sell your stock of leavened bread t to someone else, like a neighbor who is not a Jew. This works well for large organizations. For example, every year, before Passover, every city “sells” its leavened bread to some random guy (usually a local Arab) for a ridiculous amount of money, and then, after Passover has ended, buys it back. This does not actually involve MOVING the bread…just transferring ownership.

Thing is; only a small percentage of Israelis are religious, and actually follow this craziness. The religious groups, however, have historically tried to force the secular and atheist population to do so by creating state-laws. One minor success was in establishing a law in 1986 that forbids selling of leavened dough products during Passover. Actually, the law only forbids displaying of such products in public, but it has been the focus of an ongoing war between the secular and religious population ever since. The religious groups try, each election, to have their representatives in various government and city offices, and when they succeed, that officer would use his power to shove various religious laws down the secular population’s throat. With regards to Passover, this takes the form of inspectors who patrol the city during the holiday, and if they find a business that breaks the law, they issue large fines. One problem is that they actually misinterpret the law, and fine even business that don’t actually “display leavened dough products in public”, but the businesses often prefer to pay up rather than spend thousands on legal battles.

In recent years, some businesses realized that “display in public” is exactly what it means, and they can do whatever they want on their private property. This led to a funny incident where some idiot religious fellow tried to protest this by walking nude into some supermarket that was selling leavened bread, claiming it was perfectly legal to be nude, because he was not being nude in public. Correct as he may be, this did not do any good for his cause, as more and more Israelis are becoming secular, and the sale of leavened dough during Passover is at an all-time high.