Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the Director of Initiatives for Boys and Men and specializes in "innovative educational leadership." Prior to joining Moving Traditions Rabbi Brenner was the founding Executive Director of Birthright Israel NEXT and he developed and directed graduate-level training programs at both Auburn Theological Seminary and CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Brenner has been named by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis.
I asked Rabbi Brenner to answer a couple of questions related to the initiative to ban circumcision in the San Francisco area. Why him? Read The Future of Foreskins and you''ll know why.
Here''s the Q&A:
1. You once wrote: "I am glad that I chose to use the knife. But I honestly cannot predict what my children will choose if they have sons." Why are you glad, why aren''t you sure about the future of brith?
As a new father thirteen years ago, I was glad that I chose a traditional home-based ritual and took part in circumcising my twin sons. At the time, I was reading a lot about genetics and imagining a future with “pre-circumcised” baby boys and options such as laser surgeries. (The latter has actually been adopted in some countries.) I still imagine that when my sons are ready to become fathers there might be designer genetics but I’m not sure if “foreskin on or off” will be on the list of options.
2. Proponents of the SF circumcision ban say that Circumcision should be outlawed because "it''s excruciatingly painful and permanently damaging surgery that''s forced on men when they''re at their weakest and most vulnerable." Can you deny that they''re, well, right, at least when it comes to their factual description of the procedure?
I can only speak as a parent and what I saw my sons go through at the time. My sons’ circumcision was painful. Their infant eye exam a few days later was excruciatingly painful. But both took only a few minutes and were overall beneficial and it was wise to do them both early on in their lives.
3. Is the SF proposal "an attack directed at religion, parental rights and privacy rights," as the Anti Defamation League had declared - or a genuine battle over the meaning of parental responsibility and human rights?
The backers of the San Francisco proposal frame it as a “gender issue” and try to steer away from any questions of religious bias. But the arguments they advance regarding parental rights are troubling. The lead activist, Lloyd Shofield, argues that “you shouldn’t be performing cosmetic surgery for other people.” So if your child has a minor cleft-lip and the doctor gives you a choice about how to treat it, you should be imprisoned if you opt for surgical treatment? If your sixteen year old is transitioning genders and wants breast surgery then the doctor should be jailed? Every day there is a parent in some hospital who is weighing an issue of non-critical surgery for a child. The San Francisco bill is championed by people who believe that the “trauma” of circumcision is a root cause of male depression and violence. I believe that the root causes of male depression and violence are social, and we’d do better to focus on empathetic parenting and healthy relationship building.
4. "Many of the leading activists against circumcision around the country are Jewish." Are you surprised by that? Does it make a difference?
I’m never surprised when I hear that an activist on any issue is Jewish because we as a people value critical inquiry, debate, and raising our voices to challenge authority. But I think there is a vast difference between Jewish people who question or opt out of circumcision and those who call for the criminalization of circumcision.
5. Can Judaism live without circumcision?
Jewish civilization survived under the Seleucid Empire’s ban on circumcision and various bans in the modern era, but focusing on Judaism’s resilience is a diversion. The question being asked in San Francisco is: Should Jewish parents (and others) have the freedom to circumcise their sons? If the answer is that they will no longer have this freedom, and that moyels or doctors will be imprisoned for performing the ritual, then it is not clear to me how a Jewish community like San Francisco’s – which is wonderfully diverse, creative, and caring - will continue to thrive.