An Uptick In Non-Jews Choosing Jewish Circumcision? Maybe

Reporter Jessica Alpert may have stumbled on a trend: non-Jews choosing to have their infant sons circumcised by traditional mohels, Jews trained to perform the ritual procedure, rather than doctors.

Alpert, a frequent CommonHealth contributor, writes in the current issue of Atlantic:

Finch isn’t the only non-Jew who has felt a connection to the religious elements of the procedure. Nationwide, circumcisions have decreased over the last few decades—from 64.5 percent of newborn boys in 1979 to 58.3 percent in 2010, according to Centers for Disease Control data—but among those opting to circumcise their sons, some non-Jews are forgoing the hospital or doctor’s office and requesting Jewish mohels for reasons both practical and religious. (Reliable statistics on religious circumcisions are hard to come by, but several mohels I talked to said they’ve noticed an uptick in their popularity in recent years.)

Whether or not the practice is taking off, Alpert suggests that this co-mingling of religious and non-religious realms may have “tricky implications for mohels performing non-Jewish circumcisions,” and raise thorny legal questions:

The right to perform brit milah is protected under the First Amendment, but when it’s no longer a religious ritual, mohels may run up against laws that forbid the practice of medicine without a license, explains Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar and professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. There is no legal gray area for mohels who are also health professionals—these mohels can perform the procedure on non-Jews as part of their medical practice, even if the primary purpose is religious rather than medical. But others, Hamilton says, may be subject to prosecution when they perform the procedure outside of its religious context.

When it’s a non-Jewish family using a mohel, “The mohel is not acting as a religious participant, and therefore his acts are not protected as free exercise,” she explains. Continue reading

School Kids’ Yoga Class Is Not Religion, Judge Rules

Here’s a deep legal query: if school kids are instructed to do “criss-cross applesauce” — the seated, cross-legged position known to pretty much every six-year-old in America — can that possibly be construed as religious teaching?

Apparently not, said a California judge Monday, ruling that yoga instruction for children in an Encinitas public school does not constitute religious instruction. Plaintiffs, who objected to the school-based practice for their two children on religious grounds, had opted out of the program, a kid-friendly class in which some of the most pervasive yoga lingo, like Namaste, had already been excised.



Reuters reports:

[Judge John Meyer] also said the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious but distinct and separate from Ashtanga yoga.

“A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion,” he said…

The plaintiffs objected to eight-limbed tree posters with Sanskrit characters that they said were derived from Hindu beliefs, as well as to the use of the Namaste greeting in class and several yoga poses said to represent worship of Hindu deities.

But by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the Sanskrit and Namaste had been eliminated from the program, and poses had been renamed with “kid-friendly” descriptions, poses now called gorilla, turtle, peacock, big toe, telephone and other terms, according to testimony. The lotus pose, for example, is called criss cross apple sauce in Encinitas schools.

With childhood obesity a nation-wide emergency and with kids bouncing out of their seats due to cuts in recess programs and lack of physical activity during the school day, Continue reading

ABC: Orthodox Women Told To Be Fruitful, Freeze Eggs

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn (Wikimedia Commons)

Remember that somewhat baffling moment in Genesis when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finds she’s pregnant after decades of fruitless waiting, in her “old age”? Well, if Sarah lived these days, according to a report just out from ABC, her rabbis might well have advised her to backstop her fertility with a freezer.

In a post headlined “Rabbis urge single Orthodox women to freeze eggs at 38,” ABC reports:

Doctors in the United States who are familiar with “halacha” — or Jewish religious law — say they are seeing more Orthodox patients who have been sent by their rabbis to freeze their eggs before their fertility wanes.


“Most rabbis are strongly recommending this, and most should,” said Dr. Sherman Silber, director of the Infertility Center of St. Louis, whose practice caters to Orthodox Jews. “‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is considered the first commandment.”

The procedure helps make these single women more marriageable in the eyes of their communities, according to Silber.

“In truth, however, most orthodox women marry much earlier than this, often at age 20,” he said. “So it is an uncommon event, but an important one for them.”

It is also an expensive event. The procedure can cost $10,000 or so — and is still considered somewhat experimental.

Dems: Romney Did Not Fight Contraception Mandate In Mass.

Breaking News Update: The New York Times reports: “Obama Administration Plans to Offer ‘Accommodation’ on Birth Control Rule, Officials Say.”

Leading Democrats in Massachusetts are pointing to contraception as the latest example of a flip flop from former Governor Mitt Romney.

Contraception, with an exemption for churches, became a required benefit in Massachusetts in 2002, the year before Mitt Romney was sworn in as governor. Phil Johnston, who held top state health care and Democratic party positions, says Mitt Romney never tried to repeal the mandate.  “He never mentioned that it would infringe upon religious freedoms and during the four years that Governor Romney served, he was totally silent on that issue.”

Romney aides say his original health coverage bill proposed eliminating all insurance mandates for individuals and small businesses covered through what would become the Health Connector. Since most large businesses are self-insured, and thus not subject to state mandates, these aides say Romney planned to remove mandates for most residents.

Former Health Care for All director John McDonough echoes Johnston’s recollection that Governor Romney never singled out contraception as an objectionable mandate. “The poster child for bad mandates,” remembers McDonough, “was in vitro fertilization, because it is so expensive.” Continue reading

Does God Make You Worry Less?

Belief in a benevolent God is linked to less worry, a new study finds

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends — Woody Allen

That’s my general take on religion, just to put it out there. But I have to say, during health crises, my cynicism dips and I have been known not to pray to God exactly, but to spew forth pleading messages to what I hope is a compassionate universe. (“Please, please let my daughter’s headache be a headache, not a brain tumor,” for instance.)

But who cares what I think. According to surveys, something like 92% of Americans believe in God or a higher power, and I have seen religion serve others as an amazing buffer against the harsh strikes of serious illness, from cancer to deadly viruses.

Apparently, that attitude can lead to less stress and a sturdier mind-set, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated Mclean Hospital in Belmont. They found that people who believe in a benevolent God (presumably not Woody Allen’s version) worry less and are “more tolerant of life’s uncertainties than those who believe in an indifferent or punishing God.” (The study didn’t address worry and stress among non-believers.)

David Rosmarin, PhD, an assistant in psychology at McLean and lead author of the study said the research suggests that mental health professionals should take patients’ spirituality more seriously and incorporate it more fully into treatment. “Religion and spirituality play an important role in many people’s lives and we don’t address it,” Rosmarin said. “You want to ask people about their family and their symptoms, of course. But often, spirituality isn’t mentioned. A humanistic approach to health might actually be asking people something relevant to them.” Continue reading

Rev. Peter Gomes: 1942-2011, ‘Work Until Your Life Is Over’

Rev. Peter Gomes died Monday night. He was 68.

The Rev. Peter Gomes, theologian, author, and exquisite orator on matters spiritual, historical and moral, died last night of a brain aneurysm and heart attack, reports The Harvard Crimson. The influential Minister of Memorial Church in Cambridge and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard Divinity School — who famously came out as a gay Christian and continued to fight against intolerance for the remainder of his life — was 68.

Here’s The New York Times account of Gomes gradual evolution from conservative preacher to defender of gay rights:

He was a thundering black Baptist preacher, and for much of his life was a conservative Republican celebrity who wrote books about the Pilgrims, published volumes of sermons and presided at weddings and funerals of the rich and famous. He gave the benediction at President Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural and delivered the National Cathedral sermon at the inaugural of President George H. W. Bush….

Then in 1991, he appeared before an angry crowd of students, faculty members and administrators protesting homophobic articles in a conservative campus magazine whose distribution had led to a spate of harassment and slurs against gay men and lesbians on campus. Mr. Gomes, putting his reputation and career on the line, announced that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”

When the cheers faded, there were expressions of surprise from the Establishment, and a few calls for his resignation, which were ignored. The announcement changed little in Mr. Gomes’s private life; he had never married and said he was celibate by choice. But it was a major turning point for him professionally.

“I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told The Washington Post months later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”

After Gomes suffered from a stroke last year, my colleague, Carey Goldberg, posted this excerpt from a special sermon he delivered to graduating seniors in 1998, in which he urged the young students not to be afraid and to remember that “God..never goes on sabbatical:”

‘You are going to be sent out of here for good, and most of you aren’t ready to go,” Mr. Gomes, gowned in cherry red, told more than 1,000 seniors in genteelly ringing tones that called to mind a cross between a Shakespearean actor and the sitcom character Frasier.

”The president is about to bid you into the fellowship of educated men and women, and you know,” he paused and slowed, ”just — how — dumb — you — really — are.”

He paused again for the cheers of agreement.

”And worse than that, the world — and your parents in particular — are going to expect that you will now be among the brightest and best,” Mr. Gomes continued. ”But you know that you can no longer fool all the people even some of the time. By noontime today, you will be out of here. By tomorrow, you will be history. By Saturday, you will be toast. That’s a fact — no exceptions, no extensions.”

Having stated the problem, the minister moved quickly to alleviate it, promising students that their best years were yet to come, and that God would be with them.

”The future is God’s gift to you,” Mr. Gomes said. ”God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical.”

He added, ”Thus, my beloved and bewildered young friends, do not be afraid.”

Mr. Gomes concluded with a benediction: ”God grant you life until your work is done, and work until your life is over.”

Daily Rounds: Blood Test For Brain Injury; Lying CEO’s; Female Viagra Trial Stopped; Faith For Health? Partying With Caritas, Obama

Army finds simple blood test to identify mild brain trauma – “The Army says it has discovered a simple blood test that can diagnose mild traumatic brain damage or concussion, a hard-to-detect injury that can affect young athletes, infants with "shaken baby syndrome" and combat troops.” (USA Today)

How To Tell When A CEO Is Lying : NPR The researchers say “lying executives tend to overuse words like "we" and "our team" when they talk about their company. They avoid saying "I."’ (

Medical News: Company Halts 'Female Viagra' Development – in Product Alert, Prescriptions from MedPage Today “The German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim announced it is halting development of flibanserin (Girosa), a pill to treat female hypoactive sexual-desire disorder. The decision to stop development of the drug dubbed "female Viagra" or "pink Viagra" follows.. an FDA advisory committee (meeting) during which the panel voted 9 to 2 that flibanserin doesn't seem to work any better at increasing female sexual desire than placebo.” (

Healing faith? – The Boston Globe “Women who read Scripture passages and prayed together during their classes — and set goals for themselves — walked farther and potentially had lower blood pressure than women whose sessions didn’t emphasize faith.” (Boston Globe)

Caritas CEO hosting fund-raiser with Barack Obama – “Though several Democrats said de la Torre has shown little interest in the party, he is a friend of DSCC chairman and New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, with whom he shares Cuban roots. He has also been a public advocate of national health care reform.” (Boston Herald)

Collins, A Fervent Christian, At Center Of Stem-Cell Debate

Francis Collins, director of the NIH

There’s a great profile of Francis Collins — director of the National Institutes of Health and true-believing Christian in a sea of atheist scientists — in this week’s New Yorker. Writer Peter Boyer asks the question: How does a man who, while hiking, sees a frozen waterfall formed into three separate parts and takes it to be “a revelation of the Trinitarian truth,” also take on the role of chief cheerleader for embryonic stem-cell research?

The answer, it seems, is that while Collins is “personally torn by ethical questions posed by stem-cell research,” Boyer writes, he “also feels it is morally wasteful not to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of embryos created for in-vitro fertilization that ultimately are disposed of anyway. These embryos are doomed, but they can help aid disease research.”

Doctors’ Religion Influences End-Of-Life Care

praying man

A doctor’s religion can influence care

Highly religious doctors tend to talk to terminally ill patients less about treatment options that might shorten their lives (but might also lead to a more peaceful death), according to a survey of U.K. physicians reported by ABC News.

Physicians in the U.K. who reported being very or extremely religious were less likely to endorse certain end-of-life decisions, including continuous deep sedation and initiation of treatment that would be expected to shorten life, Clive Seale of Queen Mary, University of London, reported online in BMJ.

They were also less likely to report discussing such options with patients or to support the legalization of euthanasia.

Holly Prigerson, director of the center for psycho-oncology and palliative care research at Dana Farber Cancer Institute told ABC:

“Everyone talks so much about personalized medicine, and it’s more than just genetic profiling and tailoring medicines. This study says personalized medicine means doctors are people too and their views strongly influence the care patients should get.”