Recently Rabbi Moshe Averick wrote a confused and hysterical attack on Christopher Hitchens and the latter’s book God is not Great. Most of it is the usual boring complaining about atheists (why don’t they just go away?!), with various objections to Hitchens’ interpretation of history that really don’t seem to make any sense. The whole thing is an attempt to promote Averick’s book Nonsense of a High Order, which promises to be another attack upon the “new atheists.”
All that of course is as boring as usual. But one thing caught my eye, because it involved Averick pretending ignorance of some shocking and horrible things in order to defend religion and call Hitchens, who calls attention to these things in his book, a liar.
In God is not Great Hitchens points out that traditional Jewish circumcision rituals have lead to infection, injury, and even death of infants. Averick says that this is “an outright lie.” He knows this, he says, in part because his “grandfather was, and my son is, a highly trained mohel.” So he’s really well informed about circumcision rituals and the precautions that the mohels always take.
Given Averick’s interests and concerns, it’s hard to believe that he’s not aware of even recent scandals involving injuries and deaths ascribed to traditional Orthodox circumcision practices. In 2005 the New York Times carried a horrible, and infuriating, article describing the herpes infections transmitted to infants by Rabbis who suck the blood out of the penis with their mouths. Even though health officials suspected that at least one infant died as a result of the infection, the Rabbis refused to alter their practices:
“The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years,” said Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after the meeting with the mayor. “We do not change. And we will not change.”
If I had not read this in the Times I would probably have assumed that it was some modern form of blood libel. This variety of the ritual is not practiced by all Orthodox Jews, but apparently it is a traditional practice. For Averick to claim that Hitchens is simply making up the history of injury to infants as a result of circumcision rituals is itself utterly deceitful. But there is nothing new in the spectacle of defenders of organized religion having to lie and cover up the true history and nature of their favorite cults while cynically assuming that the sheep in their audience will not look into things for themselves.
What is particularly galling about the situation reported in the Times is that the perpetrators got away with it. The article paints a picture of the Health Department and the mayor himself wringing their hands and practically begging the Rabbis to alter their procedures, just a little, to reduce the chances of infection. And the Rabbis simply say “no,” and, because the horrors that they inflict upon innocent babies are part of a religious tradition, nothing can be done. It is politically impossible to enforce even minimal standards of decency and safety in the face of religious entitlement.
Imagine what would happen to you if your baby was found to be infected with herpes because you were sucking on his penis? Whether or not you had also been cutting off bits of it. Atheists typically do not demand suppression of religion, as the Priests and Rabbis often falsely claim. We merely ask that society’s basic standards of fair play and common decency, not to mention the law, be applied to everyone equally, as our constitution and conscience demand. That this simple expectation is interpreted as an active attempt to tear down religious institutions should tell you all you need to know about them.