Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Israeli Bandage and Gabby Giffords

The highlight of the AIPAC Policy Conference so far has been the exhibit on Israeli technological innovation in the AIPAC Village. The bottom floor of the Washington Convention Center, called AIPAC Village, is where D.C.’s annual auto show is held so it is the perfect location to display the America-Israel Racing’s NASCAR race car, an electric car from Shai Agassi’s Better Place, and an Israeli tank. However, the best thing that I saw in that exhibit was the first meeting between two men.

I happened to witness the first encounter between Bernard Bar-Natan and Daniel Hernandez. Both of these men contributed to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh — saving a life. Bar-Natan is responsible for developing the “Israeli Bandage” that was used to save Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life after the assassination attempt that almost killed her. Daniel Hernandez had only been Rep. Giffords’ intern for five days on the day of the tragic incident. Hernandez had the good sense to wrap Giffords’ wounds with makeshift bandages until the paramedics arrived on the scene.

With Daniel Hernandez and Bernard Bar-Natan, CEO of FirstCare

When Bernard Bar-Natan was training to become a military medic in the mid-80’s he noticed that some of the bandages they were using in the Israeli Army to stop bleeding were manufactured during World War II or even before. He began working on new bandages that would have a pressure bar built into the bandage itself. In the early 90’s Bar-Natan was part of a technology incubator program in Jerusalem with a government grant allowing him to develop the bandage. Today, Bar-Natan’s startup company, First Care Products in Lod, Israel, produces over 2 million bandages a year.

The Israeli Bandage helps stem blood loss, prevents infection and allows non-medically trained soldiers to stabilize a wound. American emergency management and law enforcement teams also use the Israeli Bandage. After the Israeli Bandage was used to stop Gabby Giffords’ bleeding, Dr. Katherine Hiller, an emergency physician at the University of Arizona Medical Center remarked, “Without this care, it would have definitely been a different situation.”

This bandage is just one example of how Israeli innovation is saving lives. While I haven’t had the honor to ever meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in person, I felt truly privileged yesterday to meet two of the men responsible for her still being alive today. Watching them meet each other was a remarkable moment and one that I won’t soon forget.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Va’etchanan – Loving God Through Stem Cell Research

One of the oddest of the 613 commandments offered in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion. On Shabbat morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of Va’etchanan read aloud, including the commandment that we are to “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even young children pick up on the fact that it’s odd for God to command us to love God. After all, love is a feeling and commanding a human being to have an emotion seems strange.

However, there are ways for us to express our love for God that transcend our emotions. We can love God in physical ways as well. Our actions toward the betterment of people’s lives are a reflection of our loving relationship with the Divine. If we believe that God created humans and we were partners in the creation of the world, then we have a responsibility to help other humans be healthy and live long lives.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains that “with all your heart” means that we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity.

Last night I had the pleasure to learn from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Eva Feldman, of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan, is using her knowledge, talent and heart to change the world for the better.

Feldman, a soft-spoken professor of neurology at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, has made significant contributions to the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Diabetes in a very short period of time. Last night, she explained to a living room full of some of Metro Detroit’s young adults how her clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for ALS has allowed dozens of patients to walk better.

A. Alfred Taubman, the Michigan shopping mall magnate and mega-philanthropist, helped create the Taubman Medical Research Institute with a $22 million endowment in 2007 and named Feldman as the institute’s first director in January 2008. (Taubman is the University of Michigan’s largest individual donor, with total giving of more than $142 million including $100 million specifically for innovative medical science.)

Three years ago, Dr. Feldman and the Taubman Institute educated citizens in Michigan about the importance of stem cell research in the study and treatment of disease, which led to voters approving a constitutional amendment lifting restrictions on stem cell research. As a result of the election, the Taubman Institute opened the first core facilities in Michigan to derive embryonic stem cell lines (one of the few in the nation).

Dr. Eva Feldman is a pioneer in this field of medical science, but she has also learned to be a quiet fighter. She has to fight against politicians who seek to make her research illegal and she has to fight against those who claim that what she is doing is unethical. Some even accuse her of playing God. There are many who cite their religious beliefs to criticize Dr. Feldman’s work, but I am convinced that her research comes from a place of deep compassion for humanity. Dr. Feldman is motivated to find ways to treat and cure disease. She does this through the power of modern scientific and medical innovation. She explained to our group that she is pro-life because she uses the leftover frozen embryos created for couples using IVF to have children. These embryos would have been destroyed in a garbage disposal, but Dr. Feldman is able to use these stem cell lines to learn more about genetic diseases, create treatments for suffering patients, and help find cures for such life-threatening conditions as cancer, ALS, and Diabetes.

We were all created in the image of God and we owe it to each other to use modern science and medical innovation to benefit the lives of God’s creatures. Using stem cells to fight (and potentially cure) diseases isn’t playing God, but it is a form of loving God. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it can be determined if a person really loves God by the love they bear toward others. Dr. Eva Feldman strikes me as this type of person.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Dr. Jack Kevorkian from a Jewish Perspective

It’s been a week since “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, died of natural causes. A local celebrity in Michigan, Kevorkian became synonymous with physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s. He also made his long-time attorney, Geoffrey Feiger, into a local celebrity. Growing up in Metro Detroit with Kevorkian’s antics on the television news each day meant that “euthanasia” was a well-known term to my peers and me.

Kevorkian’s death has once again revived the ethical conversation surrounding physician-assisted suicide. My friend and classmate, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, MD, was recently interviewed by The Jewish Week about the Jewish perspective of Physician-Assisted Suicide. The interview was published just days before Kevorkian’s death.

Rabbi Sharzer, a retired plastic surgeon in New York, was interviewed because a new documentary is airing on HBO. “How to Die in Oregon” takes a powerful look at Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a 1994 measure allowing physician-assisted suicide and the first law of its kind, by telling the stories of several people who died under the act. Rabbi Sharzer writes and lectures on bio-medical ethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies. The following are questions he answered on the subject of physician assisted suicide:

Q: What, if anything, do Jewish texts and modern-day responsa say about physician-assisted suicide?

A: Normative Judaism, as a general matter, is opposed to suicide, although there have been exceptions, as in the case of matrydom. Jewish legal writing about physician-assisted suicide is quite new, as discussion of the phenomenon itself is recent. The predominant opinion is negative. There’s the notion that human life is a gift from God, and it’s up to God to decide when it ends, not human beings. … Judaism sees no intrinsic value to suffering at the end of life and encourages physicians to use all means at their disposal to relieve suffering — but not to actually end a life.

Do the Torah and other Jewish texts include examples of people choosing to end their lives rather experiencing an agonizing or painful death?

The classic example in the Bible is the case of King Saul, who found himself wounded in battle and surrounded by the enemy. Fearing torture and degradation, he took his own life. The rabbis go to some length to justify Saul’s action while saying it’s an exception that shouldn’t be considered the rule.

Did seeing the documentary influence your own views on the subject?

I’d say that seeing the movie gave me a much better understanding of the human condition in which this develops. It gives a human face to the issue. It’s not my position to be judgmental of anyone who makes that decision, even if I wouldn’t make that decision for myself and wouldn’t counsel it.

What’s the role of spiritual leaders, such as rabbis, in such decisions? Is it the cleric’s place to veto a decision like this and, if so, under what circumstances?

Spiritual leaders, clergy and pastoral caregivers have in role in help both patients and their families deal with these very difficult questions. I don’t think it’s about a veto. Rather, it’s about helping people who are seeking guidance from within a religious tradition. … It’s clearly a feature of our times that people want to control all aspects of their life and health. The spiritual position is that sometimes you can’t. The contribution of spiritual and religious leaders is to help them deal with areas over which they aren’t able to exert control.

In a statement released by the filmmaker, he says that, surprisingly, the lessons he learned from making the documentary have more to do with living than with dying. What does an issue like this — and, more generally, the idea of death — teach us about life?

One of the lessons is that we don’t live this life as isolated individuals. We live this life as part of a family, as part of a community. We want to live out a sense of values not only for ourselves, but for our families and communities, and impart [our values] to the ones who come after us.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Proud of Israel

Israel often gets slammed by the media, so when there is positive coverage of Israel in the news, it is important to showcase it. Several major media outlets have lauded Israel for its quick and efficient aid in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union writes for the JTA: “The Jewish community, in its entirety, can be proud of its response thus far to the Haitian catastrophe. Rescue teams from the State of Israel and millions of dollars from the Jews of America are but examples of our response. Whatever the motivation for these responses, this has been a religious response, a Jewish response.” He explains earlier in his op-ed that the Jewish way of responding to natural disasters is to: “See. Feel. Act.”

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to see how CNN was singing the praises of Israel’s response in Haiti. Even though the Israelis came from the other side of the world, the report notes that the Israeli army was the first to set up a field hospital in Haiti. One woman explains, “I’ve been here since Thursday and no one except the Israeli hospital has taken our patients.” When the reporter walks into the Israeli field hospital she says that it’s like another world because of the imaging technology and the operating rooms the Israelis have set up. Diane Sawyer also featured the quick response by the Israelis in Haiti on ABC News. Sawyer speaks with a correspondent who helped deliver a baby and then watched as another baby was delivered in the Israel Defense Forces field hospital. The baby was named “Israel.”

Here is the video clip from the CNN report:

In addition to the response by the Israelis on the ground in Haiti, other articles have praised the American Jewish community for the outpouring of aid through charitable gifts and medical supplies. The JTA reports: “By Tuesday, AJWS raised $1.8 million from more than 16,000 people via its Web site. The JUF-Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago raised $283,000 in five days from 2,200 donors. Almost all of it — nearly $260,000 – came in online, from 2,058 individuals. UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto raised $173,240 so far, much of it online. Those involved in the fund-raising effort say the Jewish community’s gifts to the people of Haiti stem from Jewish values.”

The New York Times today also featured an article praising Israel, but this time it had to do with the Winter Olympics. The article explained that Israel is hardly a winter sports powerhouse (no surprise!), but this year may prove differently for Israel in the Winter Olympics in downhill skiing and ice-skating.

I can only hope that this positive coverage of Israel by the media continues. At least the world is taking notice of Israel’s rapid response to the need for humanitarian aid in Haiti.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Noah Feldman-Gate

Now that Barry Bonds has tied Hank Aaron’s home run record and everyone will be talking about what the reaction will be when he actually breaks the record, perhaps the debate over the Noah Feldman NY Times Magazine article will die down!

It’s now been two weeks since Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox” diatribe was published and just about every rabbi has given a response to it either in print or in speech. Every Jewish newspaper editor and blogger has sufficiently analyzed it. The Orthodox Union is even calling Noah Feldman “the Jewish Jayson Blair” and calling on the New York Times to apologize for publishing Feldman’s article.

Noah Feldman - Orthodox ParadoxIt is somewhat humorous that what has made Noah Feldman a household name and the water cooler conversation is not any of his impressive career accomplishments, but rather his frank bashing of modern Orthodoxy.

Here are some interesting responses to Noah’s article (pro, con, and everywhere in between) with some quotes or my comments (in italics):

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor of The Jewish Week – New York
“Poor Noah, one may think on first read. How primitive and unfair for his former yeshiva to refuse to publicly acknowledge his successes. But as one continues to read Feldman’s essay, we see he is the one being unfair in expecting to be lauded by a community whose values he has rejected and in crafting an intellectually dishonest case for himself. Still, the implicit and more lasting question raised by the essay is how should the Jewish community in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, deal with Jews who have married out?”

Not all intermarried Jews are snubbed by the Orthodox (The Jewish Week NY)
Wait a second here. Aren’t there several Orthodox organizations out there that honor and glorify intermarried Jews? The answer is yes — especially if they are celebrities and/or wealthy. This article explains that while institutions like Aish HaTorah and Chabad might be opposed to intermarriage, they have no qualms about honoring intermarried Jews like Kirk Douglas, Barbra Streisand, Henry Kissinger or Ari Fleischer. Weren’t King Solomon and Queen Esther intermarried Jews? There are some very interesting quotes in this article by my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL who explains his organization’s decision to appoint an intermarried lay-leader as its new chairman. And while most Conservative synagogues wouldn’t publicly acknowledge an intermarriage, this article mentions a Modern Orthodox shul in NYC that invites the non-Jewish spouse to the bimah for life-cycle events.

Photo wasn’t cropped after all (The Jewish Week – NY)
Uh oh. Turns out that the Maimonides School didn’t actually crop or Photoshop Noah and his Korean gentile girlfriend (now his wife Jeannie Suk) from the group photo at the alumni event. In actuality, several people were left out of the published photo because there were too many faces to fit into one photo. But does it really matter? Noah still made his point.

Avi Shafran on Noah Feldman and Shmuley Boteach (Jerusalem Post)
“To my lights, it doesn’t seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that, despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry. I wouldn’t expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain smoking attendee either. It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one’s community. It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure. Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer – in the larger, longer picture – hope of gain.

An Open Letter to Noah Feldman by Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University (The Forward)
“True, we no longer ‘sit shivah’ for a relative who married out. But all of us experience poignant anguish when a brilliant and once fully committed son of our people, who earnestly believes he is not rejecting his upbringing, effectively does just that in justifying his transgression and holding us up to ridicule.”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Aish.com)
“Responding with no condemnation, the Jewish world would in effect be condoning. If we cherish Jewish survival, in this instance, that is an impossible alternative.”

“[Noah Feldman’s] words bring to mind Solomon Schechter’s pithy response to a plea for religious moderation: “It reminds me of the American juror who said ‘I am willing to give up some, and if necessary all, of the Constitution to preserve the remainder.”

Shira Dicker rips Noah Feldman (“Bungalow Babe in the Big City” blog)
Shira Dicker, married to Columbia University prof and author Ari Goldman, is a writer and publicist who handles the PR for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“By the end of the magazine piece, any sympathy I might have had for him had evaporated and in its place was sheer disgust. Reading postings on the blogosphere, I know that I am hardly alone.

Oh, Noah, you meander through childhood memories that are hardly unique to anyone who attended Orthodox Jewish day school. So the Maimonides School had to cloak their obligatory sex ed in the prohibitions of negiah, hauling out the philosophy of Feinstein in a multi-volume set to suppress your teenage hard-on. Big freaking deal. So you got reprimanded for holding hands with a girl? Been there, done that. So, your rebbes said stupid, parochial things about…goyim? Wow. I never heard of that happening.

There is a Talmudic debate about saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat? How fascinating that this took place so many centuries ago! Of course it is as dated as most of the discussions in the Talmud about women. Isn’t the proof of the pudding in the fact that Jewish doctors are a worldwide institution, saving the lives of Jews and non-Jews without discrimination on Shabbat, on Yom Kippur, on every day of the week????

Do you hope to reveal some ugly, hidden face of Judaism to your shocked readers who previously had such a positive view of Jews? A pile of gentile corpses outside of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, all the unlucky goyim in Upper Manhattan who had the misfortune to get sick on Shabbos?

Which readership are you writing for, anyway? The subscribers to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?[Ouch!]

Andrew Silow Carrol, Editor of the New Jersey Jewish News (Jerusalem Post)
I once read an essay by a woman who said she “observes Shabbat.” On Saturday mornings on the Upper West Side, she sat on a park bench with her newspaper and “observed” her friends and neighbors going to shul. Her joke came back to me as I read the now infamous essay on modern Orthodoxy by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman[…]. I’ll leave it to others to debate the Jewish community’s treatment of intermarriage. I was less intrigued by Feldman’s relationship with his wife than I was by his relationship with Judaism.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Introducing Apple’s New i-Lightning

I saw this on the news yesterday and then read the Reuters article on Jeremy Fogel’s blog. This poor guy in Vancouver back in 2005 was jogging when lightning struck his i-Pod and severely injured him.

The complete article is available here.

In the article by Gene Emery, doctors explained that the jogger was wearing an iPod and was burned on his chest, neck and face after he and a nearby tree were struck by lightning. The burns traced the path of the earphones. The patient’s eardrums were ruptured and the tiny bones in his middle ears were dislocated. His jawbone broke in four places as well.

The doctors explained that the combination of sweat and metal earphones directed the current to, and through, the patient’s head. Since the accident, more than half the patient’s hearing is gone and he cannot hear high frequency sounds, even with hearing aids.

Of course, he still jogs and bought a new iPod… he just doesn’t use it when he jogs anymore!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Medical skill or miracle?

Study finds doctors take supernatural into account
By Chanan Tigay

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — In the 1980s, when Rabbi Leonard Sharzer was still working as a plastic surgeon, he treated a patient suffering from a debilitating neurological disease. Sharzer and his colleagues agreed that the man wasn’t long for this world.

“It was clear to everybody taking care of him that there was nothing more that could be done,” said Sharzer, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2003. “His family expected this. We didn’t know how long he would survive. He was on a downhill course and the outcome was clear.”

But then something strange happened.

“He just lingered and lingered and lingered for six or eight weeks — and he got better,” Sharzer recalled. “There was no way to explain that medically.”

“Looking back on it today,” Sharzer added, “I think I probably would have called it miraculous.”

As it turns out, Sharzer is not alone: According to a new survey, the majority of American physicians believe in miracles.

The study, carried out by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, found that 74 percent of U.S. doctors believe miracles have happened in the past, and 73 percent believe they can occur today.

Among Jewish doctors, 88 percent of Orthodox respondents said they believed miracles have transpired, as did 53 percent of Conservative respondents, 46 percent of Reform respondents and 29 percent of those identifying as culturally Jewish.

The numbers were approximately the same when the doctors were asked if miracles can occur today.

Like Sharzer, 55 percent of physicians surveyed said they had seen treatment results in their patients that they would consider miraculous.

The study also found that 55 percent of the doctors surveyed believe medical practice should be guided by religious teaching, and nearly 40 percent are convinced that the biblical miracle stories — such as Exodus’ parting of the Red Sea — are to be taken literally.

Among Jews, 53 percent of Orthodox doctors believe literally in the biblical miracles, as do nearly 12 percent of Conservative respondents, more than 4 percent of Reform and 2 percent of culturally Jewish respondents.

According to Alan Mittleman, the Finkelstein Institute’s director, the study indicates that the conventional sociological wisdom holding that religious belief declines as a person’s scientific education grows is false.

“The big picture was that doctors are really not less religious than their patients,” he said. “I was somewhat surprised by the overall religiosity of the physicians.”

The survey of 1,087 physicians — Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and 253 Jews — also found that 20 percent of Jewish doctors believe supernatural events or acts of God frequently influence treatment outcomes. Among Catholics that number rose to 35 percent, and jumped again to 46 percent among Protestants.

Among the Jews surveyed between Dec. 17-19, 94 identified themselves as Conservative, 93 as Reform, 49 as culturally Jewish and 17 as Orthodox. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Orthodox Jewish doctors, the study found, were closer to their Christian counterparts with regard to supernatural views than they were to Conservative and Reform doctors.

“Reform and Conservative Jewish physicians seem to be more focused on the medical aspects and their potential for outcome,” said Glenn Kessler, co-founder and managing partner of HCD Research, a private market research company in Flemington, N.J., that deals largely with pharmaceutical companies.

“Orthodox Jews, Catholics and Protestants appear to be more open to non-medical reasons for outcomes — supernatural, unexplained reasons.”

Sharzer, who as a surgeon performed reconstructive operations on people who had been injured in accidents, recalled a patient who arrived at the hospital in critical condition.

“He had a whole group of friends and colleagues come into the hospital, and they began chanting around the clock for three or four days, maybe a week, while he was in extremely critical condition,” Sharzer said.

“When he started to wake up he was aware that they were doing it. From an anecdotal standpoint — patients who are in very dire straits, their own faith and faith in their family certainly can have a beneficial effect.”

He added, “The longer you are in practice the longer you can see things that you can’t explain on the basis of your own actions and your own abilities.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller