By Harriet P. Gross
Do you read the Reader’s Digest? People who like “real” books tend to pooh-pooh the Digest’s line of “condensed” ones; even its name makes you think of a quick meal, doesn’t it?
But sometimes the Digest pushes a hard-to-resist button, as it did with a “You Be the Judge” article on circumcision. Imagine: a topic that is seriously controversial in our Jewish communities today, making the cut (no pun intended!) for Digest inclusion.
Consider for a moment: On the Orthodox side, there’s the Torah and Law of Moses. For less observant modernists, who are vocal on anti-cruelty, eschewing meat no matter how humanely slaughtered, and backing PETA’s call for ethical treatment of all creatures, there’s the question of infant pain. (There’s also the question of sexual sensation, but let’s not go there now, OK?)
So here’s the real story, with a real dilemma. Lia Boldt, a divorced mother in Oregon, learned one day from her 9-year-old son that his father — who had custody of him — was taking him to be circumcised the very next day.
Lia was aware that her former husband, James Boldt, was a new Jew-by-choice. And she knew that her son, who had been raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, was now getting his religious education in a synagogue. She was even accepting of the fact that the boy might someday convert to Judaism and then be circumcised. But what she didn’t know, until he casually dropped his bombshell, was that the boy didn’t want the bris — and was afraid to tell his dad.
So early the next morning, she filed for a temporary restraining order on the procedure. When she had that in hand, she filed another motion, one that would keep him from being circumcised at all. And finally, she filed again, this time to have the son’s custody switched from father to mother — to her.
There’s bad blood in so many unhappy divorce cases. Lia had lost custody in the first place because the court ruled that her hostile attitude would turn the boy, then 7 years old, against his father. Now, two years later, James Boldt responded with his own affidavit that not only did his son want to be circumcised, but that stopping the procedure would violate his fatherly religious rights. Lia lost in the first court, but she persisted, claiming that circumcision could have “grave and drastic consequences,” both physically and emotionally. Up, up and away went her appeal, until it finally reached the Oregon Supreme Court.
The father’s position was supported by the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, all of whom reminded the court that custodial parents are the ones who make both religious and medical decisions for their children. But the mother was backed by Doctors Opposing Circumcision; John Geisheker, the group’s executive director, noted, “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents can’t use their belief system to endanger or cause pain to a child.”
Now, BEFORE you read the verdict in the next paragraph, decide how you would rule in the case (as the Digest challenged its readers).
What actually happened was that deliberations went on and on for five long years, during which time both parents were making claims, but nobody was talking to their son. Finally, someone asked the boy for his feelings on the matter. And he, by then 14 years old, said 1) he didn’t want to be circumcised; 2) he didn’t even want to convert; and 3) he was afraid to tell any of this to his father.
So what happened afterward? The Boldts finally agreed to agree: 1) on joint custody, and 2) to accept their son’s decisions on religion and its requirements.
Did James cave in? Did Lia gloat? Who knows? But was their son really the winner?
Why not take up the provocative challenge of the Reader’s Digest? “You be the judge.”