Circumcision and the First Amendment

I was appalled by Rabbi Reuven Taff's completely inappropriate response to the San Francisco anti-circumcision amendment ("Is Anti-Semitism Alive and Well in San Francisco?" Fall 2011). The answer to hate speech is not the governmental censorship he proposes but to answer it with more speech. That is precisely what was done in San Francisco. The end result was not only a court decision knocking the proposed amendment off the ballot, but legislation signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown to ensure such proposals will not be valid in the future.

Rabbi Taff, on the other hand, argues that we should punish "hate propaganda material" with the power of the state. The argument that the First Amendment doesn't protect offensive speech was made more than 30 years ago, when some neo-Nazis thugs wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois, and were denied a parade permit. I recall attending a debate at my law school at the time in which the ADL and the ACLU argued opposite sides of the case. After listening to the arguments I got up and said that the ADL representative made a powerful argument about the emotional harm that would be caused if the neo-Nazis marched, given that there were a number of Holocaust survivors living in Skokie. I then asked what standard could he devise that would stop the neo-Nazis but could not be used also by pro-Palestinians to challenge an Israeli Independence Day parade.

Rabbi Taff no doubt would argue that being locally pro-Israel is not indulging in hate speech. But from a Palestinian perspective it might well be, especially if some of the ideas expressed included support for the settlers or criticism of terrorist acts by Palestinians. And it's not Rabbi Taff who would get to decide which speech was okay and which was not. It would be a judge, applying a law that stated that anyone who "willfully promotes hatred against any identified group is guilty." Rabbi Taff might agree with me that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but stating so conceivably could be seen as promoting hatred against all Palestinians.

No, censorship is not the way to go. In America we allow "freedom for the thought we hate," in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. And we fight back, as was done in San Francisco, by exposing it for the collection of hate and lies that it is, not by having the government approve which thoughts are permissible and which will be punished.

Somerville, Mass.

Rabbi Reuven Taff decries Matthew Hess and his group's un-American efforts to restrict circumcision. Unfortunately, Rabbi Taff proposes an equally un-American response. The First Amendment is not a slippery slope but rather solid bedrock. It guarantees freedom of religion as well as freedom of speech, and it is all that American Jews need to stop cranks and kooks like Hess and his teenyweenie group. Brit milah is protected by the U.S. Constitution, end of story. The overwhelming majority of Americans understands and cherishes freedom of religion and rejects bigotry; and if they don't, our courts can remind them. We don't need new Canadianstyle or any other laws that police our speech.


While I agree that Hess is clearly an anti- Semite, I disagree with your free-speech limiting proposal.

First, I welcome anti-Semites to make themselves known in clear and unambiguous fashion. Their voices give clarity to our mission. It also helps us understand who is who. Unfortunately, being an anti-Semite is far too fashionable these days (especially in Europe). I'd rather have these people out in the open, exposed and identifiable, than skulking in the shadows with effective whisper campaigns that cannot be confronted openly. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Then we can address it head on and educate the ignorant.

Finally, be careful of unintended consequences. Limiting the First Amendment's scope is not without danger. The Canadian law is certainly, at its edges, subjective. Who's to say that your legitimate criticism of, say, Palestinian politics is not someone else's hate speech?


Although it is refreshing to see an originalist constitutional argument put forth in this publication, I am afraid that Rabbi Taff's view that the "founding fathers (n)ever thought that hate propaganda … would be an acceptable form of free speech" does not hold water. When the founding fathers wrote "Congress shall make no law" they did not intend an exception for speech that offends Jews. Speech that is inoffensive is not in need of constitutional protection.

Before Rabbi Taff rushes to replace the first amendment with Canadian law, he should reflect on the fact that the Canadian law in question has been used, among other purposes, to punish a citizen for publishing a bumper sticker containing citations of biblical verses from Leviticus (Hugh Owens v. Saskatchewan). Not only was Mr. Owens enjoined from further distribution of the bumper stickers, he was ordered to pay $1,500 to each of three complainants who were offended by them. I much prefer the freedoms protected by our constitution to those protected by the Canadian Human Rights Commissions.

Monster Mohel is not the first manifestation of the convergence of far left politics and anti-Semitism, and it won't be the last. Rabbi Taff 's call for "loud and clear voices" in opposition is the proper response.

Shamong, NJ

USY: Creating Memories

"Darn tootin'! We love Jules Gutin!"

When I read Jules Gutin's article (Fall 2011), many wonderful memories of my years in USY rushed back. For whatever reason, that chant did, too. We used to shout it whenever Jules took the stage at USY conventions. Do they still shout it?

I was a member of USY from 1985 to 1988 at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Connecticut. The summer of 1987 was spent on an amazing Israel trip with USY Pilgrimage. What I remember most is the people that I met along the way and the friendships that have grown over the years. I have scrapbooks filled with pictures.

I can only hope that my son and daughter have similar experiences when they get the chance to join USY.

Thank you, Jules, for being the director of such an amazing organization and for writing an article that reminded me of wonderful things.

Cupertino, California

My Father's Shoes

Artie Dean's touching and heartfelt article, "My Father's Shoes" (Fall 2011), brought me back more than 50 years to when I was ordained at the Hebrew Union College. My father, an Orthodox Jew and supporter of religious Zionist causes, came to Cincinnati from Detroit to witness my ordination. That event was rather Reform, and my father spent Friday and Shabbat in a nearby hotel and walked to the temple on a hot and humid day, surviving on vegetarian food in order to keep kosher.

It was then that I committed myself to maintaining a respectful approach to Jewish tradition and preserving halachic customs as much as possible. My father, who attended school in Poland with Menachem Begin, observed my rabbinate from afar as I served congregations in Santa Barbara, California, and Charleston, West Virginia. Until his death, 10 years after my ordination, he never challenged my commitments nor disparaged my membership in Reform Judaism. From time to time he reminded me of the most salient aspects of Jewish life: tzedakah, love of Israel, education of children, respect for elders, preservation of meaningful traditions. All this was unearthed in my mind when I read Artie Dean's inspiring and moving article.

Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Bnai Israel
Charleston, West Virginia

In 1985, I was asked by the cantor of my synagogue, Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, New York, to chant the haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. I had been a member of the synagogue for 20 years and our high holiday choir for almost 10, but I had not chanted a haftarah since my bar mitzvah in 1950.

I do not know why I said yes, but I did. When the time came, I looked out into the congregation. There were my parents sitting with my wife and our three children, a glow of pride and joy radiating from them.

11 months later, my dad died of cancer. I am eternally grateful that he had the chance to hear me chant the haftarah that first time. I am not a very spiritual person, yet each time I have chant it since then, I feel like I am chanting toward heaven so my father can hear me again.

Poughkeepsie, New York

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