Why Jews hold circumcision so dear, and what Germany has to fear
Ever since Abraham and Isaac, the brit milah has recognized our partnership with God doesn’t happen automatically; we must constantly uphold our end of the covenant. So too must Germany uphold its promise of religious freedom to Jews and Muslims alike.
Last June, a court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that non-medical circumcision could be considered criminal because it causes physical harm. Since then, other cities in Europe have also begun to question the legality of this sacred Jewish and Muslim tradition. All this came to a head last week, as Rabbi David Goldberg, a mohel in the Bavarian city of Hof, was charged for performing a circumcision.
Jewish and Muslim communities around the world have decried this new ruling and have urged the Germans to reconsider. I certainly hope that they will.
For Jews, circumcision is one of our most ancient traditions. It goes back to the 17th chapter of Genesis, when God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and his son Isaac as a sign of the covenant, or brit, between him and God. The Torah continues to teach that this sign of the brit between God and Jews shall endure throughout the generations. And indeed it has.
When I was in rabbinical school we received the following assignment: write a paper defending the ritual of circumcision, or brit milah. It seemed like an easy task. We referenced Abraham and verses from the Torah. We wrote that a brit is such a big mitzvah it can be performed on Shabbat and even Yom Kippur. According to the Talmud, it is equal to all other mitzvot combined. Add this to the long history of the performance of this mitzvah, even during times of serious persecutions, and it seemed like a pretty airtight case. And it was for me, until two years ago, when my son was born.
As friends and family gathered on the morning of his brit, I had a moment of panic. What were we doing? The past seven days we had done our best to make sure this child was warm, comfortable, happy, and safe. And now we are going to voluntarily cut him and cause him pain? It seemed crazy. But then I looked around the room. It was filled with family and friends. I looked at my son, who was wearing the same light blue kippa on his head that I had worn at my brit, which had been knitted by my bubbie, zichrona livracha. I listened to the blessings in the ceremony. Lehachneeso biv’rito shel Avraham Aveinu, Praised are you, God, who gave us the mitzvah to bring this child into the covenant of Abraham our father.
This idea of brit, of covenant, is at the core of our theology as Jews. We are partners with God. That partnership doesn’t happen automatically; we have to constantly work to uphold our end of the bargain. This is what the ceremony of brit milah recognizes, both for the baby and for the community. Taking all this in, I felt proud. My son was entering the covenant of our people; becoming a partner with God.
That's the real meaning behind a brit. It acknowledges that we are all a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of the Jewish people, and as a member of the Jewish people we have responsibility to help God make a positive impact on our world.
And it’s this lesson that the courts that outlawed non-medical circumcision in Germany need to learn. Restricting minority groups' religious rituals harms the whole society, especially one with a history such as Germany's. It’s time for Germany, and the other countries in Europe who have prevented circumcisions, to uphold the principle of religious freedom and stop outlawing this important Jewish and Muslim ritual. Doing so not only ensures the legal practice of this religious tradition, it also affirms the principles of freedom, tolerance, and respect for all peoples, which any democracy must hold dear.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.