Life is tough for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only has she had to perform a delicate balancing act in order to save the euro and European unity - although most of her countrymen are far from eager to pay the price - she also has to appease fears of German (and world ) Jewry concerning the right to perform circumcision on their newborn males.
For many hundreds of years stories which seemed to target the well-being and integrity of various Jewish communities in Europe were triggered by a rumor having to do with a Christian child and his or her blood. This story started with the actual case in 2010 of a 4-year-old Muslim boy in Cologne, who suffered bleeding and other complications following a circumcision performed on him by a doctor. The public prosecution filed a lawsuit against the doctor ; he was acquitted by a district court, on June 26, of the charge of harming the child, as he believed he had acted lawfully. However, the court interpreted the law as prohibiting religious circumcisions, because they violate the child's right to physical integrity and self-determination.
The Cologne ruling raised objections among Jewish and Muslim groups and leaders all over the world. Since then a Jewish mohel (ritual circumciser ) has been charged in Germany for having performed the act. It is now likely that the German Federal Constitutional Court will be called upon to rule on the issue, as it will be with respect to euro matters as well.
Circumcision of males is a mitzvah in Judaism, as is spelled out in the first Book of Moses, although according to Jewish tradition, Moses himself was most probably not circumcised. At the time of his birth in Egypt, allowing a male Jewish baby to survive was illegal, not to mention circumcision - even though the procedure had been established practice for Egyptian males since the fourth millennium B.C.E.
Circumcision is an established tradition also in Islam, although it is not mentioned in the Koran, but only in the Hadith (the Muslim version of oral law ). According to tradition, the Prophet Mohammed was born without a foreskin.
It is estimated that one-sixth to one-third of males worldwide are circumcised. The numbers are particularly high in the United States (where some studies say more than 60 percent of male babies undergo the procedure, mostly for medical-cultural reasons), and relatively low across Europe (less than 20 percent, mostly for religious reasons ). However, it is actually in Europe that calls for a ban on circumcision if performed on newborns for religious as opposed to medical reasons are increasingly being heard.
The Torah was written in Hebrew sometime during the first millennium B.C.E., when circumcision was already an established practice in the Middle East. Therefore, Genesis 17, in which Abram is ordered by God to circumcise himself, and every other male, can be interpreted not as the original source mandating that act, but rather as a literary passage in a holy book, aimed at providing a "raison d'etre" for what is in essence mutilation of the human body.
The first verse of chapter 17 tells us: "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him: 'I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou wholehearted." In Hebrew, it is written that Abram is supposed, in the future, to become tamim (which Jerome and King James translators rendered, in Latin and English, respectively, as "perfect" ), as a result of following the ways of the Lord. The ways to achieve such "perfection" is then specified: "And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you" (Gen. 17:11 ).
Now, a nonreligious and doubting Jew like this writer (who had his sons circumcised eight days after their births, without giving it a second thought at the time ) reads this and is liable to question God's mysterious ways: Why should a male be reminded that he is Jewish, and that he has a covenant with a deity, each and every time one has to use the body's plumbing system for disposing of liquid waste or for enjoying the pleasures of the flesh, whether or not the aim is actually procreation?
Not having much faith in God, but a lot of faith in the reasoning of Jewish sages - and being perplexed with respect to this conundrum - I sought answers in the guide for the likes of me, written by the medieval rabbi, physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides. It turns out that the rationale he gives for God's demand that Jewish males be circumcised is sort of a take, or twist, on what some Victorian mother apparently once said to her daughter on her wedding night: "Close your eyes, and think of England." In other words, don't let your senses lead you to places unbecoming, for God's sake.
As Maimonides says in the "Guide for the Perplexed": "One of the reasons for [circumcision] is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible ... In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally. The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision."
Maimonides goes on to write that "those who believe in the unity of God should have a bodily sign uniting them so that one who does not belong to them should not be able to claim that he was one of them."
Maimonides could not have foreseen that about 800 years later, in Nazi Germany and the territories it conquered, circumcision would serve quite an opposite, lethal purpose: that there would be more than a few Germans and their murderous accomplices who would hunt down and kill Jews, identifying them by that very same "bodily sign."
This is what makes the current debacle about circumcision in Germany, of all countries, particularly eerie.
By the way, those who claim that parents who choose to circumcise their newborn son for religious reasons are infringing on his right to make an educated decision on the matter by himself later on, can quote Maimonides while pleading their case. As he explained in his guide, the procedure has to be performed eight days after birth, for "if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it."
The medical rationale for the procedure is still hotly debated, the recent recommendation of American Academy of Pediatrics that health benefits of circumcision in newborn boys outweigh any risks notwithstanding.
My somewhat flippant way of addressing the matter is liable to be seen even by secular Jews - some of them our readers, who believe that circumcision is an essential part and parcel of Jewishness, even in modern times - as heresy. I can only make matters worse by quoting a Christian source on the issue. This is what Saul of Tarsus, aka the apostle Paul wrote on the subject in the first century C.E. in his Epistle to the Romans (2:28-9 ) (to either Jewish or non-Jewish followers of Jesus Christ in Rome): "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God." In other words, one shall not take every Godly decree so literally. My sentiments, exactly.
It is much too early to know how the whole circumcision thing will play out in Germany, and other European countries, for Jews, Muslims and their male offspring. But if worst comes to worst, and the ritual is outlawed in Europe, the Jewish state can capitalize on it by providing such a service on a vast, widely publicized, commercial scale, while boosting its tourism industry at the same time: We can, and should, invite Jews from all over the world to come and visit us with their newborn males, and their extended families, and have a brit performed in the Land of Zion by the best Jewish and Israeli mohelim and doctors. The word of the law and its spirit would be thus preserved, and everyone will make the cut, both as Jews, and as law-abiding citizens of their European countries of origin.
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