Explaining Circumcision to Europe - and Ourselves

Will this ruling tear us down or will we be able to build a deeper level of trust and understanding between Jewish and European traditions?

Disbelief, followed by real anger, characterized the initial reactions of the Jewish community to the June 26 ruling of a German court banning circumcision. The judgment, by a local court in Cologne, defining circumcision as a criminal act that would cause "irreversible mutilation" to a child, was described by some European rabbis as "the worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust."

The words and the conceptual notions used by the German judges need to penetrate our minds so that we can in turn judge how the new legal reality actually challenges our Jewish existence in Europe and our set of beliefs and practices.

The Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-3 ) teaches us that "to everything there is a season ... a time to tear down and a time to build." Clearly, if we reject the German judgment, we are effectively tearing down the law. But is there something that can be "built" from the ruling? Might it be possible to use the occasion to renew and strengthen our Jewish identity in Europe? As we confront that task, we find that two issues are at stake. The first one is directed at the Jewish community, the second at Europe.

First, the court's ban on circumcision could lead some to question anew the age-old concept of dina demalkhuta dina (literally, "the law of the land is the law" ), by which Jews are obligated to follow the secular laws of the place where they live. This would not be the first time that the "law of the land" profoundly conflicts with Jewish law. For example, halakhic requirements specify that one should be buried without a coffin, and that interment should take place on the day of death. Yet, in most countries, and certainly in predominantly Western ones, the law demands a coffin, and burial is seldom permitted on the actual day of death. When faced with this legal reality, the rabbis of old felt that Jewish burial traditions were not so important that they should be allowed to jeopardize Jewish life in Europe, thus choosing to uphold dina demalkhuta dina.

What about circumcision? Is this commandment so essential to Jewish identity that we should ask Jewish parents to expose themselves to potential criminal charges in order to uphold it? As a rabbi, I believe that it is. Yet, I am only too aware that it will be our obligation as rabbis and Jewish educators to explain anew - both to our community and to European society in general - why circumcision is such an indispensable part of Jewish existence.

The task is daunting. When faced with the possibility of a deep and potentially dangerous crisis between Europe and Judaism, Jewish parents and communities deserve a better explanation than simply being reminded that brit milah is the biblical "sign of the covenant."

The current situation also raises an important question for Europe. The ruling's wording makes it clear that the "irreversible bodily harm" that circumcision is considered to pose to the child without his consent is illegal. This, the court argues, amounts to a crime and is, in fact, a breach of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union since it exposes the infant to "potential physical dangers" for no other reason than the religious conviction of his parents.

If that is so, couldn't one conclude the same about the very notion of Jewish identity? Most Jews, after all, are simply born into the faith without being offered any sort of choice. In light of European Jewish history, where the very fact of being Jewish could be enough to invite violence and death, one could actually argue that being born to a Jewish mother itself could well expose the child - involuntarily - to "potential physical dangers." By over-emphasizing the rights of the child and the constant need for "consent," the German judges have set their society on a collision path with Jewish identity, which is "choice-less" in its nature.

For decades now, Jews and European opinion makers have lived under the presumption that Judaism is totally in tune with the charter of rights, and Europe's moral and ethical codes. What we see today are the limits of this false perception, as indeed the ban on circumcision is perfectly logical and in tune with the human rights charter. So European decision makers will not be able to understand why Judaism, suddenly, has a problem with this ruling on circumcision. What is needed, therefore, is a dialogue that allows us, for the first time, to explain why Judaism cannot "sign" such a charter, so that Europe can understand that the charter was not, in fact, composed with any real and honest consultation with religious leaders.

Thus, the real issue is a philosophical one. Does Europe have room for a tradition like ours that is based on a "choice-less" identity? Here too the question is daunting. The "choice-less" reality of Jewish existence shatters many aspects of contemporary European thinking. As Jews we come to remind Europe that not everything in life is accompanied by a choice, even when the consequences can be life-threatening.

If Judaism and Europe dare face with honesty these daunting questions, answering them on an intellectual level and not just an emotional one, the German court ruling on circumcision could be a defining moment in Jewish European identity. Will this ruling tear us down or will we be able to build a deeper level of trust and understanding between Jewish and European traditions?

David Meyer is a rabbi in Brussels and a professor of rabbinic literature at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.