Facing Possible Charges Over Circumcision in Germany, Mohel Keeps a Steady Hand

The criminal complaint was based on a ruling by a German court in May that declared all circumcisions illegal on the grounds that they cause unwarranted physical harm to a child.

BERLIN, Germany - Rabbi David Goldberg, spiritual leader of the Jewish community in the small Bavarian town of Hof, spent the weekend far from the media circus that erupted last week after a German psychologist filed a criminal complaint against him for performing a circumcision. After having given dozens of interviews to media outlets in Israel, Germany and other countries, Goldberg spent the weekend at a seminar for Hebrew teachers in Bad Sobernheim, 400 kilometers from his home, and will travel today to Innsbruck, Austria, to circumcise another Jewish child.

The criminal complaint was based on a ruling by a German court in May that declared all circumcisions illegal on the grounds that they cause unwarranted physical harm to a child. Since then, the legal situation has been unclear. The German parliament has announced plans to pass legislation permitting circumcision, but hasn't done so yet.

Goldberg, 64, said he has performed some 4,000 circumcisions in his life, including about 40 a year since moving from Israel to Germany in 1993 - a decision prompted, he said, by the thought that "there are enough rabbis and mohels [ritual circumcisers] in Israel, and here there's a shortage." At first, he said, he was a little worried by the court's decision, but "I believe the Holy One, blessed be He, will help."

So far, he said, only one parent has called him to cancel a circumcision.

Germany has about 150,000 registered Jews, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Only four mohels serve this community, but in border regions, people often use mohels from neighboring countries. In addition, many people prefer to have the procedure done by a doctor.

Born in Jerusalem, and himself the son of a rabbi, Goldberg originally studied psychology after finishing his army service, but switched partway through to rabbinic studies. He was eventually ordained, and was also certified as a mohel.

Last Thursday, the hot topic of circumcision was taken up by Germany's National Ethics Council. Council member Prof. Reinhard Merkel, a lecturer in criminal law and philosophy at the University of Hamburg, said that if asked whether freedom of religion suffices to justify physical harm to a child who can't give his consent, his answer would ordinarily be a flat no. But when it comes to Jews, he said, the issue goes beyond the narrow confines of the law and enters the realm of politics.

"The assumption is that Germany has an obligation to treat Jewish issues with special sensitivity," he said. "That needs no explanation. Therefore, we have two problems in the balance that can't be reconciled: German politics versus the need to protect young children."

His proposed solution was that the prosecutor in Hof should quietly close the case, on the grounds that parliament has already announced its intention to pass legislation on the matter.

Goldberg has six children from two wives (he is divorced from the first ), as well as 18 grandchildren. He said he circumcised all three of his own sons. His youngest recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.

His second wife, Miriam Chana, helps him with his work, and recently, this has included dealing with the flood of emails that has poured in since the criminal complaint was filed.

"Someone wrote that God doesn't want us to perform circumcisions," she related heatedly. "I asked him, 'How do you know?'"

She appeared more upset by the situation than her husband.

"It could be that I'm naturally optimistic and tranquil," Goldberg said. "I don't get upset too easily. That's important for a mohel."

Rabbi David Goldberg in Berlin last week.