U.S.-born Rabbi in Berlin: Germany's Circumcision Ban Is Really About Tolerance of Minorities

Spinner believes that despite the legal and political difficulties Jews and Muslims will eventually be able to continue to circumcise their young sons.

Rabbi Josh Spinner would like the members of Germany's Jewish community to exhibit "a little more humility, given the history," as he put it. The U.S.-born, Canadian-raised rabbi has lived in Berlin with his family since 2000, part of a young, vibrant, expanding Jewish community in Prenzlauer Berg, one of East Berlin's liveliest neighborhoods. But Spinner says he is concerned by the sense of immunity that he and many other of the country's Jews seem to feel.

"Contrary to what many people think, it's certainly possible that in this generation Germany will say 'no' to the Jews. What everyone is asking is whether Jews can do what they want in Germany or not. People say, 'A ban on brit milah? They're going to take a rabbi to court? That's unbelievable!' But we'll believe it after it happens a few times. "It could be that we are at one of these turning points. I hope not, but this is the first time I feel a bit uncomfortable with the question of whether this could really happen. I still feel 90 percent safe, but I wouldn't say 100-percent safe."

Spinner directs Germany's Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary, and is the CEO of The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which operates a range of educational projects in Central and Eastern Europe. Speaking to Haaretz this week during a visit to Jerusalem Spinner gave a rather gloomy assessment of his adopted homeland, in light of the controversial ruling in June by a Cologne court that the circumcision of infant boys constitutes "illegal bodily harm."

Spinner believes that despite the legal and political difficulties Jews and Muslims will eventually be able to continue to circumcise their young sons.

"I'm more and more worried by the argument than by the specific issue, which I still feel will be resolved by legislation," he said. "The direction of the dispute is more worrisome because of what it says about tolerance, Germany's broad approach to religion and about tolerance of minorities in Germany. "From a broader European perspective, the circumcision genie is already out of the bottle," he continues. "Things like this of one kind or another are happening in Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia. Many people who aren't comfortable with the idea of Jews or Muslims in their midst have found a terrific issue. Brit milah unites almost all Jews and almost all Muslims, it's fundamental, and the battle against it comes from a noble position of defending the rights of minors. Thus it's possible to make life difficult for a lot of Jews and a lot of Muslims while defending personal rights."

So why now?

"In Germany a lot of people have been writing about the issue, including Prof. Holm Putzke, who is the legal driving force behind the ruling in Cologne that banned britot. He's been writing about it for years. The argumentation in the Cologne court drew heavily on his writing.

"The background of what's happening now is a few things that happened during the past two-three years - a referendum on mosque minarets in Switzerland, the ban on shechita [ritual slaughter] in Holland, and the burqa issue in France. There's no specific reason why it's happening specifically now, but it touches on efforts in other parts of Western Europe to understand what we actually mean when we declare that we will exhibit tolerance toward others."

Who is the target of these efforts, the Muslims or the Jews?

"The people leading this are, in my opinion, really egalitarian in their intolerance. They don't want the Muslims to do it and they don't want the Jews to do it. The reason for the extent of the process now is the size of the Muslim community. It's not that they love Jews any more than Muslims, but that there are so many more Muslims in Europe."

How do you answer the strong arguments against 'mutilating' the body of a helpless infant?

"The wholeness of the body is a real argument, but then we can have a debate on the right of religious people to perform circumcision on the one hand, and the right of people to perform any procedure on their children that isn't medically necessary. Maybe we should ban piercing children's ears, for example? "I would want people to discuss this. There are a lot of related decisions that are made for helpless people. For example, according to this secular perspective, you can't circumcise your son, but you are allowed to disconnect your sick father from a respirator. Where's the consistency? The responsible relative says, 'My father wouldn't want to suffer so much.' By what right are you saying that?"

What's the mood in your community?

"Among the people I know, there's been no change at all. Since the ruling there have been three or four circumcisions, all on time. There's been no practical change, but there's discomfort at the direction the debate is taking."

How should the Jewish community respond? Would a letter from an Israeli cabinet minister to Chancellor Angela Merkel be effective?

"It's important to distinguish between a specific response, tachlis, and general expressions of concern. On a practical level, what would be most effective [are negotiations] that are coordinated, led by the elected leadership of the Jewish community in Germany, not by people flying in and out of Germany and holding press conferences.

"But regarding concern, declarations like 'Please don't do this,' or 'We can't believe you're doing this,' are always healthy."

Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who visited Germany this week, raised the idea of mohelim [Jewish ritual circumcisers] undergoing medical training and supervision.

"It's not just Rabbi Metzger, there were elements in the community [saying that] too. I think that to mix up the issue of rights with the issue of public health is a strategic error at this point. We were told that we can't circumcise because in doing so we are not treating our children properly. If our response is, 'Fine, we'll treat our children better by training, etc,' then it sounds like we're accepting the notion that until now we weren't treating them right. I don't think that's the smartest thing to do right now." Did Rabbi Metzger's visit accomplish anything?

"I can't respond to the meetings because I wasn't there, but I can say that his visit made front-page headlines, and front-page headlines right now are a good thing. The Germans have to know that everyone is paying attention and that there's a problem. Take into account that it took nearly three weeks of headlines before the chancellor spoke out."