Bris Milah in Europe
Several different strands are intertwined in trying to ties a noose around bris milah and shechitah on the Continent. They include classic anti-Semitism (which has lost its moral opprobrium), but are not limited to it. A member of Gert Wilder’s party supports a ban on shechita, even though Wilders himself is pro-Israel. The target is the Muslim community. General disdain for all religion also enters the picture. In any event, I had a rare opportunity to speak directly to the German people in an op-ed I coauthored with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, my colleague at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. It appeared in today’s edition, in German, in Die Zeit, which is the German equivalent of the New York Times. I have to admit feeling some self-satisfaction in being able to cite the gemara and R. Akiva to the German public.
The last time a Jewish couple celebrating the circumcision (brit milah) of their baby boy had reason to fear a knock at the door from a government agent, Joseph Stalin and his followers controlled the Soviet Union. Thankfully, 2012 Germany is not a Cold War dictatorship but a vibrant democracy, but the recent ruling by a judge in Cologne banning circumcision and public opinion polls suggesting strong support for his position, has sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world.
Thankfully, your Chancellor, Angela Merkel, responded to the protests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and German Jewry’s leadership, and helped galvanize the Bundestag to find a legal path to protect the religious rite of circumcision for two minorities– Jews and Muslims.
While the debate concerning the medical efficacy of circumcision continues, the German people should make informed decisions and be aware that a large part of the global medical community sees strong prophylactic benefit in circumcision and not only as a safeguard against AIDS in Africa. Please read the recommendations of the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which arrive at starkly different conclusions than the Cologne judge.
What then can two circumcised rabbis add to the robust debate on this controversy?
To offer some insight as to what the rite of brit milah means to us Jews and to those who historically tried to end its practice.
Bans on circumcision date back to the ancient Greeks who mocked Jews for marring the perfect work of the gods. The successful revolt in the HolyLand against the Greeks (165 B.C.E.) commemorated by the Jewish holiday of Chanukah was sparked by the religious repression of Antiochus Epiphanes, including a ban on circumcision. The next foreign occupiers, the Romans, tried the same under Hadrian. In all cases, Jews resisted, and many paid with their lives to fulfill the biblical commandment dating back to our Founding Father, Abraham. The Talmud promised that any practice Jews protected in antiquity with fierce determination would survive the ravages of time, exile and persecution. There is no better example of such a ‘Mitzvah’ (commandment) than circumcision.
Jews did not sacrifice their lives down through the ages to preserve a medical benefit. The following confrontation between a Jewish sage and a Roman Governor some 1900 hundred years ago offers a glimpse at a core Jewish belief animated by this rite.
A Roman governor, Tinius Rufus demanded to know of Rabbi Akiva which was superior – the work of G-d or the work of Man. Akiva asked for a bit of time, and eventually returned with two packages, one with raw flour, and the other with some pastries. “Choose yourself which you prefer!” said Akiva.
“ What I really wanted to ask you was how you have the gall to circumcise,” sputtered Rufus.
“So I realized. That’s why I presented you with these two options,” responded Akiva. The essence of circumcision is declaring to the child, even before he can think about it, has a sacred G-d-given task in life– to improve upon the world, to leave it a better place than the one he entered.
This passage sharply frames the dispute in antiquity, which has not changed a bit.
For many in our post-modern world –freedom of religion means freedom from religion. Religious beliefs and practices are scorned as the last vestiges of an old world order that brought so much pain and suffering to humankind.
Thus, a Cologne court can deign to determine that there is no benefit to a child to become part of a religious tradition. Or a Norwegian ombudsman can glibly suggest that circumcision should be replaced by some symbolic act. It is as simple as that. Let one empty ritual replace another. Many in Germany and across Europe are skeptical about everything except one thing they know with certainty – that religion could not possibly possess any a priori truths.
This, however, is not who we are or how our people have persevered for over 3,000 years. Our ancestors resisted the pagans of old, and we will continue to resist those who demand that civilization must accept that our world was created by the whims of the gods of Olympus or by the clash of random forces.
So we Jews have our religious and communal reasons to resist bans on circumcision. And there is more:
“The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: Circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.” There is some question whether Hitler uttered these exact words, but the world remembers his legacy this way. Tragically, what is indisputable is that Hitler and enablers murdered 1.5 million Jewish children. This explains why Jewish parents are not prepared to be lectured, or sanctioned about the morality of circumcising their male children on the eighth day oftheir lives by any German authority.
Some say that the Muslims are the real target, and Jews are mere collateral damage. Does Germany mean to use this ruling to make life uncomfortable enough so that religious Muslims will leave?
Sorry, this does not work. Denigrating personal religious freedoms is not the way to go. Nor is stigmatizing an entire group because of the faults of some. That’s a dead end for any democracy, including Germany.
You have been there before.
And, as Jews, so have we.