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.

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4 Responses

  1. contarian says:

    It is unfortunate that when circumcision (the ikar) is coming under attack around the world, certain segments of the Jewish community are fighting tooth aand nail to allow Mohelim to perofom metzitzah b’peh(the tofel) and thus possibly infect newborns with hepres. This muddies the waters for all the defenders of bris milah

  2. Whoa Nelly says:

    Au Contraire,

    When there are those who purport to be “Rabbis” or “Jewish leaders” who lash out viciously against a part of bris milah as practiced by a goodly portion of religious Jews, the anti-circumcision crowd is emboldened and incorporates the rhetoric of those “Rabbis” and “leaders” in their own rhetoric.

    This is not conjecture, it is fact. A simple Google search (if you can stomach it) will show this to be fact. I am sure that the good Rabbis above who work for the Wiesenthal Center can forward many such examples as well from the Center’s archives.

  3. Nachum says:

    Whoa Nelly: So the babies can be allowed to die, then?

  4. Whoa Nelly says:


    Babies are not dying. It is illogical rhetoric like that that is used to spread all sorts of anti-semitism.

    There is no epidemic of babies dying as a result of Milah. There is no reliable, that’s right, no trustworthy, reliable proof that there is any higher incidence of babies suffering from HSV after MbP than children who have not had MbP.

    The “Rabbis” and others who are so virulently against MpB do not have anyone’s health in mind. They just think it s embarrassing that Jews do what they think is a taboo act. It is no such a stretch to go from this “embarrassment” to being embarrassed at Milah in its entirety. To paraphrase R’ Moshe, the reason why these activists are acting this way is because they have been infected with secular hashkofos.

    To clarify my position before you take the opportunity to distort it, clearly someone who is ill should not perform MbP, and Mohelim are aware of this and cognizant of their health. Frequently a Mohel will tell the family that he cannot perform MbP and will arrange for someone else to perform MbP. They will also decline to perform MbP where there may be a threat to the Mohel’s health. And they will guard themselves accordingly.

    Nor am I saying that every bris needs to have MbP, there are kehillos which are noheg to do metzitzah in other ways. I have no issue with that. However, it is completely out of place for these “political activist rabbis” to assert their beliefs on others. To the extent that they approach government officials and present false information just because they are embarrassed of MbP. And as evident, the embarrassment is not because health issues, rather it is because of social mores influenced by corrupt secular values. You can tell that by how they emphasize herpes to allude to a STD, which this is not.

    There are higher risks of mutilation when using clamps of various sorts to perform the milah. You do not hear the “Rabbis” calling the health department about that. In fact the clamp is much more prevalent in the communities of these same “rabbis” along with the attendant incidence of mutilation.

    If they felt there were actually health risks, they would have approached this much differently. Including perhaps having meetings with the Rabbonim of the communities that do MpB and the doctors in those communities. In fact Doctors in KJ, where there is almost 100% performance of MbP at brissos report that do not have any incidences of HSV.

    So the appropriate response to your question might be, should we let you continue to beat your children? It is in the same rhetorical vein.

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