I have never taken issue, in print, with Andrew Sullivan’s blog posts, partly because it wouldn’t be cricket to attack a fellow former New Republic editor, and partly because it could turn into a full-time job.
I’m breaking that self-imposed ban now because Andrew’s latest transgression against fact and logic is just too indecent. In Cologne, Germany, a state intermediate appeals court has criminalized religiously-motivated male circumcision, and Andrew has rushed to defend this blatant affront to the Muslim and Jewish peoples.
In 2010, Muslim parents in Cologne hired a Muslim doctor to circumcise their four-year-old son. Apparently he did so under appropriate medical conditions, but the child developed minor bleeding. The parents took him to a local hospital, where some busybody – they’re never too far away in Germany! – called the cops. The local prosecutor pressed charges against the doctor, and when a trial court dismissed the case, the prosecutor appealed to the higher court, which, on May 5, issued the decision that so delights Andrew.
Basically, the court held that a) all children have a right to physical “integrity” b) male circumcision is a permanent and consequential change to the anatomy c) neither the parents’ freedom of religion nor their right to raise their children trumps the child’s right to decide the fate of his foreskin once he’s old enough to do so.
Henceforth, said the court, circumcision of a male minor constitutes the crime of assault, except in cases where it is necessary to cure an acute medical condition.
The most astonishing link in the judge’s chain of reasoning was his assertion that circumcision, because permanent and irreversible, would limit the child’s own ability to decide what religion to join later on. I do not know of any faiths that bar circumcised converts; maybe in Germany there are some.
In any case, what this remarkable judge does not grasp — or does not care about — is the fact that a father cannot be a Jew in good standing unless he circumcises his son at eight days. Nor can the child himself unless he sees to his own circumcision once he comes of age. (A separate rule applies to converts.) Jewish law is crystal clear on this and has been literally since the dawn of recorded time.* (UPDATED/CORRECTED: See note below.)
The Cologne court’s sloppy legal balancing act — kid’s physical integrity vs. parents’ religious interests — completely ignores the nature of religious tradition, which is that it is transmitted from parents to children. To posit a world in which the parents have their religion, and kids choose theirs, when they’re old enough, is to imply that even sending one’s child to a religious school — or making him prepare for a bar mitzvah — might be a form of brainwashing. Certainly it pushes progressive notions of human rights past the point at which they would undermine the spiritual basis of ancient communities.
So when Walter Russell Mead — to whose post on the ruling Andrew is responding — writes that the import of the court’s decision “is essentially to make the practice of Judaism illegal in Germany,” he is drawing roughly the same conclusion that the Jewish community in Germany itself has reached, not engaging in “self-parody,” as Andrew would have it.
“The case was brought in the case of a Muslim infant being mutilated without consent,” Andrew protests. “And no doctor was convicted, and the Cologne court's jurisdiction is not national.”
Once again, Andrew dives into controversy from a platform of ignorance, this time about German law. The fact that the court ruled in a Muslim case is immaterial; its ruling applies to all circumcisions — Jewish, Muslim and, apparently, those carried out for reasons of preventive health. The doctor was not convicted, but only because the law had been unclear prior to this case. Henceforth, the law in Cologne is clear, at least until this ruling is overturned, and anyone who performs a circumcision risks prosecution.
The Cologne court is only one of three such intermediate appellate courts in North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s most populous state. But its ruling puts everyone in the whole country on notice that religious circumcision has been held unlawful, and therefore they may no longer be able to cite the lack of any such legal authority as a defense to prosecution. Certainly a responsible lawyer could advise his clients not to perform a circumcision until the matter gets definitively resolved.
I suppose I would agree with the court, and Andrew, if there was definitive proof that male circumcision, even performed under medically appropriate conditions (as the vast, vast majority are), constitutes “barbaric” “mutilation” of the genitals. Thorough as always, Andrew musters a video of some uncircumcised Canadian guy talking about masturbation and a blog post by an Oxford philosophy prof to prove that a) foreskin serves a vital sexual function and b) studies showing circumcision prevents HIV transmission are flawed.
The truth is that male circumcision does no permanent harm and might be slightly beneficial. There are risks to the procedure, but they are generally exceedingly minor. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Urological Association take the position that neonatal circumcision is a choice that may be safely left to the informed discretion of parents. Among other insults, the Cologne court impugns parents’ concern for the health of their own children.
On the sexual function point, the World Health Organization has declared that it “has not been systematically reviewed, and remains unclear due to substantial biases in many studies.” To those like Andrew’s Canadian dude who insist that missing foreskin would diminish sensation, I offer the circumcised Woody Allen’s famous assessment of his orgasms: “My worst one was right on the money.”
Anyway, injury to this bit of erogenous tissue would not be mutilation of the “genitals,” strictly speaking, since it plays no direct role in male reproduction.
In short, there is no comparison between the benign impact of male circumcision and the damage wrought by what is quite properly called female genital mutilation.
I want to believe that the judge in Cologne was motivated by mere arrogance, self-righteousness and ignorance — as opposed to actual prejudice, toward either Jews or Muslims. Having joined the anti-circumcision cause, Andrew has been careful to distance himself from the anti-Semites who inevitably, but, for him, embarrassingly, flocked to that eccentric banner.
Many Germans have criticized this sickening court decision; I doubt it will be allowed to determine national law over the long term.
But in the comments of those in Germany who did celebrate the ruling, there is a whiff of something very ugly indeed. Law professor Holm Putzke hailed the court for “not letting itself be frightened by the concern of being criticized as anti-Semitic or anti-religious.” Putzke added: “After the reflexive outrage has faded, hopefully a discussion will begin about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate.”
Did you get that? Jews and Muslims appease their gods by doing violence to their children. I almost prefer the older version of blood libel.
Instead of declaring the Jews untermenschen, maybe Hitler should have charged them all as accessories to religiously motivated violence against children, put them on trial in Cologne, and then packed themoff to prison. People like Prof. Putzke would have stood and cheered.
*This paragraph adjusts an earlier version, to reflect helpful comments on Jewish law from Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Rubin of Potomac, Maryland.