The crime of circumcision
By Michael Gerson,
“This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised.”
— Genesis 17:10
A district judge in Cologne, Germany, recently ruled that ritual circumcision is a crime, violating “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity,” which outweighs other parental and religious rights. “This change runs counter to the interests of the child,” the court concluded, “who can decide his religious affiliation himself later in life.”
Jews and Muslims have traditionally viewed male circumcision in a different light — not as an expression of individual choice but as a form of initiation into a community. German religious figures from all the Abrahamic faiths criticized the Cologne ruling, with particular outrage expressed by Jewish leaders. Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called it “outrageous and insensitive” and warned that a general application of the decision would “coldbloodedly force Judaism into illegality.”
Though the ban directly applies in only one region of Germany, secular supporters count it a triumph and a precedent. One academic, Holm Putzke, celebrated the rejection of “religiously motivated violence against children.” “The court has,” he said, “unlike many politicians, not been deterred by the fear of being criticized as anti-Semitic or antireligious.”
Normally such deterrence would be viewed as a healthy thing, particularly in a country that relatively recently — within living memory — sought to be judenrein, “clean of Jews.” But the fearlessness of modern secularism is a thing to behold. Before World War II, about 600,000 Jews were living in Germany. Today there are a little more than 100,000. This remnant is now informed that its 4,000-year-old ritual of identity — perhaps the oldest Jewish tradition — is a violation of enlightened notions of individual rights.
Jewish sensitivity on this subject is understandable. Anti-Semitism has always focused not only on Jewish beliefs but also on Jewish bodies. And circumcision has attracted particular attention. The Roman historian Tacitus called it a “base and abominable” practice, by which Jews deliberately chose to “distinguish themselves from other peoples.” The banning of circumcision by the Emperor Hadrian may have helped foment a Jewish revolt in 132 A.D. During the Middle Ages, the practice was linked to the blood libel — accusations that Jews used the blood of murdered Christians in circumcision rituals. Joseph Stalin banned ritual circumcision along with other Jewish religious practices.
Most of the current opposition to circumcision — found not only in Germany but in Sweden, Norway, Holland, Finland and the United States — would dispute the charge of anti-Semitism. The arguments opponents claim are resolutely modern: It is medically harmful (a difficult case, in light of the fact that the World Health Organization and UNAIDS recommend the practice as part of effective HIV/AIDS prevention efforts). Along with the Cologne judge, most critics of circumcision also regard it as a violation of individual self-determination, which raises religious-liberty issues larger than a single snip.
A strain of modern liberalism contends that only individuals and their rights are real in the legal sense — and there is no other acceptable sense. It is the role of the state to defend individual self-determination against oppressive institutions, including religious institutions. Since circumcision is coerced, it is unjust. The same claim might be made — and has been made — of early religious indoctrination of any kind. Liberalism thus leads to an aggressive form of assimilation to the values of the liberal order.
Many Jews naturally view compulsive, state-sponsored assimilation with suspicion, even if it is described as social liberation. Along with many other religious people, they regard children as members of a community that precedes individual decisions and outlasts them — a community created by a covenant, not a choice. Circumcision is the outward sign of this spiritual reality.
In the traditional view, religious communities are not only real but irreplaceable sources of meaning and belonging. They are the ties that free individuals from isolation and ennui — even at the price of a little unremembered pain.
There is a story from Holocaust history about a woman at the Janowska concentration camp who demanded a knife from a guard. Taken by surprise, he complied. The other inmates thought the woman intended suicide. Instead, she reached down into a bundle of rags and circumcised her infant boy — then prayed aloud for God to receive him back to heaven as a Jew.
If this is the definition of a crime anywhere in the modern world, it is a sad regression from freedom.
More on this topic: Charles Lane: Andrew Sullivan and the stink of Cologne