The Sacred Rite of Circumcision
Germany’s challenge to Jewish tradition focuses on individual rights, but what about our bodies’ sanctity?
After a German court criminalized infant circumcision as “grievous bodily harm” in a June 26 ruling, Jewish as well as Muslim and Christian protests convinced the country’s government to present legislation to protect this most fundamental Jewish practice. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to Jewish concerns was sympathetic—including her July 17 declaration that a ban on circumcision would make Germany “a laughingstock of a country.” But these measures mark a truce rather than a victory for Jewish communities in Europe.
Even if the government passes legislation to protect circumcision on the grounds of religious freedom, the Cologne state court’s decision has let an evil genie out of the bottle: a concerted campaign to banish the sacred from European public life.
Merkel has the backing of the leadership of all of the country’s political parties, but her defense of circumcision met a groundswell of protest from German medical and child welfare organizations. Germany’s Child Protection Society (Kinderhilfe) denounced the ritual as “a blank check for religiously motivated child abuse.” The head of the German Academy for Pediatric Medicine, Wolfram Hartmann, warned on July 17, in response to Merkel’s statement, that circumcision causes “lifelong bodily and above spiritual [sic] injury.” Two days later, a spokesman for Germany’s Humanist Association dismissed circumcision as “a relic of times long gone” and demanded that Jews consign the practice to the dust-heap of history, along with corporal punishment of children. Six-hundred German physicians and lawyers signed an open letter to Merkel published July 21, proclaiming that “religious freedom cannot be a charter for violence,” and asserting that circumcision violates the “right of children to bodily integrity and sexual self-determination.”
It is hard to recall an issue that has called forth such fury from German civil society in recent years. And it is far from over. The effect of the court’s ruling can already be felt beyond Germany’s borders; copycat bans on brit milah have emerged in neighboring countries, including Switzerland and Austria. On July 23, two Swiss hospitals announced that they would abstain from performing circumcisions because they were “evaluating the legal and ethical stance in Switzerland,” a spokesman for a Zurich hospital said. A day later, the chief executive of Austria’s Vorarlberg province, Markus Wallner, told regional hospitals to refrain from circumcision for religious reasons “until the legal situation had been clarified” following the Cologne court’s decision. (Wallner backtracked a week later, after Austria’s justice minister declared that parents could not be punished for circumcising infants.)
The uproar over circumcision barely conceals a revulsion at the concept of the sacred in all its forms. The German court replaces the Jewish and Christian belief in sanctity of human life and the human body with a perverse concept of rights deriving from bodily proprietorship. In this brave new world, it is legal to bring your grandmother to a Zurich hospital to be euthanized but criminal to bring a newborn boy to be circumcised. It is doubly perverse because the West first learned of human rights, and the rights of newborns in particular, from the Jews. Banish the source of these rights and the notion of rights will eventually turn into a twisted mockery.
Remarkably, the recent wave of attacks on circumcision occurred after the leaders of all German political parties as well as all mainstream religious associations expressed support for infant circumcision as a matter of religious freedom. Germany’s Catholic bishops denounced the Cologne court ban as “an attack on religious freedom” and declared their “solidarity with Jews,” while the German Evangelical Church argued that the right of parents to raise children in their religious community should outweigh the court’s concern about the putative rights of children. Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, wrote July 6 that the issue of children’s rights was a pretext for resurgent anti-Semitism:
Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life—on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state—must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide, and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them—some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today.
Except it has been said before. Hartmann’s claim that brit milah inflicts “lifelong spiritual injury” retreads anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi period. As Jewish historian Robin Judd reported in the 2007 book Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, the Nazis claimed that “circumcision had a metamorphosing effect. Supposedly the removal of the foreskin transformed the individual, a claim they emphasized in their use of the terms deform or disfigure when describing the rite.” Unlike Hartmann and his Academy for Pediatric Medicine, though, the Nazis never sought to ban circumcision. The Catholic Church was still powerful during the 1930s, and Catholic doctrine, then as now, could not countenance the notion that Jesus, a circumcised Jew, was “deformed” or “degraded.” Today’s campaign against circumcision reflects the decline of Christian influence in Germany as much as it does latent German anti-Semitism, whose proponents have been only too eager to associate Jews with a supposedly barbaric or primitive rite.
Germany will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, as the Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex remarked, and I would add that it assuages German guilt to depict Jews as deformed and disfigured. But something deeper, and uglier, is at work. The proponents of a ban argue for the right to self-determination—bodily and otherwise. It is perfectly consistent to permit euthanasia, provided that it is voluntary, while banning infant circumcision. The body, in this view, is the property of its owner, who has the right to dispose of it at whim. This argument seems reasonable at first blush, but it crumples with a slight shove.
Doctors in Zurich—where euthanasia has been legal since 2006—don’t ask too many questions when you bring your senile grandmother in for euthanasia; first of all, she signed the release form, and second, she isn’t capable of self-determination in the first place. But neither are the severely retarded, who were once the first victims of the Nazi killing machine. If we euthanize the senile elderly, why not the retarded as well? It can’t be hard to get them to sign the waiver.
A German fetus, for that matter, does not have the right to bodily integrity; not only its foreskin, but the whole fetus can be removed up to 12 weeks after conception. Why does the mother have the right to destroy it at 12 weeks, but not at 13 weeks? That has nothing to do with “fundamental rights,” but rather with political compromises struck after Germany was reunified. Of course, a fetus does not have the capacity for self-determination, but a newborn has no more capacity for self-determination than a fetus. Infanticide is not yet legal in Germany or in any civilized country, but prominent medical ethicists writing in respectable journals contend that a newborn could be killed with as few qualms as a fetus.
These may seem like extreme cases, but that is only because there is something that inhibits us—or should inhibit us—from crossing the line to take life. That is our sense of the sanctity of life. But it never occurred to any human society to attribute rights to individuals—let alone to infants—before ancient Israel. Excepting Israel, every ancient civilization killed infants as a matter of routine, including the enlightened Greeks. Aristotle wrote in Politics (VII.16): “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed.” Individual rights had no place in the pagan order, nor in the neo-pagan order the Nazis sought to construct.
Inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence insists, derive from an eternal God. The absolute right to live—for the retarded and senile and the newborn as well as the strong and healthy—rests on the mortal human’s share in something eternal. That is the premise of the sacred: The human body whose “physical integrity” so concerns the German court is flawed from the outset, because it will die.
To say that life is sacred means in plain English that our lives belong not to us, but to God, so that it is not within our purview to stifle newborns or expose our senile grandmothers. We make something sacred by giving it to God and receiving it back from him, as Abraham gave and received his son Isaac. Circumcision of Jewish infants reenacts Abraham’s sacrifice: The infant boy is given to God and enters into covenant with God, by which we affirm the sanctity of his life.
That is the origin of the sanctity of life in human history. The Jewish people have upheld it for nearly 4,000 years. Christianity emulates circumcision through baptism, which the early church instituted in opposition to infanticide. In this case, Jesus’ blood substitutes for the blood of the circumcised infant. As noted, Germans who believe in the covenant of Jesus’ blood stand together with Jews who practice brit milah, against the neo-pagans of the Cologne court.
God’s love for Abraham extends to his descendants, and circumcision denotes the transformation of Jewish flesh to a holy vessel for God’s presence in the world. As theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote in The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel:
The God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos. … There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. Israel’s symbol of the covenant is circumcision, a searing of the covenant into the flesh of Israel and not only, or perhaps not even primarily, into its spirit. And that is why God’s election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.
It is sad and empty to think of a human being simply as a lump of flesh seeking pleasure (“sexual self-determination”) and avoiding pain (e.g., through euthanasia) at the behest of its owner. Erase the line between what is sacred and what is merely utilitarian, and there is nothing in principle to prevent us from subjecting low-value (minderwertig) life to the cost-benefit analysis of the killers. That German physicians and attorneys campaign with such bitter determination to uproot the source of the sacred—the Jewish concept of covenant—from German society is downright chilling. Don’t they remember?
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At Sunday school, I learned about the Israelites and end-times. Then bar mitzvah season began.