A few years ago I was invited by the German president Horst Koehler to join him
as part of his delegation and fly with him to Auschwitz on 60-year anniversary
of its liberation. It was a very moving trip. Over 50 heads of state from most
western countries in the world participated.
On the return flight to
Berlin, President Koehler came to the back of the plane said to me: “It is in
the sincere interest of the German government and the people of the country that
Jewish life should be vibrant and strong.”
Those words have since been
echoed by other leading German politicians, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel,
many times and have served as a source of encouragement.
Germany for 16 years, I often wondered: will this government and society truly
do all they can to ensure that “Jewish life will be vibrant and strong”? Now is
the time to find out. The fragile, growing Jewish life in Germany has been
traumatized, its very future put in question. In Cologne a court has ruled that
circumcising young boys for religious reasons amounts to bodily harm.
its view, the rights of the child trump religious and parental
The ruling was due to a circumcision by a doctor on a
four-year-old Muslim child which led to medical complications.
verdict has set an ominous precedent that could impact the German legal system.
This sets a dangerous precedent for all faiths.
When religious belief and
practice become subject to the whim of a court, the rights and freedoms of all
religious groups in Germany are endangered.
Ritual circumcision, or brit
milah as it called Hebrew, literally means “a covenant.” It is a covenant that
Jews have practiced since the time of the Patriarch Abraham over three and half
millennia ago. Jews from the most observant to the most secular follow this
IT REFLECTS a commitment to monotheism that reaches back to
the dawn of observance practiced even under religious oppression. Hanukka
emerged after the Greeks banned circumcision, oppressing religious practices
which led to a bloody revolt.
The Romans banned circumcision after the
destruction of Jerusalem the year 70. Defying death, Jews secretly followed
their tradition. In modern times, in Nazi death camps and under Communist rule
Jews defied totalitarian regimes, secretly circumcising their children. When the
Nazis in Germany searched for Jews in hiding they knew that circumcision was
proof of their true identity.
The biblical commandment requires that
Jewish males be circumcised eight days after birth. Jewish Law dictates it is
postponed if there are any medical complications until a physician ascertains
there is no risk to the baby.
Circumcision must be done by a qualified
Mohel – ritual circumciser.
Certification as a Mohel requires rigorous
training. There is an intensive academic program that includes medical training,
proper procedures, health and the legal requirements of circumcision.
only Jews recognize the expertise of Mohels: Queen Elizabeth selected a Jewish
Mohel to circumcise her son, Prince Charles.
Medical research has shown
that circumcising babies is advantageous for the health of the child, regardless
of the religious aspect. Circumcisions conducted early on in life may reduce the
risk of cancer. The American Urological Association write in the Policy
Statement that circumcision “is an advantage for the health.” The World Health
Organization stated that there is evidence that circumcisions significantly
lower the risk of an HIV infection.
Furthermore, 80 percent of the men
who were circumcised as adults stated that they would have preferred to have
been circumcised as children.
JEWISH COMMUNITIES and organizations are
highly disturbed by this ruling and are afraid about its impact on Jewish life
In the past decades, Jewish life in Germany has developed
positively and many communities are growing and thriving. As a rabbi who has
lived and worked in Germany for the past 16 years, I am saddened and worried
about the setback this matter implies for Jewish tradition and culture in this
This court ruling is an infringement of the religious freedom in
Germany. It denies the right of the Jews in Germany to fulfill their religious
duties by having their baby boys circumcised according to Jewish tradition. The
German government must act decisively to protect religious freedom. Failure to
do so will endanger the continuation of Jewish life in Germany.
credit, the German government has invested enormous energy and has been
successful in the re-awakening and strengthening of Jewish life, creating
vibrant communities. Germany has become a beacon of light, strengthening
democracies around the world. It is now time for the religious freedom laws in
Germany to be fully implemented respecting all religions.
The writer is a
rabbi in Jewish community of Berlin.