The circumcision dilemma
There is a new awareness of the ideals that underlie Europe’s libertarian societies and the need to defend them.
Rabbi holds boy for circumcision Photo: REUTERS
Something has been going on in Europe throughout the past 15 years or so:
Europeans have been slowly waking up to the understand that freedom cannot be
equated with cultural relativism and that tolerance has its natural
There is a new awareness of the ideals that underlie Europe’s
libertarian societies and the need to defend them in the face of totalitarian
concepts that are constantly being brought to Europe by immigrants, who year by
year look for a better life in the west. As a consequence, the important idea of
religious freedom is being put into proportion in regard to the liberal-secular
ideals of western societies.
The Burka ban that has been implemented in
French and Belgian public schools is one expression of this new awareness.
Another is the change in political rhetoric. An expression such as
“Multiculturalism has failed,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in
October 2010 at an assembly of young Christian Democrats, would have been
inconceivable only 10 years earlier from a European mainstream
Finally, there is the rise of the new European Right that is
being associated with names such as Geert Wilders, Marine Le Penn or Thilo
Political analysts debate whether these movements promote
reactionary and racist nationalism or rather defend particular western values in
the face of cultural relativism.
Whatever conclusion one may come to, it
is safe to assume that both elements play some kind of role here.
this reawakening moral self-awareness among Europeans until now has largely
become evident in changing approaches toward radical Islamism, we now have to
deal with the fact that it has turned against the practice of a ritual that is
dear to us Jews, too, namely the ritual of circumcision.
A court in
Germany ruled recently that religious circumcisions of minors who cannot give
their consent to the procedure are illegal. The judges at the Cologne state
court argued that such practice violates the individual’s rights to
self-determination and to physical integrity, both granted by Germany’s basic
law (its constitution, so to speak).
THE TRIAL was initiated after a four
year old Muslim boy needed to be treated at an emergency room of a Cologne
hospital for post-circumcision bleeding.
The medic in charge at the
emergency room reported the case to the prosecutor’s office that pressed charges
against the physician who conducted the circumcision.
Even though the
court found that the doctor conducted the circumcision accurately from a
clinical point of view it ruled that the procedure itself was illegal, as there
was no medical indication for it.
Personally I don’t agree that
circumcision really violates the spirit of the constitutional principles stated
by the court. It is certainly true that circumcision irreversibly removes a part
of the human body, what the judges consider an insult to the principle of bodily
integrity. Yet, circumcision does not cause injury in the sense of damaging,
depriving or limiting a man in his physiological functioning.
A man who
has been circumcised has no practical physiological disadvantage whatsoever over
a man who has not been circumcised.
Rather, the opposite is true. It has
been shown that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection; circumcised men
are at lower risk for genital cancer, and there are obvious hygienic advantages.
Yet, I am neither a medic nor a lawyer and I may be missing out on something,
both on the medical and the judicial side.
Either way, the fact that
Europeans in general and Germans in particular are beginning to overcome
cultural relativism, as they don’t take for granted anymore that any religiously
sanctioned ritual must be permitted under the provision of the freedom of
religion, but rather weigh and debate carefully whether a particular ritual can
really be accommodated with the basic principles of a state’s overarching
socio-political order, shows that they have become more mature in their approach
toward cultural diversity and moral conflict.
Hence, even though I
disagree with the verdict of the Cologne court, I also think it is far from
being “outrageous,” as Dieter Graumann called it (or had to call it) in his
function of the chairperson of the council of Jews in Germany.
verdict is a healthy expression of a libertarian state of law that tries to deal
responsibly with the reality of cultural diversity and moral conflict. Slowly
overcoming their post-World War II moral insecurity, Germans may need some more
years to fine-tune their approach to the tricky task of accommodating their
young democratic constitution with the diversity of moral
It is not unlikely that, in the meantime, German lawmakers
will step in and try to make circumcision legal.
The author, a former
German journalist, is a MA student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.