The circumcision dilemma

There is a new awareness of the ideals that underlie Europe’s libertarian societies and the need to defend them.

July 4, 2012 23:29
4 minute read.
Rabbi holds boy for circumcision

Rabbi holds boy for circumcision. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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 boundaries.

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.

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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 politician.

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 Sarazin.

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.

While 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.

The 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 perspectives.

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.

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