The future of Jewish life in Germany

Living in Germany for 16 years, I often wondered: will this gov't, society truly do all they can to ensure “Jewish life will be vibrant and strong”?

Rabbi holds boy for circumcision (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi holds boy for circumcision
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
Living in 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.
In its view, the rights of the child trump religious and parental rights.
The ruling was due to a circumcision by a doctor on a four-year-old Muslim child which led to medical complications.
This 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 tradition.
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.
Not 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 Germany.
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 country.
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.
To its 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.