The last time Jewish parents had reason to fear a knock at the door while celebrating the circumcision (brit milah) of their baby boy, Stalin and his communist goons were running the Soviet Union. Democratic Germany is a far cry from the Stalin era, but a ruling by a judge in Cologne banning circumcision and subsequent criminal charges brought against a German rabbi in Bavaria have unleashed forces in Europe that legislation alone cannot defeat.
In Switzerland — a country whose national character almost never allows it to invoke another nation’s practices — a number of hospitals invoked the judge’s ruling to stop circumcisions. Some Austrian hospitals quickly followed suit. In Denmark, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted one malicious op-ed that falsely described the sacred rite like this: “Around the baby stand 10 black-clad men — a must in every Jewish circumcision … As usual in Judaism, women aren’t allowed to be present. An untrained rabbi mutilates the baby, who cries and bleeds profusely as the men pray.”
Meanwhile, Norway’s main political party is considering legislation to ban the ancient rite. Similar calls have been heard this summer in Demark and in Finland, whose Central Union for Child Welfare denounces circumcision as “violence.”
Various medical “experts” have also weighed in. Dr. Maxmilian Stehr asserts in Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine, that, “circumcision doesn’t have any effect on the incidence of most sexually transmissible diseases: gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes and AIDS.” Polls show that nearly half of Germans believe Stehr. They shouldn’t.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes to starkly different conclusions, as does a recently released Johns Hopkins study that states: “The medical benefits of male circumcision are extremely clear,” including reduced rates of HIV, penile cancer and herpes. Indeed, the report expresses concern that should the current circumcision rate of 55 percent of baby boys born in the U.S. decline to 10 percent, it would mean almost 5,000 extra HIV cases in men and 57,000 extra HPV infections. .
Stehr’s bad science aside, it is important to explain what the rite of brit milah means to Jews and to those who historically tried to end its practice: Bans on circumcision date back to ancient Greeks who mocked Jews for marring the perfect work of the gods. The revolt in the land of Israel against the Greeks (165 B.C.) commemorated by Hanukkah was sparked by the religious repression of Antiochus Epiphanes, including a ban on circumcision. The next occupiers — the Romans — tried the same under Hadrian. In all cases, Jews resisted.
For many in our post-modern world, freedom of religion means freedom from religion. Religious beliefs and practices are scorned as vestiges of an old world order that wreaked pain and needless conflict upon humankind.
Thus, a Cologne court can deign to determine there is no benefit to a child to become part of a religious tradition. Or a German rabbi can be slapped with a criminal complaint. Or Scandinavian politicians can demand that circumcision should simply be replaced by some symbolic act. Let one empty ritual replace another.
But Germans in particular should reflect on history.
“The Jews have inflicted two wounds on the world: circumcision for the body and conscience for the soul. I come to free mankind from their shackles.” There is some question whether Hitler uttered these exact words, but the world remembers his legacy this way. Tragically, what is indisputable is that Hitler and enablers murdered 1.5 million Jewish children.
The 64-year-old rabbi charged with the crime of performing circumcisions is from Hof, which before World War II had 3,000 Jews. Today there are 400. Bottom line: No Jewish parents will ever allow themselves to be lectured or sanctioned about the morality of circumcising their male infant children by any German authority.
Some insist Europe’s Muslims are the real targets, not Jews. Sorry, but that is equally unacceptable. Denigrating personal religious freedoms is never the way to go, nor is stigmatizing all Muslims because of the faults of some. That’s a dead end for any society.
Germans and other Europeans should know that: They have been there before.
And so have Jews.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the center’s director of interfaith affairs.