Germany’s circumcision ruling makes believers anxious

A few weeks ago I started reading stories about how Germany had banned circumcision. Because of Germany’s historical treatment of Jews, and what that country has gone through to rid itself of its past, the story almost seemed hard to believe. But it was real and there was limited coverage of the move.

But the coverage I have been reading has been pretty good. I wanted to give an example of how well the New York Times has covered the issue by looking at the story that ran recently headlined “In Germany, Ruling Over Circumcision Sows Anxiety and Confusion.”

It begins with a Muslim couple, first generation immigrants from Turkey, who had planned to have their toddler circumcised at a nearby Jewish Hospital since they wanted the operation done by a surgeon as opposed to someone without that training. But because a German court equated circumcision with a criminal act, many hospitals have stopped performing the procedure. The Muslim couple has no idea what to do. They want to do it at a hospital, covered by insurance, but if they can’t, they’ll do it elsewhere. And they’re nervous about that.

There is so much to chew on in that lede anecdote. It reminds the reader that a circumcision ban also affects Muslims. The bit about the Muslims going to a Jewish hospital is intriguing. The suggestion that religious adherents will have to follow their religion underground if the ban is sustained:

Their quandary is indicative of the confusion that has been sown by the ruling on June 26 by a court in Cologne that, while not enforceable outside that region, has sent ripples of anger and anxiety throughout the country and beyond. It has raised vexing questions about the boundaries of religious practice and freedom in an increasingly secular Germany.

“The often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion,” said Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics from Berlin’s Free University who added that the ruling reflected a profound lack of understanding in modern Germany for religious belief.

The article explains that Jewish and Muslim organizations are protesting the ruling vigorously. And the German Medical Association condemned the ruling for “putting children at risk by taking the procedure out of the hands of doctors” but also warned surgeons not to perform circumcisions until the law could be clarified. The article explains that everyone from German Chancellor Angela Merkel on down has weighed in on the need to protect ritual circumcisions.

Now, the article gets a lot of information into a small amount of space, but it was actually kind of interesting to me how little religion was in this story that revolves completely around religion news. I mean, I’m neither Jewish nor Muslim and because I’m familiar with the Hebrew Testament, I know a bit about how circumcision is practiced and why. But the story doesn’t give an explanation for why Jews practice circumcision or what it means in terms of religious involvement. And even less information is provided for the religious motivation of Muslims.

We learn that it could “take time” to review the ruling and decide whether to propose legislation:

The condemnation has also come from abroad, including from the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Germany’s ambassador to Israel was called before a parliamentary committee to explain the ruling. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, said Friday that he had been showered with questions and criticism surrounding the ruling.

“They are all greatly concerned about the ramifications of the ruling, but mostly for Jewish and Muslim life in Germany,” Mr. Westerwelle said. There are 100,000 Jews and four million Muslims living here.

Westerwelle is quoted as saying “Germany is an open, tolerant country, where religious freedom is firmly anchored and where religious traditions, such as circumcision, are protected as an expression of religious pluralism.” But, the reporter adds, circumcision bans have existed throughout history, from Roman times to the Soviet era:

That such a ruling would come from a court in modern, post-World War II Germany has caused many to wonder whether the judges were fully aware of the implications and would have ruled differently had the case involved a Jewish boy, instead of a young Muslim. The boy in question was 4 years old.

“I can’t imagine Berlin prosecutors ordering the police to enter a synagogue and arrest a Jew with a beard and yarmulke for carrying out a circumcision,” said Josh Spinner, an American rabbi who moved to Berlin 12 years ago and who now runs the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “Those are pictures that I don’t believe anyone here is ready for.”

We learn that Muslims and Jews issued a joint statement in protest. We also learn that at least three circumcisions have been performed since the ruling. The father, who asks not to be identified, explained that the circumcision was done because “it was eight days after his birth, the time was right.” The eighth day after birth is “the right time” for Jewish circumcision and it makes me wonder how many Jewish boys have hit their eighth day since the ruling. And when, if any time, is the “right time” for Muslim circumcision? The story says that the father in the lead anecdote was circumcised at the age of four. is that the traditional time? Or is it something that varies. Either way, why that age?

One of the interesting pieces of information in this story was that the Muslim community in Germany numbers four million while there are only 100,000 Jews.

In any case, the story is full of interesting information. But for a religion news story, I could have used more explanation of the role religion plays.

Photo of Berlin’s Neue Synagogue via Shutterstock.

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  • sari

    There’s a lot missing from this story, Mollie, some political and some religious. Europe has become increasingly inhospitable to its Muslim population. Taken together with the increasing number of laws against ritual slaughter, the anti-circ laws suggest that lawmakers hope to disrupt Muslim life sufficiently to spark a mass exodus elsewhere. Jews are collateral damage.

    On the religious end, Torah mandates circumcision of newborn boys on the eighth day (Gen. 17:10-14, Lev. 12:3). The rabbis made exceptions for boys whose health would be jeopardized or who had abnormalities that needed to be addressed first. The Brit Milah(Covenant of Circumcision) signifies the covenant between Abraham and G-d, and thus the covenant between every Jewish man and G-d. It is at the Bris that a boy is named and becomes a member of the Jewish People. Men who convert are required to be circumcised.

    Technically, it is incumbent on the boy’s father to perform the circumcision, just as Avraham did for Yitzhak. In practice, the father can request a proxy, usually a moyel (ritual circumcizer), who has been trained to perform the procedure. Some people use surgeons, but the moyel’s technique is usually quicker, less bloody, and heals faster (per my non-Jewish friends who went the surgical route). The bris is usually held at home or at the synagogue (less usual in observant circles), not the hospital, and is the central part of a larger ceremony to which the community is invited.

    The timing and requirement are less clear for Muslims. Some branches recommend it while others make it obligatory. The journalist could have interviewed a Muslim cleric to obtain the specifics for the people who were profiled.

    In areas without a Halal butcher, many Muslims buy their meat from kosher butchers. Both religions prohibit the consumption of blood (mentioned several times in Torah), require a particular type of slaughter, and that the animal’s blood be spilled on the ground. The rabbis took it a step further, and required the meat to be soaked, salted, and soaked again to remove any remaining traces of blood. So, while Muslims can eat kosher, Jews cannot eat Halal. I am sure that Muslims use Jewish surgeons for the same reason they buy kosher meat.

    It’s interesting that as circumcision is lambasted in Europe and the States at the same time that major health organizations are looking for ways to promote it in AIDS-stricken Africa. Longterm studies demonstrate that circumcised men are far less likely to contract AIDS.

  • davea0511

    Germany is currently waging a war on religion in general … the likes of which have not been seen since Lenin replaced God in Soviet Russia. In my opinion it has everything to do with a level of solidarity among the German people that is unequaled by any other people – they trust their press corps implicitly and the press corps have blamed religion in general for the worst in society, just as they did to the Jews 70 years ago. It isn’t just antisemitism, but anti-religion in general, coincidently it took an antireligious law that smacked of antisemitism in Cologne to bring the movement to the headlines, but the problem really isn’t antisemitism anymore than antireligion. I think if it was up to the German people … if they thought they could get away with it, for the most part they would ban religion altogether in the country, forcing people to leave in order to practice their rites and ceremonies regardless of what they were, under the justification that any religions rite or ceremony is dangerous to the rights of the individual and the social health of society as a whole. It has long been that way in Germany, perhaps more so than in any other country, but has become decidedly worse than ever recently.

  • Ray Ingles

    davea0511 –

    …the German… press corps have blamed religion in general for the worst in society


  • Johannes Oesch

    Thank you to GR for covering this topic. Seen from a German perspective, there are some ghosts as well. So it was published a considerable time later only, that the little muslim boy, whose circumcision was under verdict, was brought to a hospital some days later in a serious condition. And the mother, too, was in serious condition. Therefore, staff of the hospital reported the case to the authorities, because they were afraid there could be a deeper problem with the family. Then, it must be clear, that there is no German statute or law against circumcision on the books. Rather: A local court had to decide whether the doctor who performed the circumcision in the first place was right in doing so. This doctor was found not guilty. He was excused because there was no precedence. Then this local court in Cologne proceeded to find that the circumcision is a bodily harm which would need justification to be rightful, for instance by a decision of the parents. At this point the court found that it would be reasonable (and also possible according to muslim tradition) for the parents to wait until the child would be 14 years of age. This age of 14 years allows a German child to legally opt for its own religion even in opposition to its parents.
    So this highly critical case shows again how important it is for journalists to do a diligent and serious job.

  • tioedong

    The court is probably basing it’s judgement on anti religious motives, but could also be influenced by the tiny but fervent “anti mutililation” lobby, mainly by gays, who oppose this practice. (Andrew Sullivan comes to mind).

    Yet Circumcision is associated with a lower rate of HIV and other problems, although mainly in countries were water is scarce or hygiene is lower.

    Nor is it only practiced by Muslims and Jews: “tuli” is common here in the Catholic Philippines, and some pagan African tribes perform it on their boys.

    Female circumcision is a more complicated matter, and most feminist activists point out that there are medical arguments that only type one should be allowed since type two and three are associated with problems in childbirth.

  • Jerry

    Mollie and Sari,

    The topic and especially Sari’s reply led me to think about another media issue: overhyping religious conflict. Here we have Muslims going to Jews for help in fulfilling religious duties.

    The media narrative is a deep and growing problem between the two religions. It seems that once again the media is promoting a stereotype of conflict that appears overwrought. I’m not trying to deny that there is conflict but pointing out that the media is not correctly framing both the conflict AND the cooperation.

  • sari

    Agreed, Jerry. Sometimes it seems that people prefer to generate conflict rather than acknowledge the positives. The reality is far more nuanced. Rather than concentrate on the kumbiyah of interfaith groups, which usually attract the more liberal (and less observant) members of the religious community, I’d love to see articles that address the interplay between more observant groups. The public might discover normal people doing normal things , engaging in normal friendships, and doing business with their purported enemies.

  • Hugh7

    The German court ruling has nothing to do with religion. The case arose because a (Muslim) boy aged four was brought to the ER with bleeding and other, serious, circumcision complications. An ER medic blew the whistle and the doctor was charged and convicted with bodily harm (but not punished because he acted in ignorance). The Cologne court upheld the ruling, on the basis of the Grundgesetz / Basic Law:

    1. 1 Human dignity shall be inviolable. …
    1. 2 The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights …
    2.2 Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. …
    3. 1 All persons shall be equal before the law.
    3.2 Men and women shall have equal rights.

    Ironically, the Basic Law is so strong on human rights precisely in order to ensure that there can never be another Holocaust.

    It will be hard to change this to allow any infant male genital cutting AND not allow any infant female genital cutting (which many Muslims think is part of their religion) AND maintain equality of the sexes.

    Believers seem to think that religious belief (and antiquity) can justify any practice, but if this were the case we would have no way of outlawing, say, human sacrifice – just so long as believers were sincere that this was what their god/s wanted.

    There are many men who resent that this was done to them before they could resist, and we should listen to them, not to those who don’t care and/or don’t know what they are missing.

    Contra sari and tioedong, the claim that circumcision is protective against HIV is starting to unravel. In Zimbabwe, 14% of circumcised men have HIV, and 12% of intact men, the same ratio as in 2005, before the circumcision campaign began there, and similar to 10 out of 18 countries for which USAID has figures.

  • Passing By

    Odd that the story bypassed the small fact that for a generation (mine) or more, circumcision was routine procedure for new-born boys. It was believed to be more healthy.

  • sari

    Routine in the States, but never in Europe or, specifically, Germany.

  • Hugh7

    @Passing By: It became fashionable throughout the British Commonwealth (as in the US) in the middle of the 20th century, but as they realised it did no good (and some, like my GP, hated doing it; and unlike the US, there was no profit in doing it), they gave it up, and nothing bad has happened. New Zealand’s HIV rate is one of the lowest in the world. A generation has grown up looking different from their fathers, without any problems there either. The experiment has been done, you could say.

  • Julia

    hmmm My German father and his 2 brothers, my 4 brothers, my Polish husband, 3 sons and 2 grandsons all had it done – we’re neither Jewish nor Muslim. It was just routinely done. We are all in the Midwest; perhaps that makes a difference?

  • Ray Ingles

    Julia – As Sari pointed out, circumcision was routine in the United States, but not in most of Europe. Perhaps I misunderstand; are you in the Midwest of Germany?