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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

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Is the Ruling in Germany Anti-Circumcision?

Posted: 07/05/2012 11:09 am

The Jewish and Muslim communities have recently expressed international outrage and concern about a ruling emanating from a German court in Cologne that apparently limits the freedom of those wishing to practice a ritual circumcision, known in Hebrew as a brit milah.

For Jews, the brit milah represents our oldest ritual and any attack upon this ritual should be viewed -- and has historically been viewed -- as an existential attack upon the Jewish people.

However, before we condemn Germany for its association with this decision, more information is necessary. Since the decision of the court has not been fully published we are relying on limited information in assessing the full danger and concern represented by this decision.

The AP and other media outlets have reported that the court in Cologne ruled: "That the child's right to physical integrity trumps freedom of religion and parents' rights."

If this was indeed the substance of the ruling then we should all be very concerned as it is creating a precedent that a brit milah is a violation of a child's rights. The fact that a court would view circumcision in this context is extremely distressing. I strongly disagree with that concept as I view a brit milah as a ritual that protects the child spiritually and allows him to spiritually and physically join a community with a tradition dating back more than 3,000 years.

But it is not entirely clear that the Jewish community and the ritual of brit milah is under attack in Germany.

The AP also reported, "The case in Cologne involved a doctor accused of carrying out a circumcision on a 4-year-old, approved by his Muslim parents, that led to medical complications. The doctor was acquitted, however, and prosecutors said they wont appeal."

It is possible that the case in question refers to a doctor committing malpractice in his efforts to circumcise the child. We simply don't know all the facts at this point.

After hearing about this ruling, I was initially horrified and reached out to the German embassy for clarification and requested a meeting with the Ambassador. While I am still waiting for that meeting, I was able to have a lengthy conversation with Knut Abraham, Legal Adviser and Consul General to the German Embassy in the U.S. (It is an ironic name since Abraham was the first person in Jewish history to be circumcised.)

He wrote to me and shared the official statement of the German government about this matter, which is reassuring to some degree:

"The ruling by the Regional Court of Cologne represents a singular decision which deviates from the broad majority of legal opinions on circumcision. In the Federal Republic of Germany, circumcision is socially and legally accepted as a consensual medical intervention. The Federal Government will carefully assess all facets of the ruling and review the possible consequences of this individual decision. Germany´s Foreign Minister, Mr. Guido Westerwelle, has made the following statement: 'The Cologne judgements has triggered confusion internationally. It must be clear that Germany is a globally minded and tolerant country in which religious freedom is firmly embedded and in which religious traditions such as circumcision are protected as an expression of religious diversity.'"

Thus, even if this court's ruling was against circumcision in general and not merely limited to the doctor in this specific case, circumcision remains legal in Germany.

But Abraham then added: "According to media reports the case has developed the following way. After the circumcision the Muslim boy was bleeding heavily. The mother decided to go to a hospital where the boy got treatment. After talking to the mother a doctor got the impression that the circumcision had not happened in her consent."

This is of course a very different situation and it may very well have called for prosecutorial intervention. It remains to be seen whether or not this report from the embassy is accurate. Let's all monitor the situation closely.

 
 
 
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