During my wife’s first pregnancy, we made the decision not to learn the sex of the child before birth. There were many reasons for this decision: the purity of discovery at the moment of delivery; an effort to prevent family and friends from inundating us with gender-defined baby gifts before the little one had even emerged; a Shalom-Auslander-like superstition that knowing would somehow invite a divinely-orchestrated disaster.
However, the truth is that one motivation outweighed all others, at least for me: a terrible fear that our child would be a boy.
It was a fear stemming from the fact that, as committed Jews, I knew we would circumcise him. And I also knew this: we desperately didn’t want to do so.
Which is why, when I read today that a German district court has outlawed circumcision, my first response was not to shake my head and intone anti-Semites (as did many of my fellow Jews). No, my first response, the first words that came to my lips, were these: that’s impressively bold.
It’s bold because a court in Germany has done what I and many of my peers have long been afraid to do in public: question the ethical — and spiritual — legitimacy of an ancient and enduring ritual which requires parents to surgically alter the sexual organ of an infant. (Some argue it’s mutilation, and a definitional use of the word mutilate can be supported.)
It’s also an impressive ruling because, with regard to questions of religious freedom (particularly those impacting Jews), no country feels the weight of history pressing down more than Germany — a country with well-established religious freedom laws founded upon a history I know all too well, as half of my family was lost to the Holocaust.
The German case in question, which has garnered international scrutiny, involved a Muslim four-year-old boy whose circumcision was botched, which resulted in days of continuous bleeding. German authorities brought a case against the doctor, and while he was acquitted, the district court in Cologne ruled that circumcision was illegal because it constitutes physical harm to a newborn and causes “irreversible damage against the body.”
The court also added that religious freedom clauses did not grant parents a legal justification for such a practice. And Haaretz reported:
[The court] ruled that doctors could only perform circumcisions for health-related reasons. The district court justified the ruling by stating that it was for the “good of the child who would be able to decide for himself which religious community he or she would belong to.”
While the future legality of circumcision in Germany remains hazy, as the ruling is sure to be revisited, Germany is just one of a growing number of countries that have raised the spectre of banning circumcision. (From San Francisco to Norway, the issue has been raised in a growing number of world communities.)
I do not know exactly where I stand with regard to outlawing circumcision, but I do know that it rightly rests upon the boundary where religious/cultural freedom and child protection border one another. For at what stage is the line separating parental discretion and child abuse crossed? Piercing the ears of an infant? Branding a newborn with a small, religiously-required marking? Circumcising the penis of an infant male?
Regarding the latter, all I can say is this: I have attended many circumcisions, and I have nearly vomited at all of them, for there is no normative ritual in the Judeo-Christian world (that I know of) which is more tribal and disturbing than a bris. The rhythmic chanting. The encircled baby. The screams of pain.
I do not know if what Germany has done is right. But I do understand from whence the decision came.
Ultimately, we had a daughter, and were spared making the decision ourselves, a decision many Jews (and I suspect Muslims) wrestle with every day behind closed doors.
Though a growing number are prying that door open and beginning to ask previously unspeakable questions that lead all the way back to Abraham.
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