July 6, 2012
Germany’s Jewish community is in an uproar over a double-whammy of events challenging the right of Jewish parents to have their baby boys circumcised in keeping with a time-honored biblical commandment dating back to the patriarch Abraham.
First, a district court in Cologne ruled that infant circumcision constituted bodily harm and could not be performed without obtaining consent from a child. At the time, community officials noted that while injurious to the Jewish way of life, the decision applied only to the court’s local jurisdiction and was subject to review by the nation’s high court anyways. But then a Berlin’s Jewish hospital decided to not allow circumcision pending a legal review of the procedure.
“We are completely shocked that ritual circumcision is something that is considered punishable according to the courts,” said Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtel, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Berlin. “We don’t accept it and we call upon the government to make a law that circumcision is protected under the right to religious freedom.”
As recorded in the Torah and codified in Jewish law, circumcisions of baby boys are to take place on the eighth day of life, except in cases where the health of a baby necessitates the procedure’s postponement. At such an age, securing a child’s consent would be impossible.
The German government should “exercise its authority and take a clear stand against [the Cologne court’s] ruling and in line with the German Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress. “We hope that in Germany of all places … Jewish life would be allowed to flourish without restriction.”
Echoing the concerns of congregants, community members and fellow rabbis, Tiechtel noted that in recent years, “the German government has done an enormous amount to strengthen Jewish life.” That’s what makes the Cologne case so odd, he said, because if it’s used as a precedent by other courts, the fate of Germany’s estimated 200,000-strong Jewish community would be in jeopardy.
“If implemented, this will not enable the future of Jewish life in Germany,” said the rabbi.
Luba Schtroks, co-director of Chabad of Cologne, said that local Jews are talking about possibly going to Antwerp, Belgium, if they cannot circumcise their sons in Germany. But, she added, the four-hour round trip would likely be enough to dissuade others from choosing circumcision for their sons.
“For the moment, it is mainly a problem for the Jewish community in Cologne, as its members fall under the local jurisdiction of this court,” said her husband, Rabbi Mendel Schtroks. “The court decision unfortunately has become the local law.”
Throughout the country, Jewish organizations have mobilized to fight the ruling, with the Central Council of Jews in Germany calling it a “dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.”
“This court decision is an outrageous and insensitive act,” said the organization’s president, Dieter Graumann. “Circumcision of newborn boys is an inherent part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries.”
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle responded, saying that the legal debate “must not lead to doubts arising internationally about religious tolerance in Germany.”
In an interview with CNN, Tiechtel emphasized that circumcision is a central tenet of Jewish life.
“This is not some other custom,” he said. “This is the basis of what we are.”