Op-Ed: The European's Skewed View of Circumcision
Chief Rabbi Lord SacksRabbi Dr. Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth 199-2013 and a member of the House of Lords since 2009. He has authored many books on Judaic thought, appears regularly in the British media and has kindly allowed us to post his essay on the Sabbath Torah reading each week as well as other sermons.
In May 2007 a small group of religious leaders met, in the EU headquarters in Brussels, with the three most significant leaders of Europe: Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and at the time president of the European Council, Jose-Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament.
The meeting was one of those semiformal occasions at which little is said, and a great deal of time taken in saying it. Concerned at the return of anti-Semitism to Europe within living memory of the Holocaust, I decided that the time had come to break protocol and speak plainly, even bluntly.
I gave the shortest speech of my life. Sitting directly opposite the three leaders I said this. “Jews and Europe go back a long way. The experience of Jews in Europe has added several words to the human vocabulary – words like expulsion, public disputation, forced conversion, inquisition, auto-da-fe, blood libel, ghetto and pogrom, without even mentioning the word Holocaust. That is the past. My concern is with the future. Today the Jews of Europe are asking whether there is a future for Jews in Europe, and that should concern you, the leaders of Europe.”
It took less than a minute, and after it there was a shocked silence. We adjourned for lunch, and over it Angela Merkel asked, “What would you like me to do, Chief Rabbi?” I did not have an easy answer for her then. I do now. It is: reverse immediately the decision of the Cologne court that renders Jewish parents who give their son a brit milah, even if performed in hospital by a qualified doctor, liable to prosecution.
It is hard to think of a more appalling decision. Did the court know that circumcision is the most ancient ritual in the history of Judaism, dating back almost four thousand years to the days of Abraham? Did it know that Spinoza, not religious but together with John Locke the father of European liberalism, wrote that brit milah in and of itself had the power to sustain Jewish identity through the centuries?
Did it know that banning milah was the route chosen by two of the worst enemies the Jewish people ever had, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Roman emperor Hadrian, both of whom set out to extinguish not only Jews but also Judaism? Either the court knew these things or it did not. If it did not, then how was it competent to assess the claim of religious liberty? If it did, then there are judges in Germany quite willing to say to religious Jews, in effect, “If you don’t like it, leave.” Do judges in Cologne today really not know what happened the last time Germany went down that road?
The case – like the banning of shechitah by the Dutch parliament, now thankfully reversed – illustrates the deep difficulty Jews are facing in Europe today.
Both cases initially had nothing to do with Jews. They were directed predominantly against Muslims, whose population vastly outnumbers that of Jews in almost every country in Europe. They are part of the backlash against the misguided policy, adopted by most European countries in the 1970s, known as multiculturalism. This was meant to promote tolerance. Its effect was precisely the opposite. It encouraged segregation of ethnic minorities, not integration, and instead of getting people to ignore differences it made an issue of them at every stage.
The Muslim communities of Europe have been in the frontline of both the policy and its discontents. The result has been that in Germany the court, and in Holland Parliament, have sought to ban a Muslim practice, while the Jewish community has suffered collateral damage in both places.
That is part of the problem but not all of it. I have argued for some years that an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age. Throughout the Middle Ages the highest authority in Europe was the Church. Hence anti-Semitism took the form of Christian anti-Judaism.
In the post-enlightenment Europe of the nineteenth century the highest authority was no longer the Church. Instead it was science. Thus was born racial anti-Semitism, based on two disciplines regarded as science in their day: the “scientific study of race” and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel. Today we know that both of these were pseudo-sciences, but in their day they were endorsed by some of the leading figures of the age.
Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them – some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today.
That is what the court in Cologne has done. It has declared that circumcision is an assault on the rights of the child since it is performed without his consent. It ignored the fact that if this is true, teaching children to speak German, sending them to school and vaccinating them against illness are all assaults against the rights of the child since they are done without consent.
The court’s judgement was tendentious, foolish and has set a dangerous precedent.
In historical context, however, it is far worse. By ruling that religious Jews performing their most ancient sacred ritual are abusing the rights of the child, a German court has just invented a new form of Blood Libel perfectly designed for the twenty-first century.
Chancellor Merkel, the answer to your question, “What would you like me to do?” is simple. Ensure that this ruling is overturned, for the sake of religious freedom and the moral reputation of Germany.