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Circumcision ruling inspires defense, debate in Germany

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Left to right, speaking at a news conference in Berlin are Shimon Cohen, spokesman for the Conference of European Rabbis; Rabbi Avichai Apel, a board member of the German Orthodox Rabbis Conference; and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, July 12, 2012. (Toby Axelrod)

Left to right, speaking at a news conference in Berlin are Shimon Cohen, spokesman for the Conference of European Rabbis; Rabbi Avichai Apel, a board member of the German Orthodox Rabbis Conference; and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, July 12, 2012. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) — Say yes to circumcision.

That’s the message of a petition that three German students have created at change.org.

Directed toward the German government, the petition comes in light of a recent Cologne District Court ruling that found that non-medical circumcision of a minor is a criminal act. Although the ruling does not apply to other districts, it has had a chilling effect, with hospitals in Berlin turning away parents until legal clarity has been reached.

“We are young people and we were shocked because of the new law,” Michael Groys, 21, one of two Jewish students who created the petition with a Muslim friend, told JTA. “We thought we have to say something to the government, and so we thought this is the best way to do it.”

The petition reads in part: “Circumcision was and is a central element of our religions, and a covenant with God, which has been fulfilled for thousands of years without a problem — so why is it being criminalized today?” 

One reason may be a populist, anti-immigrant trend in Europe. Practices such as kosher and halal slaughter are under pressure; the right of Muslim women to wear headscarves has been severely limited in some countries; and minarets can no longer be built in Switzerland. 

Circumcision is high on the list of suspect practices, even though Jesus himself had a brit milah, as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, pointed out at a news conference here last week following an emergency meeting of the group.

There is also a tendency to use modern arguments against age-old religious practices.

Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau who has argued for several years for a ban on involuntary circumcision, told JTA that he hoped the Cologne ruling would prompt a discussion about "what should be given more weight — religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated."

But even Jewish parents who cringe at the idea of circumcision, like Berlin Cantor Avital Gerstetter, defend the right to continue the ritual.

“It should be up to the parents," said Gerstetter, whose two sons were both circumcised in Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. "It should not be banned. That is not a good thing, especially in Germany. It is just stupid.”

The ruling has proved such an embarrassment to Germany that the federal government has hinted it will intervene. Late last week, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Steffen Seibert, told Reuters that for "everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany. Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment."

Goldschmidt, who is also the chief rabbi of Moscow, was relieved by Seibert’s comments.

“This statement will come as a great comfort to Jewish communities not only in Germany but also to communities right across Europe who felt deeply troubled by the court’s decision,” he said in a statement. “I am grateful to Chancellor Merkel for making it clear that religious freedom will not be compromised in Germany.”

Members of the Conference of European Rabbis last week had urged Jewish parents to ignore the ruling and noted that the Maccabees found the ban of circumcision so threatening that they revolted against the ancient Greeks.

Mohels say they will continue to do circumcisions. "God is more important than a judge," said the Jerusalem-born Rabbi David Goldberg, who serves the community of Hof Saale in Bavaria and has performed 4,000 brit milahs over the years. But Goldberg also said that some of his congregants have expressed reservations about circumcising their sons since the ruling. 

Physicians who perform circumcisions also are worried.

“Doctors are very insecure,” said Berlin attorney Nathan Gelbart, who is a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany’s arbitration court. And parents are quaking in their boots, he said. “In Berlin, you have 1,500 Jewish circumcisions a year, so of course these people are affected. They might be subject to criminal prosecution.” 

The local ruling, however, is not binding “as long as there is no decision by the High Court of Justice or High Constitutional Court," Gelbart said. Now, “Some people are suggesting turning themselves in” to force the law to a higher court, saying “if you think this is a crime, please arrest me.” 

The Bundestag, or parliament, could start the procedure of adopting a law that explicitly allows religious circumcision of boys — even though it is not banned, Gelbart pointed out. “But let’s be realistic: It can take years” to adopt such a law.

The petition at change.org, meanwhile, states that “We’re not criminals! We’re not barbarians!” and concludes, “We’re against the circumcision of our rights!”

Mike Delberg, 22, a Jewish law student in Berlin who put the petition together with Groys and Anil Celik, who is Muslim, said people don’t understand “that this is a main part of our religions, a tradition that is not up for discussion. They only see that we cut off our foreskin.

“There were times when Jews had to live underground and could not reveal they were Jews, but they still practiced the brit milah. People don’t understand what we had to live through to keep this tradition.”

Many former Soviet Jews abandoned the practice, said Groys, who was born in Ukraine. But in the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Jews no longer feared being open about their religion. 

More than 150,000 Jews came from the Eastern Bloc to Germany in the past 22 years.

“Now they are saying they are afraid of the situation,” Groys said. “They remember when it was not allowed. It was really problematic. And so they remember, with fear on their faces.”

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