Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, is one of the most articulate exponents of contemporary Judaism. I’ve been openly critical of his divisive attitude to non-Orthodox Jews, but I’ve also learned much from the way he presents Jewish perspectives on historic events and their consequences for our people.
Rabbi Sacks maintains that “an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given time.” In the Middle Ages, it was the Church and, therefore, it shaped anti-Judaism. After the Enlightenment, it was science, and it led to the “scientific” racist antisemitism that culminated in Nazism. Nowadays it’s human rights. Therefore, “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.”
This brings him to the recent decision by a court in Cologne that declared ritual circumcision an assault on the rights of a child. The court, he writes, has “just invented a new form of blood libel perfectly designed for the 21st century.”
Tragically, throughout history, some Jews have bought into the surrounding culture at the expense of their own tradition. Thus from Hellenistic times more than 2,200 years ago until today, a minority either tried to hide their own circumcision or prevent their sons from having one.
Last year’s mercifully unsuccessful attempt to ban circumcision in San Francisco, the relentless efforts to abolish it in Norway, Austria, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, and the recent decision by the German court may cause a new wave of Jews refusing to circumcise their sons.
Because of its commitment to tradition, coupled with memories of Germany’s Nazi past, organized Jewry all over the world has been quick to react against the court decision and set out to vigorously defend the time-hallowed practice.
A committee of the Knesset invited the German ambassador to Israel to a special session to discuss the matter. Like the Conference of European Rabbis, the Israeli parliamentarians strongly condemned the decision in Cologne and urged Berlin to introduce legislation to rescind it.
Because the issue concerns Muslims even more than Jews – there are some four million Muslims in Germany and less than 200,000 Jews – a joint delegation protested against the ban and declared that “we consider this to be an affront on our basic religious and human rights.”
The World Union for Progressive Judaism – which has constituents in most European countries, including several congregations and a rabbinic school in Germany – has praised the German government for its intention to introduce legislation aimed at overruling the court order. It singled out Chancellor Angela Merkel for special commendation.
Nevertheless, some Jews who’d like to call themselves progressive, including Israelis, seem to prefer the decision of the court in Cologne to the intention of the parliament in Berlin.
Not all are unaffiliated. Thus the Humanistic Jewish movement, which claims 30,000 members in some 50 congregations in the United States – and at least one in Canada – reports a growing tendency in its ranks, presumably in the guise of human rights, gender equality and opposition to “genital mutilation,” to replace the traditional ritual with an alternative “welcoming” ceremony for boys and girls alike.
The debate in the media has been lively. For example, Montreal-born author and academic Bernard Avishai, who divides his time between Israel and the United States, wrote a blog about his two grandsons who each recently had a bris (brit milah) and thus, as tradition has it, entered the covenant of Abraham. He conceded that “Jewish parents, no less than gentile jurists, approach this ritual at least fascinated, at times skeptical, a little queasy, certainly pained.” In the last resort, however, he’s happy that his grandsons have been circumcised.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, writing in The Times of Israel, ends the description of her son’s bris: “If one day my son ends up wearing a shirt that reads “For God’s Sake My Penis Was Ruined,’ I will pay his therapy bills.”
In a column I wrote in the Toronto Star last year commenting on the San Francisco anti-circumcision campaign, I suggested that “antisemitism not only endangers the lives of faithful Jews, but also has the insidious potential to poison the minds of its victims.”
To the dismay of many of us, that potential is being increasingly realized.
This column appears in the Aug. 23 print issue of The CJN