On Tuesday Via Meadia blogged about a decision by a court in Cologne that ruled “the body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision.” Our take was that by banning what for thousands of years has been seen as a core element of Jewish identity, law and tradition, the court was essentially criminalizing the practice of Judaism in Germany.
The blogosphere erupted as people defended and attacked the ruling. Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish was quick to blast Via Meadia:
Walter Russell Mead’s response is beyond self-parody…
But that it [circumcision] is an assault on a child seems obvious to me. If it were done not for religious reasons, it would be banned. And so I do not see making this mutilation as illegal as it is for girls to be somehow bigoted or intolerant.
And the religious liberty involved is obviously not the child’s. If he wants to, he can get his genitals mutilated later as a sign of his religious commitment – when he is old enough to be able to make such a choice of his own free will. At some point, one can only hope this barbarism disappears. And it will have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or Islamophobia; it will be about defending the religious liberty of Jewish and Muslim males to choose their religion, and not have it permanently marked as scar tissue on their dicks.
But Sullivan’s former colleague Charles Lane, now at the Washington Post, took issue with Sullivan’s reaction and the court ruling:
Andrew’s latest transgression against fact and logic is just too indecent…
The most astonishing link in the judge’s chain of reasoning was his assertion that circumcision, because permanent and irreversible, would limit the child’s own ability to decide what religion to join later on. I do not know of any faiths that bar circumcised converts; maybe in Germany there are some.
In any case, what this remarkable judge does not grasp — or does not care about — is the fact that a father cannot be a Jew in good standing unless he circumcises his son at eight days. Nor can the child himself unless he sees to his own circumcision once he comes of age. (A separate rule applies to converts.) Jewish law is crystal clear on this and has been literally since the dawn of recorded time.
The Cologne court’s sloppy legal balancing act — kid’s physical integrity vs. parents’ religious interests — completely ignores the nature of religious tradition, which is that it is transmitted from parents to children. To posit a world in which the parents have their religion, and kids choose theirs, when they’re old enough, is to imply that even sending one’s child to a religious school — or making him prepare for a bar mitzvah — might be a form of brainwashing. Certainly it pushes progressive notions of human rights past the point at which they would undermine the spiritual basis of ancient communities…
Many Germans have criticized this sickening court decision; I doubt it will be allowed to determine national law over the long term.
But in the comments of those in Germany who did celebrate the ruling, there is a whiff of something very ugly indeed. Law professor Holm Putzke hailed the court for “not letting itself be frightened by the concern of being criticized as anti-Semitic or anti-religious.” Putzke added: “After the reflexive outrage has faded, hopefully a discussion will begin about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate.”
Did you get that? Jews and Muslims appease their gods by doing violence to their children. I almost prefer the older version of blood libel.
Instead of declaring the Jews untermenschen, maybe Hitler should have charged them all as accessories to religiously motivated violence against children, put them on trial in Cologne, and then packed themoff to prison. People like Prof. Putzke would have stood and cheered.
That last seems a little harsh; it’s quite possible that Professor Putzke simply hasn’t reflected very deeply on the full implications of the decision he defends.
But Muslim and Jewish groups across Germany understand very clearly just what a threat this decision poses to their right to live by the light of their consciences in the Berlin Republic. Both groups were quick to criticize the ruling.
“This ruling is an outrageous and insensitive measure,” said Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Committee of Jews. “Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practised worldwide for centuries. This religious right is respected in every country in the world.”
Via Meadia stands firmly by our earlier comments. This is the real thing, and it matters. More and more often around the world, you see a real effort to criminalize religious observance in the name of what claims to be a higher morality of the enlightened secular conscience.
Besides the circumcision controversy, and there are activists in the US who would also like to see the banning of child (male) circumcision, there is a movement in many countries to ban the methods of killing animals required to comply with Jewish and Islamic law.
This is very much the way anti-Semitism worked in the medieval past — the majority had one ethical framework, Jews had another, the majority interpreted the differences as “evil” and went to work, making it impossible for Jews to live normal Jewish lives in the name of enforcing “universal” moral values.
Tolerance does not just mean allowing people to do things that you like. It also means allowing them to do things that you don’t like when those things are central to their identity and world.
Obviously, there is no hard and fast rule here. To defend the right of Muslims and Jews to circumcise boys in compliance with central tenets of their religious faith is one thing; to defend honor killings or hanging homosexuals because some people believe these acts fulfill their religious beliefs is something else.
Andrew Sullivan’s confusion over this issue, and that of many other well intentioned but misguided people as well, may be in part the result of a parallel in their minds between the issues surrounding male and female circumcision. In parts of Africa in particular there are people who defend the practice of female circumcision (or female genital mutilation as it is increasingly known) on religious and traditional grounds. On health, humanitarian and feminist grounds, many people around the world (supported by Via Meadia) are trying to end this practice.
To many opponents of male circumcision, this seems like a clear cut case of sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander. The same rules that apply to female circumcision ought to apply to the males, and vice versa.
This is a clear argument and to many people an appealing one, but it is wrong. There are two reasons why.
First, for Muslims and perhaps especially for Jews, male circumcision is deeply embedded in the core of their religious beliefs. Female genital mutilation (mostly though not exclusively practiced by certain Muslim groups) on the other hand is a folk practice and tradition that is not required or even sanctioned by the Koran and it is at best tolerated but more widely condemned by Islamic scholars and clerics.
Second, the effect of the two operations is profoundly different. The female operation is far more invasive and destructive than the procedure performed on boys. The pain, the health risks and the personal and social consequences of the one operation are orders of magnitude greater than in the other case.
So in comparing the two cases here, we are not comparing apples to apples. On the one hand we have a procedure that is central to religious identity with minor risks and, according to some studies, potential benefits. (Via Meadia contributor Yair Rosenberg discusses the scientific benefits of circumcision at Tablet.) On the other hand we have a procedure with at most a minor religious significance but with major risks and costs.
One does not need the wisdom of Solomon to see where to draw this particular line.
Via Meadia, even at the risk of self-parody, stands by our original take: the misguided decision by the German court criminalizes the practice of Judaism in Germany and, we add, is a profound insult to Islam. There are questions where the religious beliefs of the parents and the best interests of the child do raise tough questions that can justify state intervention (can Christian Scientist parents deny cancer treatment to a child, for example) but the question of male circumcision doesn’t even come close.
[Image: the circumcision of Isaac, Wikipedia]
[Updated to include a mention of Via Meadia blogger Yair Rosenberg's take on this story at Tablet.]