Germany's circumcision ruling makes believers anxious

A few weeks ago I started reading stories about how Germany had banned circumcision. Because of Germany's historical treatment of Jews, and what that country has gone through to rid itself of its past, the story almost seemed hard to believe. But it was real and there was limited coverage of the move. But the coverage I have been reading has been pretty good. I wanted to give an example of how well the New York Times has covered the issue by looking at the story that ran recently headlined "In Germany, Ruling Over Circumcision Sows Anxiety and Confusion."

It begins with a Muslim couple, first generation immigrants from Turkey, who had planned to have their toddler circumcised at a nearby Jewish Hospital since they wanted the operation done by a surgeon as opposed to someone without that training. But because a German court equated circumcision with a criminal act, many hospitals have stopped performing the procedure. The Muslim couple has no idea what to do. They want to do it at a hospital, covered by insurance, but if they can't, they'll do it elsewhere. And they're nervous about that.

There is so much to chew on in that lede anecdote. It reminds the reader that a circumcision ban also affects Muslims. The bit about the Muslims going to a Jewish hospital is intriguing. The suggestion that religious adherents will have to follow their religion underground if the ban is sustained:

Their quandary is indicative of the confusion that has been sown by the ruling on June 26 by a court in Cologne that, while not enforceable outside that region, has sent ripples of anger and anxiety throughout the country and beyond. It has raised vexing questions about the boundaries of religious practice and freedom in an increasingly secular Germany.

“The often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion,” said Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics from Berlin’s Free University who added that the ruling reflected a profound lack of understanding in modern Germany for religious belief.

The article explains that Jewish and Muslim organizations are protesting the ruling vigorously. And the German Medical Association condemned the ruling for "putting children at risk by taking the procedure out of the hands of doctors" but also warned surgeons not to perform circumcisions until the law could be clarified. The article explains that everyone from German Chancellor Angela Merkel on down has weighed in on the need to protect ritual circumcisions.

Now, the article gets a lot of information into a small amount of space, but it was actually kind of interesting to me how little religion was in this story that revolves completely around religion news. I mean, I'm neither Jewish nor Muslim and because I'm familiar with the Hebrew Testament, I know a bit about how circumcision is practiced and why. But the story doesn't give an explanation for why Jews practice circumcision or what it means in terms of religious involvement. And even less information is provided for the religious motivation of Muslims.

We learn that it could "take time" to review the ruling and decide whether to propose legislation:

The condemnation has also come from abroad, including from the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Germany’s ambassador to Israel was called before a parliamentary committee to explain the ruling. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, said Friday that he had been showered with questions and criticism surrounding the ruling.

“They are all greatly concerned about the ramifications of the ruling, but mostly for Jewish and Muslim life in Germany,” Mr. Westerwelle said. There are 100,000 Jews and four million Muslims living here.

Westerwelle is quoted as saying “Germany is an open, tolerant country, where religious freedom is firmly anchored and where religious traditions, such as circumcision, are protected as an expression of religious pluralism." But, the reporter adds, circumcision bans have existed throughout history, from Roman times to the Soviet era:

That such a ruling would come from a court in modern, post-World War II Germany has caused many to wonder whether the judges were fully aware of the implications and would have ruled differently had the case involved a Jewish boy, instead of a young Muslim. The boy in question was 4 years old.

“I can’t imagine Berlin prosecutors ordering the police to enter a synagogue and arrest a Jew with a beard and yarmulke for carrying out a circumcision,” said Josh Spinner, an American rabbi who moved to Berlin 12 years ago and who now runs the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “Those are pictures that I don’t believe anyone here is ready for.”

We learn that Muslims and Jews issued a joint statement in protest. We also learn that at least three circumcisions have been performed since the ruling. The father, who asks not to be identified, explained that the circumcision was done because "it was eight days after his birth, the time was right." The eighth day after birth is "the right time" for Jewish circumcision and it makes me wonder how many Jewish boys have hit their eighth day since the ruling. And when, if any time, is the "right time" for Muslim circumcision? The story says that the father in the lead anecdote was circumcised at the age of four. is that the traditional time? Or is it something that varies. Either way, why that age?

One of the interesting pieces of information in this story was that the Muslim community in Germany numbers four million while there are only 100,000 Jews.

In any case, the story is full of interesting information. But for a religion news story, I could have used more explanation of the role religion plays.

Photo of Berlin's Neue Synagogue via Shutterstock.

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