A Threat to the Covenant

The recent ruling by a court in Cologne, Germany that circumcision of infants constitutes inappropriate bodily harm to the child a has sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world. And well it should. While it is not clear whether the statement of the court would result in a ban on circumcisions, many are assuming that that is what the ruling implies and there has been swift and strong condemnations of the ruling from many Jewish communities throughout the world.

This is a very serious issue indeed and one which must be watched very carefully. The tradition of circumcision is one of the most ancient of our traditions and one of the most widely observed. The Torah refers to circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people and  circumcision, brit milah, has been observed by our people throughout the generations often at times of persecution when to engage in the practice was a dangerous statement of Jewish identity.

I heard a Rabbi speaking on TV about the ban and claiming that contrary to the court’s decision, circumcision is in fact an act which enhances health. He spoke about several studies showing that circumcision led to lower cancer rates among adult males. With all due respect, I think the Rabbi is wrong to bring this issue up at this time.  Whether or not it is an asset to the baby’s health is immaterial. Brit Milah is done not for health reasons but as a sign of the covenant and we shouldn’t argue the point about health concerns.

Presuming the circumcision is done by a mohel who is properly trained, performed in a safe and sanitary environment  and does not include any acts which are potentially harmful (the act of metzitzah, direct sucking of blood from the area of the circumcision is, thankfully, rare today and should be banned), circumcision is safe and is the expression of the decision of parents to raise their child as a Jew.

We make decisions of all kinds for our children. No one would argue that we should get our child’s permission before vaccinating him, sending her to school or taking him to infant swim classes. We make decisions that we feel are right for our children every day.

When I participated in the brit milah of our son almost 20 years ago, I was astounded at how much meaning that ceremony held. He was surrounded by family and friends, held in the arms of his grandfathers, and swiftly and safely returned to his mother’s arms. Did he cry? Yes he did. I did too. But, it was a moment I will never forget.

It is understandable that a secular court may not understand the spiritual feelings of Jews or Moslems for whom this ritual is a natural part of their religious life. But, it is clearly an infringement of the rights of a  parent to tell them that they should not be allowed to observe the tradition which has been a sacred sign of identity for thousands of years.

Should there be safeguards to know that those who perform circumcisions do so properly and under safe and sanitary conditions? Absolutely. But, to speak of a ban on religious circumcision is an assault on religious freedom and expression.

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