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Circumcision and Religious Liberty?

In Germany, according to health authorities in that nation, almost 11 percent of boys under 18 have been circumcised. I mention this only because, also in Germany, some judge in Cologne has recently ruled, after reviewing the case of a circumcision that went wrong on a four-year-old, that circumcision is an abomination, violating “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity,” and also that “this change runs counter to the interests of the child.”

As a result, in the US, almost every columnist, Jewish or otherwise, has been fulminating against the German judge—so much so that you’d think a nationwide ban had been introduced, which didn’t exactly happen.

Not yet, anyway.

In fact, however, the judge’s ruling is likely to set a precedent for the whole country, which is why Dieter Graumann, the president of Germany’s Council of Jews, weighed in almost instantly with charges that the court’s ruling was “unprecedented and insensitive,” and, by the way—icing on the cake—also a violation of religious liberty.

As for the German nation’s Muslims—it was in fact a Muslim child who was the victim of the flawed medical procedure—they are as outraged as Germany’s Jews. Ali Demir, president of the Islamic Religious Community in Germany, grimly prophesized that the ban would produce a long, long future of “circumcision tourism.” And lots of people outside Germany saw his point. How could any court presume to tell members of a religious group how to practice (or rather, not practice) their beliefs? Who gave civil authorities permission to abolish some presumed compact between adherents and their deity—especially a compact that Demir himself calls “a harmless procedure that has thousands of years of tradition”?

Well, here’s the problem: The judge in Cologne was right.

I know exactly how this is going to come down, as I write this. I happen to be Jewish, and every male Jewish person I know thinks circumcision is a terrific idea, because they have no memory of it since “the harmless procedure,” as we are meant to call it, occurred very early on, within days of their arrival into a world that permits a large grown person with or without a medical degree to slice into an infant’s private parts. As it happens, both of my sons underwent that “harmless procedure”—one that I and the hospital’s neonatal doctors thought then, as now, was anything but. I bowed, in both instances, to the insistence of my spouse and my own father (“What??? If he’s not circumcised then he won’t be Jewish!!” gasped my father, who was evidently under the impression that a foreskin was a certain pathway to a lifetime of Episcopalianism, and maybe even Skull and Bones.) I heard the screams of my firstborn all over the hospital. To this very day I regret my utter spinelessness.

In the US, the Center for Disease Control has indicated that circumcision helps protect men against a variety of horrors: HIV/AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases. But very significantly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has twice—once in 1999 and again in 2005—declared that there was simply not enough data to promote the procedure on a routine basis. As a result, by 2008 there was a significant decrease in the number performed even in the US, which until recently was basically Circumcision Central: from almost 63 percent of all newborns to almost 57 percent.

In other words, the fact that a specific invasive custom might have thousands of years of tradition behind it, as Demir suggests, does not necessarily make it worth continuing. I can think of quite a few locally revered barbarisms that should cease this minute (and I suspect the Cologne judge felt much the same way, which is why he came down as hard as he did in his ruling). Among them: the extremely common practice in certain countries of female excision in order to deprive women of sexual pleasure, the stoning of adulterers as well as those who marry against the wishes of their parents, the executions of unbelievers, and the forced marriage of child-brides. All of these have lots of tradition behind them: some biblical tradition. Personally, I’d hate to see any Western judge uphold them just because lots of zealots might accuse him of abrogating their religious freedom.

The German judge did say that if boys want to be circumcised that badly, they are free to obtain the procedure: after they reached the age of 14, which he deemed, very optimistically I think, the age of reason.

Without getting into the arbitrariness of that age selection—how many volunteers do you think there’ll be?

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