There was a head-spinning moment in Germany last week: News emerged that a rabbi had been criminally charged for performing his religious duties. Rabbi David Goldberg of northern Bavaria, who shepherds a 400-member community, is the first person to run afoul of a ruling by a Cologne judge earlier this year that criminalized circumcision, a basic religious rite.
There is some precedent outside of Germany for such a ruling. In 2001, a Swedish law sparked a protest from Jews and Muslims by requiring that a medical doctor or anesthesia nurse accompany registered circumcisers, and that anesthesia be applied before the procedure. The law is still in effect.
In 2006, a Finnish court charged a Muslim mother with assault for circumcising her baby, and this was followed by a Jewish couple being fined for causing bodily harm to their son. The Muslim mother wasn’t ultimately punished, and in 2006 the Finnish Supreme Court said her actions weren’t criminal and religious circumcision not a crime. In the United States, a San Francisco ballot initiative tried last year to make circumcision an offense punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison; it failed to get enough votes. (In Germany, the Cologne judge seems not to have not yet specified punishment for violations.)
The ban by the court in Cologne, however, is the most troubling. For decades Germany has been an example of how a nation can take responsibility for its previous crimes. It is very moving to see Germany’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin, just two blocks from the country’s parliament. But the circumcision ban deserves universal scorn.
The American and European rabbinate should lead a delegation of mohelim (ritual circumcisers) to Germany to seek arrest for civil disobedience in protest against government persecution. I would join them and call upon Islamic imams to stand with us.
Does the German government really want to get into a public battle over whether they are better guardians of the health and welfare of Jewish (and Muslim) children than their parents?
The Los Angeles Times recently cited a study predicting that as the number of circumcisions goes down in the U.S., the cost of health care will steadily climb. Eryn Brown reported that “If circumcision rates were to fall to 10% . . . lifetime health costs for all the babies born in a year would go up by $505 million. That works out to $313 in added costs for every circumcision that doesn’t happen.”
Why? Because circumcision has been proven to be the second most effective means—after a condom—for stopping the transmission of HIV-AIDS, with the British Medical Journal reporting that circumcised men are eight times less likely to contract the infection.
The New York Times echoed these findings in an Aug. 27 report that projected “declining U.S. circumcision rates could add more than $4 billion in health care costs in coming years because of increased illness and infections.” The story focused on the American Academy of Pediatrics updating its 13-year-old policy on circumcision and declaring that the health benefits of circumcision—in reducing chances of HIV infection and other STDs, urinary tract infection, and cancer—outweigh the risks.
While the Germans decry the barbarity of circumcision for men, they also overlook the benefit to women who are the men’s partners. Male circumcision reduces the risk of cervical cancer—caused by the human papillomavirus, which thrives under and on the foreskin—by at least 20%, according to an April 2002 article in the British Medical Journal.
While some attempt to equate male circumcision with female clitoridectomy, the comparison is absurd. Female circumcision involves removing a woman’s ability to have pleasure during sexual relations. It is a barbarous act of mutilation that has no corollary to its male counterpart. Judaism has always celebrated the sexual bond between husband and wife. Attempts to malign circumcision as a method of denying a man’s sexual pleasure are ignorant. Judaism insists that sex be accompanied by exhilaration and enjoyment as a bonding experience that leads to sustained emotional connection.
We Jews must be doing something right in the bedroom given the fact that, alone among the ancient peoples of the world, we are still here, despite countless attempts to make us a historical footnote.Rabbi Shmuley Boteach