Even if criminalization is impractical, this week’s German court ruling against circumcision on children, except for medical purposes, sent a much-needed message.
I’ve been an atheist since adolescence, but being a Jew has always been a vital element of my identity, something I can’t imagine not being, and for this reason, above all others, I knew as a matter of course that I would have my two sons circumcized. It was only after going through it, with the blood and the boys’ wailing and our anguish and worry – with the realization that this mohel was actually taking a knife to the foreskins of our eight-day-old sons’ penises – that I began to think about it.
And what I arrived at was this – I am somewhat ashamed that I was willing to put my infant boys at risk, that I was willing to put them through such severe pain, for fear that if I didn’t, it would mean they weren’t Jewish and it would be my responsibility.
How ridiculous. I never believed in ritual circumcision, if I’d ever thought about it I’d have said it was barbaric, risky and fairly insane to inflict on infants – but I never thought about it. What I did was accept it – as the absolute minimum requirement for being a Jew. I don’t fast on Yom Kippur, I’ve lived very happily without a mezuzah at my front door, but I’m am so glad my atheist father had me circumcized, and I would never have dreamed of not having it done on my sons – because otherwise, according to my unconscious belief (and no doubt my father’s, too), we’re not Jewish.
So I put my boys through it, 12 and 16 years ago. And since then, although the bleeding and crying stopped and everything turned out alright, I realize that this Jewish (and Muslim) tradition is a bad one. It should be replaced, like some of the Torah’s other horrific injunctions, and instead of cutting off the foreskin, a few strands of hair should be removed, or a fingernail should be dyed, or the boy should get a little tattoo at age nine or something. I very much like being a member of the Jewish tribe, and I don’t have a problem with parents harmlessly “marking” their infant sons (or daughters) as members of their tribe. But ritual circumcision for an eight-day-old boy, as the absolute mandatory condition of his being a Jew, is barbaric, risky and fairly insane.
On Tuesday, a district court in Cologne, Germany outlawed circumcision on children except for medical purposes. From The Guardian:
The court weighed up three articles from the basic law: the rights of parents, the freedom of religious practice and the right of the child to physical integrity, before coming to the conclusion that the procedure was not in the interests of the child.
It rejected the defence that circumcision is considered hygienic in many cultures, one of the main reasons it is carried out in the US, Britain and in Germany.
After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent.”
Commentators said it’s unlikely the decision will be binding, or that circumcision will end anywhere in Germany anytime soon, but they also said it would influence future legal decisions. I hope so. I don’t think it’s wise to outlaw ritual circumcision, any more than it was wise to outlaw alcohol, abortion or drugs, because it’s unenforceable and by driving it underground, you create many more problems than you solve. But the principle that ritual circumcision is harmful to infants, that it inflicts on them a purely elective surgery that is acutely painful, and that while accidents are very rare, the victims are literally scarred for life – this point has to be made loudly and repeatedly to all Jews, Muslims and other tribal types who feel they have no choice but to put their sons through this.
There is a small but growing movement of Jewish parents who reject ritual circumcision, and I think it’s going to spread fast because they’re saying out loud what so many Jewish parents are thinking: “Why?” And this, I believe, is the best answer to the problem: Stand up for your kid and say no. If you fear and abhor the ritual, don’t let anyone perform it on him. He’ll still be Jewish if you raise him Jewish – whatever anyone says.
And if my sons one day have sons of their own and decide not to have them circumcized, I will be one proud father and grandfather. Herzl didn’t have his sons circumcized, and if it was Jewish enough for him, it’s Jewish enough for me.