In a move reminiscent of the attempt by the Greek tyrant, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes to ban the Jewish religion – and especially the rite of circumcision (see Maccabees I and II) – the Council of Europe (a non-elected body, whose decisions are not legally binding) has passed a resolution calling for a ban on “non-medical” circumcision, calling the practice “a violation of the physical integrity of children”. In short, these self-appointed overseers of “human rights” have equated a 4000 year-old practice which is integral to Judaism, with the barbaric mutilation of female genitals practiced by certain African and Arab cultures. They have totally ignored medical evidence showing that not only does circumcision cause no harm, it actually promotes better health, whereas FGM has no health benefits. Labelling the Jewish practice “child abuse”, supporters of the ban ignore another essential difference between the two practices: the sole purpose – as well as the effect – of female genital mutilation is to decrease (or totally eradicate) sexual pleasure in the female, thereby ensuring her chastity and subordination to her husband. Male circumcision has no such intent and no such effect.
Those supporting a ban claim that they are not against circumcision as such, merely against circumcision of children, and would not oppose circumcision once a young man reaches the age of 18 and can decide for himself. This, however, ignores the religious requirement to circumcise male children at the age of 8 days as well as the fact that there are far fewer medical complications when the operation is carried out in infancy than when it is performed on an adult.
This is not the first attempt to ban an essential Jewish practice in recent times. Last year, in Germany, the District Court of Cologne ruled that circumcision for religious reasons amounted to bodily injury and was therefore a criminal offence. It took a law specifically enacted by the German Bundestag in December 2012, to “decriminalise” a ritual which, for 4000 years, has been synonymous with Jewish identity.
Nor is the European onslaught on Judaism confined to circumcision. Shechita, the ritual slaughter of animals for purposes of kashrut is also under attack. It has been banned in Poland, Norway (where the ban was plainly antisemitic in intent), Sweden and Switzerland. Of course, it is always possible to live without meat (one of my nephews is a vegan). The Torah, after all, does not instruct us to eat meat, it only specifies what meat we may and may not eat and how animals must be slaughtered. It does, however, expressly command us to circumcise male children when they are eight days old (Genesis 17:12). Furthermore, it makes clear the integral nature of circumcision to Hebrew/Jewish identity in verse 14 of the same chapter, when it states: “And the uncircumcised male child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.”
Antiochus’s prohibition led to a popular revolt, led by the Hasmoneans – Matityahu (Mattathias) the priest and his sons, the best known of whom was Yehuda HaMaccabee (Judas Maccabeus). In the run-up to that revolt, mothers defied the ban and paid with their lives for having done so (I Maccabees 1:60-61).
I find myself wondering, though, how many Jews today would defy the secular law to carry out what is, in fact, a major article of the Jewish faith, the sign par excellence of the Covenant between God and his Chosen People. Recent surveys have shown an alarming rise in assimilation and intermarriage in the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, namely, the United States. When one’s “connection” to Judaism and to the Jewish people consists mainly of “an emotional attachment to Israel” and Jews think it’s okay to marry out of the fold, defining their Jewishness in terms of ancestry and culture, rather than religion, how likely is one to defy the secular law of the State, in defence of a religious practice whose significance is in its mark of the religious Covenant between the Jew and his God?
I believe we are strong enough to resist the attempts of the self-declared “child protectors” (whose motives I take leave to doubt) – but only when we feel Jewish enough to care. And “feeling Jewish” is so much more than getting a warm, fuzzy feeling when seeing the Israeli flag fly, or eating gefillte fish and kneidlach every now and then.