Circumcision is at the heart of Jewish identity

By Elad Uzan, March 23, 2014
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Recently, circumcision has been in the headlines in Israel due to two events. First came a German court’s decision that circumcision is “bodily harm”, leading to claims that Germany, or Europe, are about to ban circumcision, and to accusations of antisemitism by many Israelis. Recently, a woman who refused to circumcise her son was allegedly ordered to do so by an Israeli rabbinical court. This, too, caused much uproar.

Is Europe banning circumcision while Israel is forcing it? The truth is more complicated. A real tension does exist; but one must see past the headlines.

The German court decision had not made circumcision illegal – having no such power – but only recommended that lawmakers should do so. The German lawmakers refused. Yet the accusations of antisemitism, if wrong, were understandable. This case reminded many in Israel of the ancient Greeks and Romans’ ban on circumcision as “a barbaric custom”, or, more recently, of the ban in the USSR.

Israel Zangwill once told an interlocutor who asked why Jews are paranoid:“Two thousand years of Christian love”: i.e., however fair-minded and reasonable the criticism of circumcision, or of other Jewish customs, the “paranoid” fear that it will be misused as a weapon by antisemites has, alas, much historical precedent.

But the court’s decision, and the reaction to it, raise a deeper question: why would banning circumcision in particular be seen as religious prosecution, when many other ancient Jewish practices were de facto banned with changing times, often with the co-operation of Jews, indeed Jewish leaders, who also wished to modernise the law? The sages of the Talmud had no problem declaring it was no longer possible to recognise the Amalekites’ descendants, practically (as intended) nullifying the commandment “to wipe out the descendants of Amalek”. Why is circumcision special?

The second case answers this question. A woman was fined 500 NIS (about 100 euro) for every day she delayed in circumcising her son. But the court was considering a divorce case. It was the husband, not the court, who demanded that the child be circumcised. The court merely ruled in his favour. Perhaps rabbinical courts should not judge divorce cases, or even exist, but that aside, the court did not have, nor assumed, the authority to “order” anyone to circumcise their sons on its own. It is not illegal to not circumcise one’s child in Israel.

That clarified, the court’s reasons for accepting the father’s view are interesting. First, circumcision is practised by the vast majority of Jews and is thus the norm, and should be followed, lest refusal to circumcise the child become another weapon in divorce battles. Second, said the court, it was important to circumcise a child because this way the child will be able to grow up as a Jew, and circumcision is God’s way of noting his covenant with the Jewish people.

The second case, then, answers the question raised by the first. Surely, notes Professor Aviad Kleinberg of Tel Aviv University, the second, theological reason, is not convincing to anyone who isn’t an observant Jew – yet 98 per cent of Israeli Jews practise circumcision. Why?

Stripped of its pious sentiments, the court’s decisions say something the vast majority of all Jews, observant or not, will agree on: circumcision is part of the very essence of Jewish national identity, and has its roots deep in the history of the Jewish people.

The term for circumcision in Hebrew – brit mila – “a covenant by circumcision”– emphasises that it is this covenant which created the Jews a nation, by Abraham’s acceptance of circumcision on behalf of his yet-unborn descendants. Even non-observant Jews who do not take the biblical story seriously, accept that for Jews, for at least two millennia, circumcision was the one indispensable commandment that makes one a Jew – not living in the Jewish homeland, obeying other commandments, or anything else.

To ban circumcision, to ban joining the covenant, the rabbinical court and many Jews fear, would be (however unintentionally) to ban Jewish national identity itself.

Elad Uzan is an Israeli lawyer and a fellow at the Ruderman Honours Programme of American Jewish Studies, University of Haifa

Last updated: 1:45pm, March 23 2014