These are the words of the Conference of European Rabbis as reported by Spiegel Online in this article. Exceptionally inflammatory words, particularly coming as they do in response to a German court ruling. The Rabbi who issued the statement for the Conference, Pinchas Goldschmidt, is the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. A Rabbi from Munich took a less strident tone:
Rabbi Yisroel Diskin, Director of Chabad in Munich, says the ban is concerning for Germany’s Jewish population but he is optimistic that the state will overturn the ruling.
“I’m sure that the German government or Parliament will correct this issue and I hope it will be very soon,” Diskin told The Algemeiner. “Just the message from the court, that circumcision is not allowed, is a very serious issue for Jews in Germany.”
The German Medical Association cautioned practicioners against performing circumcisions while Angela Merkel's spokesperson replied to the controversy by saying that the government wanted Jewish and Muslim life in the country and called on lawmakers to enact legislation that makes circumcision legal.
Well, you couldn't ask for a more charged situation in terms of rights: civil vs. religious, legal vs. medical, parent vs. children and throw in the tragic history of Germany and the Jews. In light of all of these things, one might excuse the Rabbi's response. And expect the conciliatory tone of the German government.
Except, this isn't about "Germany" or "the Jews", at least not directly. The case in question involved a 4 year old Muslim boy who was taken to a hospital after complications from his circumcision and the ruling currently holds only in Cologne. It also is taking place in a larger context of anti-immigrant activities in Europe which have seen the rise of Nationalist parties as the European economy suffers, hate crimes against immigrants and legislative actions which have included "Swiss ban on minarets, French and Belgian bans on Islamic veils in public and an attempted Dutch ban on halal meat." (Jerusalem Post.com)
In other words, this is about Muslims, not Jews specifically and not Germany specifically. Insofar as Jews practice circumcision and eat kosher meat, they are affected by these actions. However, Jewish women don't wear veils and synogogues are not built (typically) with minarets. These actions are not an attack specifically on Jews and certainly not the worst attack since the holocaust. The Rabbi from Moscow was off point and out of line.
Last year I declared a moratorium against invoking the "Nazi" card in moral philosophy. My point was that using the moral limit case to test a theory or idea was a) a bad idea if your theory can't handle everyday examples and b) inappropriate and disrespectful. In this case I think we are seeing a corollary about using the Holocaust as a rhetorical device. I understand the need to never forget, speak out strongly against hatred, oppression and anti-semitism and be vigilant against fascist nationalism. However, we must also be careful not to engage in discourse that doesn't contribute to positive solutions to these issues or co-opts the oppression of an Other.
Julian Bennett says
“However, we must also be careful not to engage in discourse that doesn’t contribute to positive solutions to these issues or co-opts the oppression of an Other.”
We can oppress the rights of parents by not allowing them to have operations on their babies/children without consent for no medical reason, or, we can oppress the rights of babies and children by allowing parents to have them operated on for no medical reason.
The solution that the court proposed was for the parents to wait until the child could give their consent to be circumsliced. Jews will not be happy with that as it goes against their tradition to have it done within something like 8 weeks. More generally religious groups won’t be happy with that as they know full well that there is far less chance of young adults voluntarily agreeing to have some of their foreskin chopped off for no reason other than a commitment to the tradition.
The judge noted that he did not have to pander to political sensibilities when making the decision. It was simply a matter of balancing the interests of the child with those of the parents, and he decided that the harm to the child (loss of bodily integrity for no medical reason) outweighed the harm to the parents (not being able to perform a religious ritual on their child without the child’s consent).
The danger is that if the practice is made illegal then it will be performed outside the law, like backstreet abortions were, and the consequences in terms of risks of infection and botched jobs will increase and hence the consequences will be worse than had the practice remained legal. So it might be right to allow a practice that is morally wrong to remain legal.
At the end you seem to jump to the conclusion that the practice is morally wrong. Does this mean that the medical rationale of “bodily integrity” automatically weighs more than the child’s religious rights.
It seems to me that this debate has less to do with Jews as Seth points out, and more to do with Muslims and the politics of multiculturalism, which Merkel claims have utterly failed in Germany.
Julian Bennett says
“Does this mean that the medical rationale of “bodily integrity” automatically weighs more than the child’s religious rights.”
Whilst nothing is ‘automatic’, I think it is safe to say that infants have no religious beliefs, so they cannot have religious rights to practice their own religion. Since they are having their parents religious symbolism forced on them you could say their right to religious freedom is being violated.
However, since infants are not religious, and do not have religious rights, I think it is probably best to avoid appealing to the religious rights of infants.
I chose the phrase child’s religious rights deliberately and a little provocatively. First, though, we should make clear what rights we are talking about, universal human rights, rights afforded to citizens by German law, or some kind of moral rights that may or may not coincide with legal rights.
The problem lies in the fact that universalized human rights, of the sort that are evoked here, are based on highly culturally specific notion of autonomous individuals, where the sacred inviolable boundaries of the individual are corporeal. On the other hand we are always born into a society and a community that define us as social persons and regulate our bodies. You say that the parents force their religious symbolism on the child, the logic being we should wait until the child can make the choice, yet the whole personhood of a child by which such decisions are arrived at is “forced” on him/her. Language is forced on us. Citizenship is forced on us. Education is forced on us. The Foucauldian nightmare of hegemonic medical-instrumental and legal-rational discourses of the administrative-bureaucratic nation state is forced on us (I jest, I jest). All this without the child’s consent, with no consideration towards whether he/she “believes” in any of this. Rights (and obligations) define us as social persons with a certain relationship to larger society, and what is at stake here is which matters more the relationship to the state or to an ethnic or religious community. Maybe I should rephrase, not the child’s right to religion but the right to belong to a community (based on religion) according to the rules set by that community. The notion of individual autonomy being based on pure free choice (I choose to believe) is ideological nonsense. (Belief as an internal state is not the locus of all that many religions anyway.)
Okay, we must consider the above if we are talking about rights in the inclusive way that UNESCO is trying to formulate such contested ideas as “right to culture.” If , on the other hand, we are talking about legal rights of German citizens, we can say that they are based on individualistic values of modern Germany, cultural experience of immigrants be damned. This stance is increasingly adopted throughout Europe. Hence, as I said, this is about the problem of multiculturalism.
Julian Bennett says
If the cultural experience of immigrants involves buggering about with their childrens genitalia for ritualistic reasons then let it be damned.
“loss of bodily integrity for no medical reason”
– I have no foreskin. Circumcision was widely practiced in Australia at the time of my birth.
I have never known what it is like to have a foreskin. But as I find that the contemplation of my penis is not even remotely interesting, I have never really been bothered by it.
I am sure I will be howled down, but if your sense of bodily integrity is diminished by the absence of a flap of skin on the end of your cock, then I would suggest that you have issue that need to be treated by a mental health professional.
“consequences in terms of risks of infection and botched jobs will increase”
– I would imagine this would have graver implications for ones bodily integrity.
Julian Bennett says
It is true that circumcision has been and still is widely practised but this in itself is no justification for its continuation.
“if your sense of bodily integrity is diminished by the absence of a flap of skin on the end of your cock, then I would suggest that you have issue that need to be treated by a mental health professional.”
So you are saying that if anyone complains about having been forcibly circumcised they are mentally unstable. [Anyone who disagrees with me is mentally unstable right]. The comment looks to be functioning as an ad hominem to dismiss other people’s concerns. As it is clearly not true it is best to avoid such phrases.
It seems plausible to say that many people who have been circumcised are not bothered by it. But it is easy to think of cases that were not morally justified but people are no longer bothered about them because they involve only minor harms. So we need something stronger than many people are no longer bothered by it to justify the practice.
“The comment looks to be functioning as an ad hominem to dismiss other people’s concerns”
– Or, it could be functioning as a flippant dismissal that is not even pretending to be an argument.
“As it is clearly not true it is best to avoid such phrases.”
– “it is best” – no ifs or maybes there.
Show me why the BEST outcome will result from me avoiding such phrases. You will probably need to put to bed that whole grounding of morality/values thingamy in the process.
But seriously, or less so – you choose – if we are only permitted to write “true” statements then I imagine these comment threads will be rather empty.
My parents had me circumcised because they are Jewish.
I’m not a practicing Jew but of all the stupid things that I had to go through as a child and of all the stupid things that I learned as a child and had to unlearn as an adult, circumcision just does not register as a major problem.
Seth Paskin says
I second this.
Julian Bennett says
Yeah, but whether you think it is a major problem or not, (or even whether you think it is a problem at all) is not the issue.
It clearly is a problem for two major religious groups regardless of whether anyone else gives a damn.
“If the cultural experience of immigrants involves buggering about with their childrens genitalia for ritualistic reasons then let it be damned.”
Well, not only of immigrants, but some very sensitive Jews it would seem.
Dyami Hayes says
Re: Freedom, free will
While Free Will could be Invoked to support a number of positions, it has way too much metaphysical baggage to move the discussion beyond invoking an emotivist response or a plentitude of problems ill-suited for the blog. There are, of course, many other starting premises for basic human rights (“freedoms” in a broad sense) from which we can work. The most pressing matter would be the (primarily) empirical inquiry into whether circumsition constitutes harm.
Re: Harm principle
Comments such as “well, it didn’t harm ME” are incredibly uninformative bits of introspection. (This is Not meant as a jab at anyone – I simply mean it doesn’t advance an argument). Us humans tend to suck at introspecting, even more so when in relation to some form of potentially traumatic childhood experience. Since there is no comprehensive, accessible data (to my knowledge) on the psychological, short and long term, effects from circumcision we are forced to deal with some level Of vagueness.
Luckily, vagueness does not mean necessary relativity or pluralism. Here I’ll postulate a few potential problems with circumcision: a) promulgates non-rational beliefs, an “unexamined life”. b) likely causes pain or discomfort to the child. c) May(?) result in long term psychological damage. d) commits the child to a moral and ontological frame of reference which, being derivative of religious texts, segregates him/her from broader community (commit not used in absolute terms – people can and do shed, overcome such commitments).
Re: Legality of issue at hand
If we want to move forward and accept a certain level of harm resulting from circumcision, we can ask whether making it illegal will improve or exacerbate the problem. Black market operations are a definite concern it seems. Similar to the problem of dug abuse, I suggest that the right approach will vary depending on the country/culture/environment.
What do we think of female circumcision? Or how about the pop-ethical dilemma of the child custody battle between Tom Cruise and Holmes? Should the courts weigh in on the effects of Scientology on children?
Ok. iPhone commenting is gettin annoying.
ken krimstein says
the rabbi may have created a rhetorical error, granted. and what happened with the 4 year in question is a sad case. but a sweeping ban like this, especially when many thousands of these procedures take place without incident, many on dining room tables and grandfather’s laps, seems extreme. and then when you put it within the historical context, even more troubling. in the world actions have symbolic consequences. alas.
Julian Bennett says
a sweeping ban like this, especially when many thousands of these procedures take place without incident, many on dining room tables and grandfather’s laps, seems extreme”
I cannot agree that circumcision ever takes place without incident.
Circumcision involves intentionally cutting an infant and the violation of bodily integrity for non-therapeutic reasons. Where this takes place at home it involves intense pain for the infant and there is always some degree of risk involved.
The majority of Western states have laws that protect children and infants from unnecessary harm/risks and the law against circumcision for non-therapeutic reasons would look like an extension of these laws. A law banning circumcision looks no more extreme than a law that requires local authorities to clean up broken glass from children’s playgrounds. In both cases the aim is to reduce the harm to children. Another parallel might be the law with regards to parents ability to physically chastise their children. It is entirely appropriate for the state to step in and draw limits to what parents can and cannot do to their children once a society grants children certain rights i.e., once a society recognises that children are not simply the property of their parents.
I entirely agree with the commentator who noted that in his words ‘humans suck at introspection’. To elaborate on this – adults who have been beaten as children, adults who have suffered traumatic accidents in the playground, and adults who have been circumcised as infants do not have access to how they would have been in the counter-factual circumstances where they did not undergo these traumatic events. So on what basis can they say that “it did not do me any harm” when they lack access to the counter-factual self that they would have been? What people do here is slide from ‘I am not aware of any present harm’ to the erroneous conclusion that ‘It did me no harm’.
If religious groups want people to be circumcised for non-therapeutic reasons then they should let it be for adults who are able to consent to the practice rather than imposed on infants who cannot.