Mohel doctor Yacov Gassinovitch, center, is surround by other Rabbis and relatives as he holds eight days old Jonathan during the boy’s circumcision at synagogue in Berlin on Oct. 29, 2012.
Despite the efforts, well-intentioned or otherwise, of regional authorities, Germany’s Bundestag or lower house of Parliament, has passed a law protecting circumcision of infant boys. The law is expected to be passed in the upper house, the Bundesrat, as well.
Not only is this a victory for the free exercise of religion, it is a victory for responsible parenting, good medical practice, and for Germany itself. It represents a welcome new stage in the nation’s ongoing post-WWII wrestling with the ethical use of power, be it governmental or parental.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who are totally insensitive to some of the concerns raised by anti-circumcision folks. Any surgical procedure performed on an infant is serious business, and when it involves their genitals, it is a particularly sensitive issue. That said, the arguments which would criminalize the sacred traditions of both Jews and Muslims, range from wrong-headed to simply hateful.
No, the circumcision ban is not especially wrong in Germany because circumcision is a Jewish ritual and Germany’s Nazi government wanted to rid the world of all Jews. Nor is it especially wrong because circumcision is sacred to Muslims, and Germany continues to wrestle with the full inclusion of the 4 million Muslims who make their homes in Germany today.
There is also no guarantee that just because a particular community holds a practice to be sacred, that it deserves to be protected at all costs. From betrothing children, to plural marriage, to the use of drugs, to a host of other practices, governments can and do limit the expression of what some consider legitimate religious practice.
These may be good decisions or not, that is another conversation, but they are examples of the fact that even when it comes to fundamental rights such as religious expression, nothing is absolute, nor should it be. Simply because a community holds a practice to be sacred, does not assure the protection of that act, nor should it. Banning infant circumcision however is wrong, whether the ban is enacted in Germany or anywhere else.
There is no demonstrable damage caused by infant circumcision, especially when done in accordance with good medical practice, as the new German law requires, no matter how many bogus studies some opponents of circumcision claim. In fact, there is copious evidence which supports the enormous public health benefits of circumcision, especially in the fight against sexually transmitted disease including HIV/AIDS.
If there were evidence of the negative health effects of infant circumcision, then there might be real grounds for a debate about abridging the practice, but there is none. That is why no such arguments were made in Germany, even by those who supported the ban.
Those who voted to limit or ban circumcision in Germany, did so out of a misplaced notion of human freedom, and a fundamental inability to accept the notion that people, and especially parents, do things with far-reaching consequences all the time. Parents make all sorts of life-changing decisions for their kids – that’s what it means to be a parent. Avoiding that responsibility is virtually always the wrong way to go, and especially so when it involves government either banning or coercing religious practice.
From its penchant for non-interventionism in a variety of global conflicts, to those German jurists and law-makers who would like to avoid allowing parents to make big decision for the children, Germany has struggled with what it means to take and use power responsibly. Happily, this week, the Bundestag got it right. They upheld the right of people to take action on behalf of the people and the traditions they love, even when those acts may be unpopular to some others.
Germany’s decision to protect infant circumcision for boys was much more than a victory for the nation’s Jews and Muslims. It was even more than a victory for the freedom of religious and cultural expression. The decision to protect circumcision was a victory for Germany and for its future.
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