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The Big Cut

May 8, 2018

by: Nathan Williams, Deputy International Administration Director

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While it is increasingly becoming a divisive issue, circumcision is one of the world’s oldest rites of passage and vitally important to Judaism. The topic was once considered taboo, but in modern times rigorous debate has flared up in Western nations about whether this tradition could be a violation of young boys’ human rights. The ancient rite of circumcision is a sensitive topic, but before jumping to any conclusions one needs to gain further understanding of this custom—especially as the roots of this Jewish ceremony lie with the father of our faith, Abraham.

Cutting the Covenant

The deeply rooted devotion to this tradition becomes clear when it is understood in its original context as a covenant agreement with God. Genesis 17:9–12 says that circumcision is a sign of the Lord’s covenant with the Jewish people throughout their generations. The covenant of circumcision, or brit milah in Hebrew, is a divine command to the descendants of Abraham. It is performed on every male child on the eighth complete day after birth. Nothing besides strict advice from a medical professional will delay the procedure. To the Jewish people, circumcision is inextricably linked to their relationship with the Creator.

Circumcision is a physical imprinting of God’s seal on the body of a child which brings him into covenant. This ritual act has a higher purpose of commencing a lifelong journey of commitment to holiness as a servant of the Lord and a blessing to all nations. According to Rabbi Hayim Leiter, a licensed mohel (a rabbi who performs the circumcision ceremony) and lecturer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, “The [brit milah] ritual is the only way a Jewish male can reach full status within the community. The ritual does not hold the young boy back, but rather it propels him forward.”

Perhaps if we consider the life of Jesus (Yeshua) we can understand the importance of circumcision in a Jewish cultural context. The social stigma associated with being uncircumcised in Jesus’s day would have tainted any Jewish male and excluded him from participating in religious festivals like Passover and many other aspects of Temple life. Even so today to deny a Jewish boy the right of being incorporated into his community in a physical way through circumcision would be a travesty.

Banning the Rite

Anti-Semites have always used the religious devotion of the Jewish people as a means of subjugation. History recounts that under the Hellenistic occupation of Israel by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Jewish mothers who circumcised their sons suffered martyrdom. Again, under the Roman Emperor Hadrian the rite was proscribed and this was one of the main reasons behind the Jewish rebellion known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The outlawing of religious practice may seem to be limited to tyrannical leaders of days past, but in more modern times some European countries are again seeking to legislate against circumcision.

In February 2018, the parliament of Iceland proposed a bill to ban all non-medical, neonatal circumcisions. Failing to adhere to this law is punishable by a prison term of up to six years. A week later news broke from Denmark that nearly half of the required 50,000 signatures to force a vote on a bill to ban circumcision have been collected. Should the bill be passed, 8,000 Jewish Danes could be exposed to legal action in Denmark. This is unfortunately not a new issue for European Jewry. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has periodically made threats to ban circumcision in all of its 47 member states. By signing this proposed legislation into law, Scandinavia will set a precedent for the rest of Europe which, in turn, may make it impossible for Jewish people to live and practice their faith openly.

Scandinavian legislators neglected to realize that such overarching laws would encroach wholly on religious freedom, affecting not only adherents of Judaism but also Islam and Christianity. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the head of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, decried the measures in Iceland as a “dangerous attack on freedom of religion.” The bill is also being contested by some physicians on scientific medical grounds. In the past 100 years, supporters of circumcision, including physicians and religious leaders, have convincingly argued the benefits of circumcision, including reducing the risk of urinary tract infections, contracting sexually transmitted diseases and even cervical cancer in women.

Christian Support

Perhaps it is the echoes of Christian silence during the Holocaust or a strong comprehension of a covenant relationship with God, but Christian leaders in Iceland have come to the defense of the Jewish community. The Catholic Bishop of Iceland, Davíð Tencer, recently declared his support for the Jewish community in their fight to practice their religion in freedom. Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, Bishop of the National Church of Iceland, has also expressed opposition to the proposal, saying that such laws would effectively criminalize religions such as Judaism and individuals who subscribe to this faith would be banned and unwelcome in Iceland, finally concluding that “all such forms of extremism should be avoided.”

It is unclear whether the motivations in Iceland or Denmark have been entirely anti-Semitic in nature, as all discussions have been under the guise of protecting human rights. However, such forms of legislation with good intentions can eventually be misconstrued as a motive for discrimination. As Europe has in the past fallen so easily into hatred and pogroms towards the Jewish people, it is no wonder that Christian and Jewish religious leaders alike are cautioning against these government decisions which are a blatant infringement on religious freedom.

Photo Credit: fizkes/shutterstock.com

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