Circumcision is not a barrier to an individual's religious freedom

Was a German court justified in interfering with centuries of religious tradition?

A court in Cologne has ruled that circumcision, performed for religious reasons on male children below an age where they can meaningfully consent to the operation, amounts to an unwarranted and irreparable interference with their bodily integrity. Furthermore, it interferes with the right of a child "to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong".

The ruling, in a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy who was injured in a botched procedure, has been strongly criticised by both Muslim and Jewish groups in Germany and beyond. In the UK Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies described it as "intolerant, ill-informed and deeply troubling."  Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, by contrast, supports it. He thinks it is "an open and shut case, ethically speaking" on the grounds that "respect for the autonomy of a person requires that they give consent for irreversible procedures affecting their body like cutting pieces off their genitals". And Pavan Dhaliwal, speaking publicly on behalf of the BHA, suggests that a ban on infant circumcision "would not constitute an attack on religious freedom, because boys would still be allowed to be circumcised when they reach an age to consent".

While Copson has some sympathy for Jews and Muslims who may interpret a ban as oppressive, he appears to locate the source of their discomfort in an emotional attachment to their traditions and, in the case of men, intimate feelings towards their own bodies. But this is more than a merely cultural or psychological issue. It would have especially serious consequences for Jewish religious practice. To ban the circumcision of infant boys would, in effect, be to ban Judaism itself, at least as it has been practised for almost three thousand years. Islam expects males to be circumcised but lays down no specific age for the procedure. Jewish law on the other hand requires circumcision on the eighth day after birth, an age at which even the most precocious infant would be unable to give informed consent. No uncircumcised boy would be able to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at the traditional age of thirteen. It would be potentially catastrophic. That a German court should have produced such a ruling has only added to the disquiet. 

Along with the Sabbath and the rules of kosher, circumcision has always been one of the non-negotiable features of Judaism, indeed central to Jewish identity. The requirement is laid down in the book of Genesis (in chapter 17), which describes circumcision as the "token of the covenant" between God and Israel and goes on to warn that that "the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised shall be cut off from the people; he has broken my covenant." 

The importance attached to the procedure is repeatedly stressed in the Hebrew Bible. In one incident recounted in Exodus, God threatens to kill Moses, apparently because the prophet's (non-Jewish) wife has not had their son circumcised. He is only saved when Zipporah takes the knife to her son's foreskin herself. The message is clear: so much does God care about circumcision that's he's prepared to kill the man without whom there would be no Judaism (nor any Christianity or Islam) at all rather than see one Israelite child in possession of a foreskin. It's that serious.

If circumcision were obviously a bad thing, then religious freedom could and should be overridden. No religious justification would suffice to permit human sacrifice, or indeed female genital mutilation (FGM), which most Western countries have specifically banned. But male circumcision is not obviously harmful, as FGM is. Performed properly, it is not dangerous. The World Health Organisation positively encourages it, the theory being that it protects against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The effect on sexual pleasure in later life is disputed. Men who are in a position to know offer differing opinions, with those who report improvement somewhat outnumbering those regretting the procedure. All agree, however, that even with anaesthetic during the operation it is very painful afterwards and it takes at least a month to recover.

This matters. If circumcision for religious reasons is restricted to adults, not only would this interfere with long-held custom (and in the Jewish case, Biblical law), it would also force men or older boys to undergo a painful procedure as a price of belonging to their ancestral religion. Uncircumcised male converts to Judaism or Islam already face this dilemma, of course, but it's not hard to see that the prospect would act as a deterrent to many men lacking in the zeal of a convert. At the same time, a circumcised man leaving the religion is not forced to be painfully uncircumcised. It's thus hard to follow the logic that sees the procedure as an interference with a boy's freedom to choose his religion later in life. Quite the reverse.

 

A young boy cries after being circumcised. Photograph: Getty Images
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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage