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The Iona Blog

Chief Rabbi Sacks’ scathing denunciation of attacks on male circumcision

Author: David Quinn
Date: 31st July 2012

It is scarcely believable that there is a growing threat to the practice of religiously motivated male circumcision in Europe. A fierce debate has erupted over the practice, chiefly in Germany following a court decision there against it. However, curbs have also been placed on it in certain Swiss and Austrian hospitals.

In addition, we have today in the Irish Times an article condemning it as ‘male genital mutilation’ and comparing it with female genital mutilation.

There is, of course, no comparison between the two. Male circumcision involves merely cutting the foreskin of the penis, while female circumcision involves removing the clitoris, which is why it is rightly called mutilation.

However, the two are being increasingly compared, and even when critics of male circumcision allow that it is not to be directly compared with female circumcision, they still condemn it as a ‘violation of bodily integrity’, an attack on the rights of the child, which is how the court in Germany framed it.

The German decision has, needless to say, been denounced in the strongest terms by Jewish and Muslim religious leaders from across Europe.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the finest and most impressive religious leader in Britain today, lambasted the decision in the Jerusalem Post recently.

He wrote: “It is hard to think of a more appalling decision. Did the court know that circumcision is the most ancient ritual in the history of Judaism, dating back almost 4,000 years to the days of Abraham? Did it know that Spinoza, not religious but together with John Locke the father of European liberalism, wrote that brit mila [the Hebrew term for circumcision] in and of itself had the power to sustain Jewish identity through the centuries?”

He reminded his readers of previous bans on circumcision: “Did it know that banning mila was the route chosen by two of the worst enemies the Jewish people ever had, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Roman emperor Hadrian, both of whom set out to extinguish not only Jews but also Judaism?

"Either the court knew these things or it did not. If it did not, then how was it competent to assess the claim of religious liberty? If it did, then there are judges in Germany quite willing to say to religious Jews, in effect, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’”

Then, in a very interesting take on anti-Semitism, Chief Rabbi Sacks pointed out that through history anti-Semitism has always justified itself by reference to whatever is the highest authority in the culture at any given point.

When the Church was the highest authority in Europe, he writes, anti-Semitism had a Christian cast.

In the 19th century and until the middle of the last century, science became the highest form of authority and pseudo-scientific theories about race were used to justify anti-Semitism. These theories were endorsed by some of the leading figures of the day, eugenicists all.

Today, says the Chief Rabbi, attacks on Judaism are launched in the name of ‘human rights’.

I would correct the Chief Rabbi’s analysis in one way only; attacks on religion generally are being launched in the name of ‘human rights’. Judaism is far from being the only target.  

However, if you ban male circumcision you ban Judaism. It is as simple as that. You cannot be an uncircumcised and observant male Jew.

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