Sunday 30 September 2012

Circumcision and the Power of Tradition

On 5 May 2012, a German regional court in Cologne held that the circumcision of male children for religious reasons constitutes a criminal act under German law. According to the judgment, parents cannot validly consent to an irreversible bodily injury to their children. The child's right to physical integrity and self-determination prevails over the parents' right to religious freedom. If the court's interpretation is upheld in later cases, Germany may be one of the few countries in the world in which circumcision of children for non-medical reasons is banned.

Fiddler on the Roof. Dir. Norman Jewison. United Artists, 1971. 
The judgment, which was discovered by the press in late June 2012, provoked ferocious debate in Germany and received much international attention. Under-standably, Jewish and Muslim communities, which traditionally exercise the practice, became quite nervous. One Russian rabbi in Berlin to discuss the judgment called it "perhaps the most serious attack on Jewish life in Europe since the Holocaust". Supporters of the ban, however, argue that the decision on this serious question should be reserved for the child upon reaching legal age. 

One of the disturbing facts I encountered while following the debate was the complete ignorance of what circumcision means to the Jewish community. While many Muslims follow the custom of circumcision as a tradition, the practice is not prescribed in the Qur'an and Muslim religious scholars do not agree on whether it is obligatory or only recommended. In the Jewish community, by contrast, circumcision is not a mere custom but a clear command of God. More than a command: It is the sign of the everlasting Covenant between God and the Jewish people, on which the whole Jewish life with all its commandments is based.

God announced the requirement of circumcision of male children to Abraham, the forefather of Jews with the following words: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (...) must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17, 10-14)

Fiddler on the Roof. Dir. Norman Jewison. United Artists, 1971. 
Beside its transcendent meaning, the Covenant between God and the Jewish people has a strong this-worldly aspect: Circumcision embodies God's promise to Abraham that, if he and his offspring keep the commands given to them, they will be multiplied and made “exceeding fruitful”. During the centuries, God has kept his promise, preserved and spread Abraham's seed throughout the world. Circumcision, therefore, is regarded as the guarantee that the Jewish people will subsist and flourish in the future, too.

For this reason, circumcision plays a constituent role in Jewish identity. With regard to Jewish males, circumcision simply amounts to being a Jew. While Jews all around the world speak different languages, belong to different cultures and follow different denominations, each of them can consider oneself a member of the chosen people by virtue of this archaic ritual. Antal Szerb, a brilliant Hungarian literary historian of Jewish origin once corrected István Széchenyi, the great Hungarian reformist politician who had happened to say that “a nation lives in its language”. Szerb pointed out that not every nation “lives in its language”. The Irish, for example, live as a nation even though they have lost their own language. Similarly, I would add, the Jews live “in the circumcision” instead of a language.

To say that the decision on circumcision must be reserved for the child upon reaching legal age is, under this aspect, similar to saying that a decision on which mother tongue he would like to speak should be reserved for a child upon his reaching legal age. You may object that the parallel is too extreme because circumcision means an irreversible physical change on the body while a mother tongue does not. But in fact, the consequences of speaking a small minority language as mother tongue as opposed to a majority language or a world language are much more far-reaching than the minimal marks circumcision leaves on your body. If circumcision encroaches on your personal self-determination, all the more does so the "arbitrary" selection of your native tongue.

Fiddler on the Roof. Dir. Norman Jewison. United Artists, 1971. 
 Despite its significance in Jewish life, supporters of circumcision usually could not convincingly defend the practice in the German discussion. The root cause of their losing the argument was, I think, that traditions cannot be defended against personal self-determination in a purely rational debate. The underlying assumption of a rational debate is that the result of the debate should be a proposition that every reasonable person would approve. This assumption, however, already implies the result because it permits only such result that does not encroaches on anybody's freedom to approve or disapprove the proposition in question. Traditions, by definition, are imposed by older generations on younger generations without asking for their approval. Traditions, therefore, can never constitute a proposition that every reasonable person would approve. A rational debate can clarify and explain a tradition but can never fully justify it.

One has to realize, however, that the rational debate and its underlying assumptions are also maintained by a tradition. This tradition is not simply passed on but imposed on the younger generations of our culture through the educational system. The school is the place where new generations are forced to acquire and internalize the tradition of rational debate inherited from the past. Now, I am sure most children experience compulsory education as much greater a shock and much more brutal an intrusion into their personal self-determination than the pain Jewish newborns feel during circumcision. So if we wanted to derive every social norm from personal self-determination, we had better abolish the school system and reserve the decision on their education for the young themselves upon reaching legal age. The absurdity of this conclusion shows that no culture can be based on personal self-determination alone.

The real question, therefore, is not whether a particular tradition can be justified but rather if one has confidence in one's own tradition. It is strong traditions that can make a community "exceeding fruitful" like circumcision did so with the Jews.

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