Thursday, May 30, 2024

Crisis in Europe: Mohel Slapped with Court Charges

Furor erupted last week after a German doctor slapped court charges on Rav Dovid Goldberg of Bavaria, 64, who has practiced milah in Germany since 1997. The doctor claimed the mohel was inflicting bodily harm on infants, hoping Bavarian courts might agree with a Cologne court ruling of two months ago that circumcising children is an infliction of minor bodily harm. This incident has led to Europe's 1.3 million Jews fearing that Judaism is under threat.



Yerushalayim born Rav Goldberg, one of Germany’s three mohalim and rov of three Bavarian towns, insisted that the court charge was nothing but a nuisance suit to raise publicity for the doctor’s cause. If the worse came to be, he said, nothing will stop him from doing Hashem’s will.


“The Torah is more important to me than any other law,” he stated. “If the Torah writes I should do this, I do it regardless.”


Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti Defamation League, agreed that it was unlikely the case would make it to court.


“We believe it is unlikely, though, that the public prosecutor will bring charges, because the Bavarian Ministry of Justice made a public statement several weeks ago that well-performed circumcisions were not criminal acts,” he said. “We fully expect the Bavarian authorities to remain committed to that statement. Moreover, the flawed ruling by a judge in Cologne, in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, that ritual circumcision is a form of assault and thus illegal, does not apply in the state of Bavaria.”


However, even if milah in Germany is in no immediate danger, antagonism to the practice spread to other European countries after the Cologne court ruling. The court acquitted a Muslim doctor of willful wrongdoing in his circumcision of a four-year-old who suffered from hemorrhaging, but ruled that the right of a child to be protected from bodily harm outweighs the religious rights of his parents. Therefore, said the court, circumcision of a minor for non-medical reasons is a criminal act due to its inflicting of minor bodily harm. Several German hospitals subsequently barred ritual circumcisions from their premises.


The Cologne ruling is the first German ban against milah since Jews arrived in Germany during the days of Emperor Charlemagne. Even the Nazis never illegalized milah, although they took advantage of it to identify and murder Jews.


Rabbonim, lawmakers, and organizations in Germany, Israel, the United States, and other countries in Europe, have been protesting the court ruling. In an almost unprecedented move, European Jewish and Muslim groups united to issue a joint statement saying the practice is fundamental to their religions and deserves legal protection. In reaction, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised that she would ask the German parliament to pass “emergency legislation” to overrule the court’s decision. Most German politicians agree with her stance.


This did not stop the court’s decision from having an adverse influence in Europe. Two Swiss hospitals suspended circumcisions from July 23 to August 10. On July 30, the governor of Austria’s westernmost province advised doctors to suspend circumcisions, and in August, Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights proposed that Muslims replace circumcision with a symbolic non-surgical ritual. Denmark, home to 5,000 Jews, is presently embroiled in a fierce public debate concerning whether circumcision should require medical supervision, or even be banned. A Danish newspaper reported that the government has commissioned a study on the question and cited the Prime Minister as threatening, “We will examine the public health recommendations followed in this area.”




After the Rav Goldberg fiasco, Jewish organizations, rabbonim, and politicians lashed out against the injustice. He also received many letters of support and sympathy from non-Jews.


Rav Aryeh Goldberg, Deputy Director of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe representing 700 Orthodox rabbonim, said, “Jews in Europe feel that this is a struggle against Judaism; on the one hand it makes them angry, and on the other it creates a great deal of sympathy and solidarity in the non-Jewish population.”


Israel was also involved. President Shimon Peres sent a letter to his counterpart in Germany, Joachim Gauck, stating that circumcision was a “main principle of the Jewish identity of our people for thousands of years. I am certain Germany will remain committed to protecting the right of its Jewish community to freely observe Jewish tradition.”


Shas chairman Eli Yishai wrote to Chancellor Merkel and other politicians, asking them to defend one of Judaism’s oldest laws.


“As Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister, and leader of the largest religious party [in Israel], but mostly as a Jew, I turn to you to ask you to prevent this phenomenon from continuing,” he pleaded. “Circumcision is one of the most important commandments for the Jewish people, and the first giving to one of the fathers of our nation, Abraham, as a sign of His eternal covenant. Even in times of slavery and exile, Jews made sure to fulfill this commandment, and did so happily. According to the Jewish tradition, whoever prevents Jews from fulfilling the commandment of circumcision is considered breaking Abraham’s covenant.”


Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Yonah Metzger was already in Germany working towards a solution to the court ban with government and judicial officials.


He explained to the Yated why he suggested a compromise of having mohalim study the medical side of bris milah from German surgeons:


“While speaking to the German government we learnt that that they were willing to make a law in favor of brisos in Germany. However, they made conditions that were unacceptable to us such as having a doctor do the bris milah and not a mohel, and demanding the use of anesthetics. We explained that first, in principle, it is inconceivable that a democracy permits all religions to practice their laws, but tells us how to keep our religion. Would they tell the chief cardinal of Germany to move Xmas from the 5th of December to July or August out of pity for children who play in the snow and catch cold? So why tell us how to do bris milah?”


Rav Metzger also explained that there is a great difference between Moslems circumcision done when a boy is thirteen and the Jewish bris milah that takes place when a baby is eight days old. The German press was not making a distinction between the two. Unlike Moslem circumcision, with our bris milah, there is generally no trauma. The baby falls asleep after receiving a drop of wine.


“However,” Rav Metzger explained, “because they were constantly demanding medical expertise, I said I was agreeable that if a mohel does not know the medical issues properly, the same could be done as in Israel where every mohel is obligated to learn the potential complications of milah with a doctor in order to know to deal with such cases. I said I was ready for such a compromise. The mohel does not need to know brain surgery, but enough for a doctor to authorize that he is fit to do bris milah. Israel would issue authorization in conjunction with German doctors.”


But what if this led to Germany setting a high medical level that made it difficult to become a mohel?


“Their goal is not lehach’is. We have given up nothing, only agreeing that mohalim can learn from doctors proficient in this field.”


Rav Uri Gamson, head of a yeshiva in Berlin who participated in Rav Metzger’s meetings, discussed Rav Metzger’s viewpoint with Arutz Sheva and expressed his opinion that things would probably end up well.


“Jewish life here in Germany is quite calm,” he said. “There is no sense on the street that something is happening, particularly since the Germans do not express their feelings in public.”


“The Germans do not want to be perceived as being anti-Semitic,” he added. “The only problem which arises now is criticism of non-professional circumcisers. I think that in this matter we should be not only be right but also smart. Rav Metzger suggested that the rabbis establish a committee recognized by the government, which will appoint mohalim, who will be required to undergo medical training. This is a smart suggestion, because we need to win over the German public opinion and refute the arguments that there are non-professional mohalim.”


“Just yesterday I met a mohel who circumcised twins, and I myself took part in two circumcisions,” he continued. “There is no prohibition to perform circumcision, but on the other hand, there is legal precedent after the suit was filed against the Muslim doctor who performed circumcision on a child in Cologne. We hope that all the bills that are on the agenda and are in favor of circumcision will pass.”


Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and present Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, opposes Rav Metzger’s suggestion that mohalim study under German surgeons.


“Someone came along and said that mohalim will get a permit and study under German doctors,” he said. “Our mohalim have tremendous experience circumcising children. Rav Goldberg says he circumcised 3,000 children with no harm or mishap. What is this? It is pure anti-Semitism.


“First of all,” he continued, “the mohalim themselves say they are more expert than a regular German surgeon who is not so experienced in the specific field of circumcising eight day old children. Secondly, we have doctors in Israel.


“I would like to mention that when I was Chief Rabbi of Israel for ten years, and ten years before, a member of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate, I worked with the committee established by the Chief Rabbinate together with rabbis, mohalim and doctors. They were world class experts in medicine and halachah.


“For those in Germany who want to learn milah,” he added, “it’s a three or four hour flight to here. They can learn and train here and do not need to rely on others to learn something that is our 4,000 years old tradition that we observe since before Germany and other countries existed.”


In an interview with the Yated, he clarified further.


If training under German doctors makes the Germans satisfied, what is bad about it?


“Who asked for it? No one suggested it? Someone bought up this nonsense to flatter the Germans. They didn’t ask for it and did not speak about it. Why do we need to suggest it to them? If they suggested it we could consider the matter.”


Would the Germans accept mohalim learning the medical side in Israel?


“We need to suggest it.”


And if they refuse?


“Only one judge opposed milah. Because of this, we need to bow down to them? We didn’t need to suggest such a thing because today you suggest this and tomorrow they’ll demand anesthetics or doing milah without metzitzah or various other things. Why put a weapon in their hands?”


Rav Lau also expressed surprise that Germans were suddenly sensitive to Jewish blood.


“It’s amazing,” he said, “German spokesmen are sensitive to the cries of a baby and a drop of spilled blood like I did not see in my childhood. Then, Jewish children’s blood was worthless and trampled on by the boots of the Gestapo, while tens of millions of Germans collaborated or stood by and watched.”


Without mentioning Rav Metzger by name, Rav Lau attacked his suggestion that mohalim receive training from German doctors, saying the claim mohalim are incompetent was “pure anti-Semitism.”


“Our mohalim have tremendous experience,” he insisted. “Rav Goldberg circumcised three thousand boys with no mishap.”


This week, Chancellor Merkel again reassured German Jewry that the government is on their side. A message from her office to Menachem Margolin, Director of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, stated that the “German government sees a special obligation to nurture the Jewish culture and religion.”


“The German chancellor is grateful for the fact that the Jews have once again found a homeland in Germany,” it added. “Thus, the German government sees a special importance in this issue, and is working intensely to reach a proper and swift solution to the issue of religiously-motivated circumcisions.”


Ironically, at the very time a fight is raging against milah, there is growing evidence that the procedure is an effective preventative against disease. Based on research from Africa, researchers at John Hopkins University warned last week that the declining rates of the procedure in the USA might lead to billions of dollars of medical expenses, although critics object that the USA populace might differ from its counterpart in Africa.


Similarly, although the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a neutral stance to milah since 1999, maintaining that “the scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits,” but that it is not strong enough to say that circumcision should be routine, on Monday they released a report endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists saying otherwise. Based on systematic evaluation of English-language peer-reviewed literature from 1995 through 2010, the report states, circumcision of newborns “is well tolerated when performed by trained professionals under sterile conditions with appropriate pain management.” Also, “complications are infrequent; most are minor, and severe complications are rare.”


“Although health benefits are not great enough to recommend routine circumcision for all male newborns,” the report writes, “the benefits of circumcision are sufficient to justify access to this procedure for families choosing it and to warrant third-party payment for circumcision of male newborns.”




Last week, Israel’s Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), an Israeli think tank, released a report claiming that Europe’s anti-milah sentiment may rest on three main foundations: anti-Semitism, human rights, and terror of the Muslim juggernaut that has declared war against Europe and the whole world.


The obvious culprit of anti-halachah legislation is anti-Semitism. Forty-five percent of the German populace supported the Cologne court’s ban against milah, suggesting that post Holocaust embarrassment may be wearing thin. The court ruling was only the latest in European anti-Jewish legislation. A ban against shechitah in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland is already in place. Due to environmental concerns, Switzerland has banned “eternal cemeteries.” People buried there are eventually exhumed to make room for more graves.


On the grounds of separation of Church and State, French and Swiss courts reject the requests of religious Jews to defer examinations from Shabbos to weekdays. French courts deny Jewish condominium residents non-electric access to their buildings on Shabbos on the grounds of security. Due to equality claims, governments are reconsidering the traditional generous funding of Jewish cultural institutions. For the same reason, Jewish day schools that do not accept all students regardless of race or creed find themselves under pressure.


This is the backdrop of increasing anti-Semitic discourse and violence. Incidents like the Toulouse massacre in of March are frightening Jews into leaving France.


The JPPI think tank suggests that human rights are a second instigator of conflict between Europeans and halachah. Much of the Western world has adopted the secular religion of Human Rights, creating new tension between their culture and the older concept of religious rights. Milah is trapped between two basic rights outlined in Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Article 10 of the charter states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this includes freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” But charter 3 insists that “Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity.” European judges and legislators will not necessary ask for rabbinical input when deciding which of the two values is weightier.


English Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks suggests that anti-Semitism and human rights are first cousins. Human rights, he claims, is the world’s latest excuse for anti-Semitism.


“I have argued for some years that an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age,” he said at a 2007 convention. “Throughout the Middle Ages, the highest authority in Europe was the Church. Hence, anti-Semitism took the form of Christian anti-Judaism. In the post-Enlightenment Europe of the 19th century, the highest authority was no longer the Church. Instead it was science. Thus was born racial anti-Semitism, based on two disciplines regarded as science in their day: the ‘scientific study of race’ and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel.”


“Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer occupies its pristine place as the highest moral authority,” he explained. “Instead, that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews, or Judaism, or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights.”


Sacks claims that Israel is routinely accused of committing the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity, because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated in the modern world.


A third motive behind European anti-religious laws, the JPPI suggests, is fear of a Muslim juggernaut which threatens to overwhelm Western civilization. Massive immigration of Muslims and growing Islam fundamentalism has led to a European backlash against Islam, and foreign cultures in general.


In older times, governments encouraged multi- culturalism and dreamt of peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups. The Muslim terror attacks against the Twin Towers in 2001 and against London trains and busses in 2005 sparked a new paradigm. Now, many more Westerners resent practices and beliefs of minorities that oppose the core values of their world, such as Islam’s death threats, its forced marriages and honor killings, and its goal of imposing sharia (Moslem law) on their own communities and, eventually, the whole world. Sharia law includes much that is noxious to Western mind, such as violent punishments and imposing the death penalty for acts that the West regard innocuous.


The new trend garnered the support of 57.5% of Swiss for the banning of mosque minarets in their country. Public opinion polls show that in some major European Union nations, such a ban would receive even greater support. Other anti-Islam laws include the French senate’s 2011 banning of the burqa (a female garment that covers the whole body except the eyes and hands) due to its contravening of human dignity and equality between men and women.


The fear of Islamic culture has spawned growing popularity for extreme rightist (read fascist) parties. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is expected to get about 21% of the vote in next year’s elections. Last week they put out an anti-Semitic cartoon, depicting a Jewish banker and a government representative gorging on food while a starved citizen gazes hungrily at the feast.


Sharing milah and shechitah issues with Germany’s four million Muslims may give its 120,000 Jews greater political power, but there may be a disadvantage in sharing values with a group whose agenda differs so drastically from ours.




Unfortunately, anti-circumcision sentiment is not limited to Europe. Circumcision is becoming less popular among the American populace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that its prevalence in hospitals dropped steeply from about 80% in the 70s and 80s to below 55% by 2010, partly because many states no longer cover the procedure with Medicaid.


Two years ago, San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield spearheaded one of the worst assaults on Jewish life ever in the United States with his movement to bring milah to the ballot box. He collected 12,000 signatures in support of his notion, far more than the required 7,168 signatures. His goal was to vote in a law making milah of someone below 18 a misdemeanor, with the maximum penalty of one-year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine. In May last year, a San Diego group aimed to do the same in Santa Monica. Schofield’s opponents complained that fighting the practice of milah violated the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religious practice.


San Francisco Superior Court judge Loretta Giorgi cancelled Schofield’s ballot, arguing that California law considers the regulation of medical procedures as a state and not a city matter.


May Hashem continue to save us from those who threaten to uproot observance of His holy Torah.


(Sources include: Dov Maimon & Nadia Ellis, “The Circumcision Crisis: Challenges for European and World Jewry,” The Jewish People Policy Institute, JPPI)



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