Hoover Daily Report

The German Judge vs. Genesis 17:10

via Wall Street Journal Europe
Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Cologne court has decreed that a child's circumcision is "bodily harm" and thus verboten. Unless the German Bundestag intervenes, which it has pledged to do, about four million Muslims and 100,000-plus Jews will have to practice a central part of their religion in the catacombs of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, where the largest communities live. Like the early Christians of Rome, they will scurry into the dank darkness.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has put it more succinctly: We are running the risk, she said, of "turning into a nation of comedians." Comedy in Germany is not as well-developed as automotive engineering; so in the abstract, a net cultural gain beckons. But the Jewish Hospital in Hamburg has already put away scalpels and clamps. So has the Children's Hospital in Zurich. Jewish mohels, the ritual circumcisers, are looking at the dole. Or they will start "Mohels Without Borders." Jewish and Muslim community leaders are mumbling about emigration.

It is all God's fault. "This is my covenant," He ordered in Genesis 17:10, "which ye shall keep, and thy seed after thee. Every man child among you shall be circumcised." The original criminal was Abraham, who laid hand on himself —without sterile equipment, let alone novocaine. Then he inflicted the same on his son Isaac on the eighth day after his birth, circa 4,000 years ago. This is why good Christians celebrate Jesus' circumcision on New Years' Day.

We are talking about a few of millimeters of foreskin, not about female mutilation (clitoris out, labia excised or sewn together). But if you believe the Cologne judge and the chorus of yeah-sayers, this is a "barbaric ritual," as the children's ombudswoman of the Social Democrats put it. Matthias Franz, a psychiatrist at the University of Düsseldorf, bemoans "grave genital injuries with psychological and sexual damages down the line."

Tell that to about six million Jewish men, half a billion Muslim males and about three-quarters of America's manhood. Sigmund Freud, of course, saw circumcision as a "symbolic substitute for castration," but if he was right, that's better than the real thing, which does have life-long consequences. If this "punishment" reflected the "awfulness" of paternal power, why did Philip Roth's Portnoy spend 300 pages complaining to Dr. Spielvogel about his suffering as a "mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor?" Myriad Jewish jokes, a far more reliable repository of subconscious aggression than Freud's "Moses and Monotheism," ignore poor old Dad and focus on almighty Mom.

The Cologne judge ruled that the "physical integrity" of a baby boy beats religious ritual. Plus: The baby's unuttered will trumps his parents' say-so. Hence the state must step in, never mind parental rights or a pillar of faith. If this author's parents weren't dead, he would love to sue them for his unwanted tonsillectomy when he was 5, for we now know that these tissues, a lot more voluminous than a tiny foreskin, are the body's first defense against pathogens. He would also sue them for various involuntary vaccinations and their painful after-effects.

How about soccer moms who send their boys into the mayhem on the pitch? Or all those ambitious parents, medals dancing before their eyes, who risk the limbs and lives of their offspring on the ski-run, balance beam or show-jumping horse? Meanwhile, lopping off a few millimeters of praeputium has significant medical benefits. Just take AIDS. Reporting on the National Institutes of Health clinical trials in Africa, the New York Times wrote in 2007: "Circumcision may provide even more protection against AIDS than was [originally] realized." Infections were reduced by 65%.

Yet this debate is not about facts or faith, as hundreds of letters to the editor testify. One "expert" argues to me that the American practice has nothing to do with health. The intent was "anti-libidinous," aimed at stopping boys from "masturbating." Another put circumcision into the same category as Nazi sterilization, castration of gay Catholic boys by the Church and forced abortion in China. This is not funny, but serious hatred of things American, Jewish and Muslim.

Leave aside fear and loathing, a large chunk, and you are left with the biggest headache of them all: state vs. church in a Europe that is de-Christinanizing (this side of Ireland and Poland), as measured by declining church attendance, membership and belief in God. The closer the historical tie between throne and altar, as in Germany and Protestant Europe, the more control the state has arrogated unto itself. In Germany, which invented "cuius regio, eius religio" (the ruler's faith determines his subjects' faith), the government collects the tithe, mandates religious instruction in public schools, and decides which churches are "established" (Protestants, Catholics and Jews, but not Mormons or Baptists).

Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation," justified by "religion [being] a matter which lies solely between man and his God," has always been a low fence in Europe. As secularization grew, so did the scope of the state as scourge of superstition and unreason. Hence, the Cologne judge is hardly alone; 45% of German people think he is right. The state trumps both parents and a few thousand years of sanctified practice.

The irony of it all is that the state, as represented by the legislature, will have to reverse the judge. The temporal power as savior of the faith is not exactly a liberal's dream, but neither is the "wall of separation" that now divides Jews and Muslims from the rest. While the parliament ponders, let the stand-up comics have the stage. A good start is the War of Jenkins' Ear, fought from 1739 to 1742 over three inches of epidermis and cartilage belonging to Captain Robert Jenkins. His merchant ship was boarded by the Spanish coast guard in the West Indies. In the scuffle, the skipper's auricle was sliced off. He took it to London as Exhibit A, where a furious Parliament called for retribution. Spain didn't back down and war ensued, sliding into the War of the Austrian Succession, which embroiled almost all of Europe.

Such a small piece of flesh, and such a big war. If the Cologne judge had known his history, he would have let discretion prevail over secularist rigor. "Live and let snip" might have been the wiser choice. Who wants to tangle with the Man in Heaven above?

Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit, senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies and fellow of the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University.