High Court rules against coerced circumcision

High Court rules against coerced circumcision

Panel overturns rabbinical court decision, says it lacks the jurisdiction to force a woman to have son undergo procedure

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

A ritual circumcision ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90/File)
A ritual circumcision ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90/File)

The High Court overturned on Sunday a rabbinical court ruling that would have coerced a woman to circumcise her son, claiming the religious body lacked the jurisdiction to force the procedure.

The decision by a special panel of seven justices, with six voting in favor, said that only the civil family courts can legally impose the measure.

In the case in question, a woman in the midst of divorce proceedings opposed the circumcision of her son on the grounds that it was a form of mutilation. Her husband turned to the rabbinical court in Jerusalem in November, which upheld a ruling of the Netanya rabbinical court ordering the mother to allow the procedure, as per her ex-husband’s wishes. The court also levied a NIS 500 (or $142) daily fine until the circumcision was performed. In December, the woman, Elinor, turned to the High Court to appeal the rabbinic verdict.

Following Sunday’s decision, the father was said to take the court recommendation and is expected to turn to family courts to appeal the decision.

“A decision with regard to circumcision is a complex and sensitive one,” High Court justice Miriam Naor wrote in the decision. “It involves, apart from the irreversible physical act on the body of a child who is not a party in the divorce, questions related to basic rights of freedom of religion and freedom from religion as well as social and cultural considerations.”

As part of the deliberations, the High Court panel was tasked with distinguishing the decision from the larger divorce proceedings to establish that the rabbinical court lacked the authority. Under the Israeli status quo agreement, the rabbinical courts oversee “personal status” issues, including marriage, divorce, and death. In this case, the religious courts had adopted the father’s testimony, under which the woman was said to be withholding the circumcision as leverage in the divorce. The mother dismissed the allegation, saying she had become morally opposed to the surgery after reading about it.

However, the judges said Sunday that since the issue could arise among married couples, as well as divorced couples or unmarried couples with children, the problem was not a distinctly divorce-related issue, and therefore the rabbinical courts’ authority did not extend to this area.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said the High Court order “symbolized the continuation of a disturbing trend to minimize the powers of the rabbinical courts.” He called on the High Court to reevaluate the verdict.

In February, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein argued that the religious court had overstepped its jurisdiction and voiced his support for the woman’s appeal, saying he was skeptical as to whether the decision took into account the child’s welfare.

The child, now over a year old, was not circumcised at eight days old — as required by Jewish law — for medical reasons.

Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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