Israel, don’t capsize the Jewish people’s boat

Israel, don’t capsize the Jewish people’s boat

The thorny debate about circumcision requires graceful measures – not the bumbling intervention of government officials

Two bulls in a china shop? Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (right) and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Two bulls in a china shop? Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger (right) and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Last month’s visit to Germany of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, followed by a letter addressed to Chancellor Merkel by Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, has sparked a hot debate concerning the utility of such a move on the part of two Israeli representatives not directly involved in the circumcision controversy.

The chain of events leading to what the heads of the Central Council of Jews in Germany described as an “unhelpful” involvement started on June 26, when a Cologne court declared the rite of circumcision illegal on the grounds that the right of the child to be protected from bodily harm outweighed the religious rights of his parents. The polemics grew around not only the benefits the medical practice, certified by many scientific studies (the latest one released in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics) and mostly dismissed as insufficient by the opponents to the procedure, but also around the role of the state and of parents in making choices for a non-consenting minor – including the choice of religious affiliation. Such debate intensified at the end of August when criminal charges were filed against a German Rabbi for having performed such a rite, and we still don’t know what direction this very delicate controversy will take.

While there are manifold cultural, historical and ethical roots that have allowed present Europe to become a fertile ground for what may have seemed only a few years ago quite an unbelievable scenario (a Rabbi having to face criminal charges! In Germany! For having performed circumcision!), the future developments are not easily predictable. In August’s JPPI policy paper on the circumcision crisis, which we authored, we pointed out that European Jews and the Jewish people as a whole are facing numerous difficult dilemmas, one of which concerns the necessary cooperation (or lack thereof) of the entire world Jewry.

The Talmud teaches that “כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה,” which means that “all of Israel is responsible for one another;” this may well be seen as one of the pillars of the Jewish concept of peoplehood. Children at Jewish schools are taught that the Yom Kippur prayer of “Vidui,” in which we confess our sins before God, is written using the first person plural precisely for this reason: No Jew stands alone in pain or in joy – we are all part of the same people, and we are all in charge of one another’s destiny. In other words, we are all in the same boat.

The European Jewish boat was almost sunk 70 years ago; unexpectedly, it resurfaced and enjoyed quite a good wind for some decades. As of today, though, many believe this boat may need to be converted into a modern-day Noah’s Ark to bring European Jews to other, more tolerant shores.

Because Jews feel they are all in the same boat, at times some of them try and take command even when the situation does not necessarily require it, while others — out of a sincere desire to help sailing — end up being a nuisance to those who are in charge. The intentions are often good; the results, not necessarily.

Rabbi Metzger’s visit to Germany may have been organized with the purest intentions, and Minister Yishai’s letter may have been written out of the most sincere concern for the religious freedom of the Jewish people; nevertheless, it seems like both decided to raise anchor and hoist the sails without even inquiring whether all that was at all necessary. Why would the interior minister of a foreign country speak up for Germany’s local population? And why would the chief rabbi of another country go to speak in the name of Germany’s Jews?

All of Israel is responsible for one another – true. But this is a delicate responsibility, and one that requires delicate actions, too.

In exchange for their vows of loyalty, European Jewry finally obtained the status of “citizens” only a couple hundred years ago, and they had to pass through the worst forms of discrimination to get there. It should be unnecessary to note that even after that, the Jewish “citizens” were to experience the most savage horrors of history. The fragile balance in which European Jewry finds itself today involves a very high sense of national identity, a deep connection to Judaism as a religion and as a civilization, and a strong (yet not overtly displayed) commitment to Israel as a “second home.”

A complicated situation like the present debate about circumcision may require a graceful intervention on the part of Israel – not two bulls in a china shop. On top of this, Israeli religious authorities must understand what it means to have a Jewish identity in Europe: The Jewish religion is but one (and often small) dimension of it. Many European Jews do not perceive circumcision as the religious act by which the child enters the covenant with God; it is much rather the traditional act by which the baby enters the Jewish community and the Jewish people as a whole. This means that one may question whether a religious authority such as a rabbi, and particularly a foreign rabbi, is the best person to speak up in their names.

As the Jewish boat has never been sunk, even in times of much worse weather, we may be sure it will not be sunk anytime soon either.

While Jewish sailors will probably never be able to sit back and relax, as others do in their cruises through life, Jews now have and hopefully always will have the possibility to shape their own crossing. The weather is unpredictable, the boat is unstable, and the passengers often rock it while looking out for (the promised?) land; at least, let’s make sure we don’t crash into an iceberg when it’s clearly in front of us.


Nadia Ellis is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and works on issues related to the Delegitimization of Israel, Europe and the status of Jewish women.

Dr. Dov Maimon is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and in charge of the European and inter-religious affairs.

Ellis and Maimon are the authors of the Jewish People Policy Institute’s report on circumcision mentioned in the text; the views expressed in this article are their own and they do not represent JPPI’s official stand.

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