Cologne’s circumcision ban could hit you too

A German court’s ban on brit milah is not rooted in anti-Semitism — and it could spread, says Jaron Engelmayer, the spiritual leader of the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Cologne (photo credit: Shutterstock)
Cologne (photo credit: Shutterstock)

Full disclosure: The writer of this article was born in Cologne. Eight days later, he was circumcised in Cologne.

At the time, about 30 years ago, the Jews in this city did such things without thinking twice. Nobody asked if I approved, nobody wanted to sue my parents for causing me bodily harm. But now, after the city’s district court criminalized ritual circumcisions, German Jews are worried. Will they be able to continue practicing this ancient tradition or is the future of Jewish life in this country — once again — in jeopardy?

The decision of the district court, housed in an imposing building that I used to walk by every Saturday on my way to synagogue, sparked a public debate about what takes precedence: the parents’ freedom of religion or the child’s right to bodily integrity. Motivated by widespread indignation, the German government pledged to intervene, with Chancellor Angela Merkel supporting a bill to ensure the ritual’s legality. “I don’t want Germany to be only country in the world where Jews can’t practice their rites,” she was quoted as saying.

At a special session of the Bundestag last Thursday, German lawmakers from all parties but one passed a joint resolution calling on the government to ensure legal certainty for ritual circumcisers, or mohels. “A medically professional circumcision of boys, which does not cause unnecessary pain” should be “generally permissible,” the resolution read.

Even the German Medical Association spoke out against the Cologne judgment, citing concerns that the ritual would now be secretly performed by laypeople and thus endanger children. “We hope that eventually the required cultural sensitivity will be taken into consideration,” the group’s president said.

However, a narrow majority of the German public seems to favor a permanent prohibition of the rite. According to a nationwide poll, 45 percent of respondents support a ban, compared to 42 percent who oppose.

The interior of the Roonstrasse synagogue (photo credit: courtesy
The interior of the Roonstrasse synagogue (photo credit: courtesy

What’s happening in the meantime? Have mohels in Germany laid their knives to rest, denying baby boys their entry tickets to the Jewish people?

“At the moment — in our view — the verdict formally does not severely affect the ability to perform circumcision since the decision of the court is formally not binding for other cases,” said Stephan Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

“At the moment it cannot be assessed whether other courts will follow the judgment of the District Court of Cologne. There are different opinions in juridical references, e.g. those that find that the parents’ consent is sufficient to perform circumcision,” Kramer wrote last week in response to a query by the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. “However, if similar cases are being tried at courts there is a risk that those courts would refer to the recent verdict and follow its argumentation.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Cologne laments the court’s verdict but vows to continue doing what it has been doing in the city for more than 1,700 years. “I had one concrete case where a boy could not undergo a ritual circumcision, despite medical necessity,” community rabbi Jaron Engelmayer told The Times of Israel last week. “This doctor has been working with us for years and never caused any problems, but now he says the situation is simply too precarious for him.”

The city of Cologne. Jews have been living here as long as Christians
The city of Cologne, where Jews have been living as long as Christians (Cologne image via Shutterstock)

Germany’s fourth-largest city, Cologne has a rich Jewish history — Jews have been living there as long as Christians. A writing from 321 CE, in which Emperor Constantine invites the Jews of Cologne to join the city council, proves that the metropolis on the Rhine River is home to the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps.

Decimated by the Holocaust, then slowly rebuilt and boosted by the arrival of thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants, the community today counts about 5,000 members. It maintains a Jewish kindergarten, an elementary school and a state-of-the art old age home as well as other institutions important to Jewish life, and there are daily prayer services. In 2005, Cologne’s Jewish community made headlines when Pope Benedict XVI — who had been drafted to the Wehrmacht during World War II — visited the Roonstrasse synagogue, marking only the second time a Pontifex Maximus entered a Jewish house of worship.

Since 2008, the Jewish community of Cologne has been led by Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, the 36-year-old studied at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, in Ma’aleh Adumim, before settling in Germany. He is the co-chairman of the national umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis in Germany.

Rabbi Engelmayer, how did the July 4 court decision impact Jewish life in Cologne?

Enormously. Even if people are trying to trivialize the matter, with some claiming that it was a merely the individual opinion of a single court. But de facto it looks as if doctors across the country are afraid [to perform circumcisions]. The German Medical Association recommends not to perform circumcisions for religious reasons. I heard some mohels are no longer willing to travel to Cologne from Antwerp [in Belgium, a city near Cologne with a large Orthodox community] to perform circumcisions in Germany. Instead, they are inviting people to come to Antwerp, which not only causes delays but will also prevent circumcisions from taking place in the long run.

Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer in the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne (photo credit: courtest
Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer in the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne (photo credit: courtesy

Do you know of any specific instances in which Jewish parents had to cancel a planned circumcision?

Yes, I had one concrete case where a boy could not undergo a ritual circumcision, despite medical necessity. It was only done on a medical level, because the doctor was not willing to let a mohel do it. This doctor has been working with us for years and never caused any problems, but now he says the situation is simply too precarious for him. It could not be done the way that Jewish law requires.

The mohels are inquiring, and we tell them: without circumcision, there is no Judaism. Therefore it is hard to imagine how the courts could criminalize a correctly performed Jewish circumcision ceremony. It would be too harsh of a sign, especially from Germany. I think that Germany will refrain [from permanently outlawing circumcisions], also in light of the chorus of outrage, the criticism and the damage it could do to Germany’s image in the world.

So concretely speaking, what do you tell those mohels who wonder if they can still perform the rite in Cologne?

A mohel asked me about our position, and I just responded that without circumcision we won’t be able to continue living Jewish lives here…. It seems that some mohels are still ready to perform circumcisions in Germany. I am not aware of any specific case of a circumcision that took place in recent weeks, but some are planned for the future and it looks like they will be performed as usual.

How many circumcisions were usually performed in Cologne?

There are no officials statistics. I often hear about families who organize it privately or through other bodies, and some do it in the community center with us. It depends: There are years where one or two circumcisions take place in the synagogue, and sometime we have five to 10. We assume that the majority of boys being born here in Cologne are being circumcised.

How involved is the Jewish community of Cologne in the struggle to legalize circumcisions?

The community of Cologne is very involved on a local level, including creating pressure through the media, to raise awareness of the implications this horrific judgment has for Judaism in Germany. It’s a national problem. Cologne is just the beginning, and that’s why we’re also dealing with it on a national level.

The government in Berlin is now making efforts to enshrine the right of religious groups to perform circumcisions.

That’s a very positive development. The major parties have made it clear that they back a law that would safeguard circumcisions. I am confident that the politicians correctly interpret the religious and sociopolitical aspects of this matter. They recognized that a ban on circumcisions is totally discriminatory toward large groups of religious minorities.

‘In a secularized and rationalist-thinking world, religion doesn’t have the same importance. That’s what driving the courts, not some sort of targeted anti-Semitism’

There are two concerns: How quickly can this happen? We need immediate solutions. Since the problem affects the entire country, we are faced with problems on a daily basis. It’s a coincidence that at this very moment no Jewish boy is being born in Cologne. But somewhere in Germany Jewish boys are being born, and their parents and communities are faced with this issue. The timing is a real problem: When will this law take effect? How quickly can this proceed? It’s difficult to estimate but as long as that hasn’t happened we find ourselves in legal limbo.

The second problem is that the issue could go from the political sphere to the Supreme Court. The legal aspect of this is difficult to assess. One can only hope the judges have a little tactfulness and understand the need for freedom of religion. But how they will judge the issue legally is still unclear — as we’ve seen with the decision of the Cologne district court. There it was ruled, in a very arbitrary manner, that the child’s right of physical integrity takes precedence [over the parents’ freedom of religion].

The fact that this controversy erupted in Germany, of all places, seems to bother many Jews. Many argue that the nation that perpetrated the Holocaust should be the last to ban a central Jewish rite. Some even suspect anti-Semitism. Do you agree?

I’d like to be careful with such speculations. I don’t want to insinuate that the court is anti-Semitic. Let’s keep in mind that it was a Muslim case. [The court’s decision was triggered by medical complications that arose after the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy.] Therefore [it’s misleading] to see anti-Semitism as the court’s main motive. If anything at all, then perhaps Islamophobia.

But that’s all speculation. I rather think that the district court was influenced by various medical and legal assessments. There are several scholarly articles about this subject and the court allowed itself to be influenced by them.

The meaning of religion is being devaluated in general. Even the church stands behind circumcisions and expressed harsh criticism, although the issue doesn’t touch it personally — because it’s about the big topic of freedom of religion. That’s the key point: In a secularized and rationalist-thinking world, religion doesn’t hold the same importance it used to do. That’s what’s driving the courts, not some sort of targeted anti-Semitism. From this viewpoint I would add that it’s not a German problem but one of the secular world at large. It could definitely also come to Israel.

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