There’s no indication of specific hostility to Judaism here. Nevertheless, the ruling is the logical consequence of a concept of religion implied by Protestantism and articulated philosophically by Benedict Spinoza and John Locke. According to that view, religion is rooted in private belief. Associations and rituals are legitimate only to the extent that they are submitted to voluntarily by consenting adults, who can withdraw their consent at any time. And religious obligations can never trump the civil law.
There are good reasons that this position was appealing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Trouble is, we’ve forgotten not only that it doesn’t fit many older traditions, including Judaism and Roman Catholicism, but that it was specifically designed to exclude them. The understanding of religion’s legitimate sphere that informed the Cologne court’s ruling, in other words, is not theologico-politically neutral. It was, and remains, a polemical concept that elevates state over church, individual over community, consent over continuity in ways that traditional Catholics and Jews find hard to accept.
Oh, please. It was more appealing in the 17th and 18th centuries than now? And what's this about "traditional" Catholicism? Vatican II – the authoritative position – accepted the principle of individual conscience as the core of religious freedom. And do we really want to live in a world before Locke and Spinoza? Really? In a follow-up post, Mead makes related points:
Besides the circumcision controversy, and there are activists in the US who would also like to see the banning of child (male) circumcision, there is a movement in many countries to ban the methods of killing animals required to comply with Jewish and Islamic law.
Way to change the subject. Chuck Lane calls the law a "blatant affront to the Muslim and Jewish peoples," even though nothing of the kind was intended or stated in the ruling. In classic faux above-it-all tone, Chuck also accuses me of "ignorance" and "indecency" and a pattern of both that is so endemic that rebutting it would be "a full time job". Any substantiation for this? Of course not. On this specific case, I did not get the law wrong; I did not infer anything incorrect from it; I did not mischaracterize its import. There are no errors of fact or logic in my post, and Lane should withdraw his unsubstantiated slur. Yes, I oppose the policies of the Netanyahu administration, and if he wants to engage my arguments on that, rather than throwing mere slurs, he's welcome. He has one decent point:
The Cologne court’s sloppy legal balancing act — kid’s physical integrity vs. parents’ religious interests — completely ignores the nature of religious tradition, which is that it is transmitted from parents to children. To posit a world in which the parents have their religion, and kids choose theirs, when they’re old enough, is to imply that even sending one’s child to a religious school — or making him prepare for a bar mitzvah — might be a form of brainwashing. Certainly it pushes progressive notions of human rights past the point at which they would undermine the spiritual basis of ancient communities
All of that is possible and fine. No one is saying that parents should not be allowed to instill their own religion into their children. What many are saying is that permanently mutilating an infant's body without his consent is a step too far. Lane, moreover, defends it as a function of his own religious freedom:
In any case, what this remarkable judge does not grasp — or does not care about — is the fact that a father cannot be a Jew in good standing unless he circumcises his son at eight days.
My italics. The infant is secondary here, an instrument of the father's religious identity. And where would this end? Lane opposes Female Genital Mutilation – but if it were a religious mandate, as many interpret it to be, on what grounds could he do so? This, apparently:
Injury to this bit of erogenous tissue would not be mutilation of the “genitals,” strictly speaking, since it plays no direct role in male reproduction. In short, there is no comparison between the benign impact of male circumcision and the damage wrought by what is quite properly called female genital mutilation.
But Lane reveals his own spectacular ignorance here. FGM does not aim to end female reproduction; it aims to remove female pleasure and arousal. It is usually far more damaging than male genital mutilation – because it removes any pleasure at all, while MGM only adds scar tissue to the wounded penis thereby blunting the pleasure of orgasm. I simply do not believe it is right to unilaterally reduce another human being's capacity for sexual pleasure without his consent. Call me crazy, but bodily integrity strikes me as a pretty basic freedom. Habeas corpus. Your body is your fortress in a free society – but not, apparently, if you're a few days old.
What's at issue here is pretty simple. It's about physical assault with permanent injury to a person without his consent. Now, as I've said many times, my own expansive view of religious freedom would allow legal circumcision for religious reasons. I do not agree with the Cologne court's ruling. But that does not make physical assaults on infant children any less barbaric and cruel and wrong. Jacob Williamson, by contrast, goes further than I do and rejects the notion of religious exceptions for laws altogether:
[W]hen I find reasons for laws and then hear religious people protest that it contradicts their conscience, I hear no alarm bells ring. The fact we have good reasons for the law make their ‘argument’ from religious liberty a non-sequitur. Why should the mere fact a religion demands something necessitate that as a society we must accommodate it? And if the Torah’s calling for it suffices to allow the otherwise unmotivated clipping of a child’s dick, what’s the limit here? Would defenders of religious freedom wish to allow the amputation of a child’s legs so long as a Holy Book demanded it?
Jason Kuznicki, on the other hand, opposes both circumcision and laws against circumcision:
I’m against circumcision on libertarian grounds, but I think it’s an issue better handled by the culture than the courts. There is a lot of hyperbole all around, and a strong (but to me inexplicable) tendency to dismiss the whole question as a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s a serious and difficult issue. Despite being anti-circumcision in principle, I don’t think that outlawing it is a good way to end it.
I'm with Jason on this. I'm happy that cases like the one in Cologne help foster debate about this barbaric practice and persuade more parents to leave their children's genitals alone as God made them.
(Photo: A depiction of Isaac's circumcision in the Regensburg Pentateuch, made in Germany around 1300. By Flickr user Rachel-Esther.)