It is difficult to decide what is most shocking about the decisions made by Israeli Rabbinical courts last month. First there is the simple outrage that a mother could be fined for refusing to allow her son to be circumcised, with an additional 500 shekels (around £90) levied for every day she refuses to submit to the ruling. There is no secular law mandating circumcision in Israel, but the case arose as part of a divorce hearing, ruled upon by a religious tribunal, which also has the power to impose fines on plaintiffs.
The baby boy at the centre of the case did not have the traditional Jewish brit milah at eight days old, due to health concerns. By the time he was healthy, his mother had second thoughts. “I realized that I couldn’t do that to my son,” she was quoted as saying in Haaretz. “He’s perfect just as he is.” Although the dispute between the issue of the circumcision is said not to be a factor in the divorce, establishing which parent has the authority to make such a decision has proved to be a point of bitter contention.
The district Rabbinical court of Sharon disagreed, ruling that “The Jewish people have always seen the circumcision as an act of repairing and completing the Creation.” Last week the High Rabbinical Court refused to overturn the original ruling. The woman now plans to appeal to the national supreme court.
Perhaps even more disturbing, the rabbis making the original judgement were quite clear that there was a political angle to their ruling. They noted a growing global trend against acceptance of infant circumcision, and were quite explicit that they were not going to tolerate a similar debate in Israel, stating:
“What will the world say if here too the matter of circumcision will be subject to the consideration of every person according to his perceptions? It is unthinkable that the matter of performing or failing to perform the circumcision will be taken away from Jewish scholars and be subject to the consideration of a civil court, when each one has his own opinions and worldview – this will not happen in Israel, God forbid.”
I hope what the world will say is that it unthinkable that such decisions might be ruled upon anywhere but in a civil court. In a state that so often proclaims its democratic credentials in contrast to its corrupt, totalitarian and theocratic neighbours, it is grotesque that theological interpretations should trump secular law.
Contrary to widespread perceptions, there is not uniform agreement on circumcision even among Jewish people. Both in Israel and around the world there is a small but growing movement of Jews who consider the practice anachronistic and barbaric.and who call for reform of the tradition. Without getting into Jewish theology, it is clearly essential to democracy and free civil society that people can explore and discuss such beliefs and live their lives in accordance with their own conscience, especially if their conscience is turning them away from harming others.
While the details of this case may be unique to Israel, in every country and culture where circumcision is practised, there will be families riven apart by the precise same argument – to cut or not to cut. Such disputes are likely to become more common as awareness grows of the risks of adverse consequences and complications, as religious devotion slides and appreciation of individual human rights to bodily integrity grows, and as claims for health benefits from routine ritual circumcision are increasingly shown to be arguable, if not downright spurious. Circumcision is a topic that divides opinions and divides communities so it is hardly surprising that it sometimes divides families.
Where such disputes arise, there can be only one humane judgement. When a child grows old enough to decide he would prefer to be circumcised – for whatever reason – he can make that choice. Once a foreskin is removed, it is gone forever.
Those who advocate the rights of parents to circumcise infants generally fall back on an argument of free choice and lifestyle. It is morally questionable, to say the least, that parents should have the right to irreparably mutilate a baby who is too young to dissent. The idea that a religious court should make such a decision, against the wishes of at least one parent, must be considered reprehensible.