Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jewish opposition to bans on circumcision, then and now

I'm glad to see this: European rabbis urge Germany's Jews to defy court ruling on circumcision.
Europe's main Orthodox rabbinical body is urging Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons, despite a court ruling in Germany that said circumcising young boys could be considered a criminal act.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization is ready to back Jews in challenging the May ruling by a Cologne district court, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals. The group held an emergency meeting this week in Berlin.

Goldschmidt said some lawmakers intending to curb Muslim practices unwittingly outlaw Jewish traditions as well.

"But I don't think that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment," Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA.
There's a long history of Jewish opposition to state prohibitions of circumcision, dating back to the second century BCE. The books of the Maccabees record that one of the mitzvot forbidden by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek ruler of Syria-Palestine at the time, was circumcision. Even before that, there were Jews who decided to undo their circumcision in order to assimilate into Greek culture. 1 Maccabees denounces this, as does the book of Jubilees.

1 Maccabees 1:11-15 (based on KJV):
(11) In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow." (12) So this device pleased them well. (13) Then certain of the people were so forward herein, that they went to the king, who gave them licence to do after the ordinances of the heathen: (14) Whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen: (15) And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief.
Here is Antiochus's decree (1 Macc 1:41-49):
(41) Moreover king Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, (42) And every one should leave his laws: so all the heathen agreed according to the commandment of the king. (43) Many also of the Israelites consented to his religion, and sacrificed to idols, and profaned the sabbath. (44) For the king had sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah that they should follow the strange laws of the land, (45) And forbid burnt offerings, and sacrifice, and drink offerings, in the temple; and that they should profane the sabbaths and festival days: (46) And pollute the sanctuary and holy people: (47) Set up altars, and groves, and chapels of idols, and sacrifice swine's flesh, and unclean beasts: (48) That they should also leave their children uncircumcised, and make their souls abominable with all manner of uncleanness and profanation: (49) To the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances.
So according to 1 Maccabees, Antiochus' clear intention was to root out any Jewish practice - observance of the Sabbath, sacrifices in the temple, prohibition of circumcision. He imposed Greek worship in place of the Temple worship. Anyone who transgressed Antiochus's decree was to be killed (1 Macc 1:50).

What were the consequences of this order?
(54) Now the fifteenth day of the month Kislev, in the hundred forty fifth year (of the rule of the Seleucid kings), they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and built idol altars throughout the cities of Judah on every side; (55) And burnt incense at the doors of their houses, and in the streets. (56) And when they had rent in pieces the books of the law which they found, they burnt them with fire. (57) And whoever was found with any the book of the testament, or if any committed to the law, the king's commandment was, that they should put him to death. (58) Thus did they by their authority to the Israelites every month, to as many as were found in the cities. (59) Now the twenty-fifth day of the month they did sacrifice upon the idol altar, which was upon the altar of God. 60 At which time according to the commandment they put to death certain women, that had caused their children to be circumcised. (61) And they hanged the infants about their necks, and rifled their houses, and slew them that had circumcised them.
2200 years ago Jewish women were prepared to die (not merely face imprisonment or a fine) in order to circumcise their baby boys. 2 Maccabees goes on to personalize the detail about women who were killed for circumcising their sons.

2 Macc 6:10 (Revised Standard Version):
For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. These women they publicly paraded about the city, with their babies hung at their breasts, then hurled them down headlong from the wall.
It's interesting that in both books, mothers had their boys circumcised - not fathers. In rabbinic law, the commandment of circumcision is incumbent upon the father of a newborn boy, but apparently at the time of composition of these two books of the Maccabees, mothers performed the commandment, or had others do it for them.

The European rabbis calling for defiance of the German court ruling are thus in good historical company.

No comments:

Post a Comment