I thought of her as I was watching our leaders criticize the German court's decision to ban the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. Cabinet ministers attacked the ruling, and the Knesset's Committee for Absorption and Diaspora Affairs called an urgent meeting. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin even met with the president of the Bundestag and asked on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel to counter the court's ruling with the legalization of the ritual.
Rivlin's request was justified. Circumcision is not only an important Jewish mitzvah, it is also a symbol, a value, a historic memory. In the year 167 B.C. Antiochus IV issued decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice, including circumcision. Mohels and circumcised babies were executed as part of the effort to enforce the ban. These decrees sparked the Hasmonean rebellion.
Rivlin is an educated humanist. He could have used a host of arguments to support his claim that the German parliament should pass a law to protect the rights of those who choose to circumcise their children. But instead he chose to get to the heart of the matter. "This is an intervention in freedom of religion and worship,” the Knesset speaker told his German counterpart. From a democratic and constitutional standpoint, he added, it is problematic to say that someone cannot act according to his religion.
And he's right. Eighty-two million people live in Germany, including four million Muslims and 150,000 Jews. The majority of Jews and Muslims in Germany practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith. Enforcing the circumcision ban would constitute a violation of their religious freedom.
The public statements that followed the meeting between Rivlin and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert were reassuring. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement was even clearer. During a meeting with members of her party she declared that Germany must reverse the court's decision. "I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rites," she told the board of her conservative Christian Democratic Union.
Merkel will keep her promise, but is entirely possible that during her next meeting with Rivlin or Netanyahu she won't hesitate to ask them a few difficult questions. "Wait a minute, Bibi," she may say, "Does Israel practice what it preaches? Do you protect freedom of religion?"
Because maybe someone will whisper in her ear that Jews do not have religious freedom in Israel; that hundreds of thousands of Israelis who do not wish to marry through the Orthodox rabbinical courts are forced to wed in Cyprus, because the State of Israel will recognize a marriage if the wedding was performed by a city official in Larnaca, but not if it was performed by a Conservative or Reform rabbi in Israel. And maybe someone will also tell Merkel how Israel treats immigrants.
Reuven, the next time you meet with Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders from the US, who will complain about violations of freedom of religion in Israel, remember your discussion with the president of the Bundestag. Some 500,000 Conservative and Reform Jews live in Israel. True, they are a minority, but they vastly outnumber the German Jews whose religious rights you rightfully defended.
Yizhar Hess is the executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel