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Circumcision and 'brainwashing' -- the connection

July 13, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Rabbis Avichai Apel and Pinchas Goldschmidt called on the German government to overturn a court ruling banning religious circumcision.
Rabbis Avichai Apel and Pinchas Goldschmidt called on the German government… (Stephanie Pilick / EPA )

Two of my favorite writers, Andrew Sullivan and the Washington Post’s Charles Lane, have been blogging recently about a German court ruling that circumcision shouldn’t be performed on boys too young to give consent.

Basically, Sullivan (who was born in England, where circumcision isn’t as common as it is here) describes  the medical-cum-cultic procedure as “infant male genital mutilation” and scoffs at the idea that a ban would violate the religious liberty of Jews and Muslims. (The court in Cologne ruled in a case involving the botched circumcision of a 4-year-old Muslim boy.)  A Jew or Muslim, Sullivan says, "can get his genitals mutilated later as a sign of his religious commitment -- when he is old enough to be able to make such a choice of his own free will."

For Lane, the decision was an affront to the rights of Jews to honor a millenniums-old divine command.  “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,” Lane wrote.

This week a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel engaged in some damage control, promising that religious circumcision “carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.” So that ends the Sullivan-Lane debate -- except that Lane made another point that transcends the circumcision issue:

“The Cologne court’s sloppy legal balancing act -- kids' 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.”

If so, it’s constitutionally protected brainwashing. In a landmark 1925 case affirming parents’ right to send their children to a private or religious school,  U.S. Supreme Court said: “The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” Even an obligation (assuming the parents agree, unlike Tom and Katie) to Scientology.

Of course, it’s easier to renounce a childhood faith than to reclaim a foreskin. Even so, parents are given the opportunity even in this individualist culture to do their best to shape the minds and, yes, the bodies of their children. The alternative -- making the kids “creatures of the state” -- is an ugly one, as Germans found out.

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