New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 21, 2012
HOF, GERMANY » This sleepy town not far from the Czech border, in a hilly corner of Catholic Bavaria, is an unlikely place to find an active synagogue, and an even unlikelier focal point for a controversy that some see as a threat to religious tolerance in Europe and even the place of Jews in Germany.
Rabbi David Goldberg, a jovial 64-year-old Israeli who serves a community of about 400 Jews in Hof, has become an international cause celebre after four German citizens filed criminal complaints against him with the local prosecutor. His alleged crime, which made headlines in Israel and elsewhere, was performing ritual circumcisions.
The dispute reflects the ever deeper secularization of European life that, in the eyes of some religious leaders, has mutated into a form of intolerance. This conflict between secular and religious values has most frequently involved Islam, with bans on minarets in Switzerland and veils that cover women's faces in France, not to speak of the recent anti-Islamic video that touched off violent anti-U.S. demonstrations. And sensitivities were further inflamed Wednesday with the publication in a French magazine of unflattering caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, several of them showing him naked.
But the debate over ritual circumcision shows that the tensions extend even further.
Goldberg does not seem especially worried. Anyone can file a complaint against anyone else in Germany, and he may never face formal charges. Goldberg has not hired a lawyer and declined an offer from one who was willing to handle the case for free.
The more serious threat, in the eyes of Goldberg and many Jews, Muslims as well as Christians in Europe, comes from what they see as an attack by secular society on religious ritual, on faith itself. A seemingly insignificant decision by a lower court in Cologne, against a doctor who circumcised a Muslim boy, has fed a rapidly spreading drive to criminalize a practice that is core to Jewish and Muslim belief.
In contrast to the United States, baby boys in Germany and other European countries are not routinely circumcised for health reasons. The World Health Organization recommends circumcision as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS, but many doctors in European countries regard the practice as harmful and even barbaric.
The line of demarcation between church and state is also different in Germany than in the United States. Chancellor Angela Merkel leads the Christian Democratic Party and is the daughter of a protestant pastor. But, in contrast to the displays of piety expected of U.S. politicians, she rarely mentions religion or is photographed attending church.
Nevertheless, Merkel is pushing for legislation to allow circumcision to continue, and she is winning praise from Jewish leaders. And Goldberg says some of the most fervent letters of support he has received have come from religious Christians.
"They know the Bible," he said, speaking in the renovated schoolhouse in a residential neighborhood in Hof that serves as synagogue, community center and residence for him and his family. "They are afraid for their religion as well."
For the more than 100,000 Jews who live in Germany, the tenor of the circumcision debate has come as a shock, undercutting confidence that they had found a secure place in society after the horrors of the Holocaust. Only a few months ago, that confidence had seemed justified when voters in Frankfurt chose their first Jewish mayor since 1933.
But now, some Jewish leaders say, the circumcision debate has exposed how ignorant many Germans are about Jewish beliefs.
"This discussion has shown that we are foreigners in our own country, doing something that Germans are not supposed to do," said Stephan J. Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "We are accused of torturing our own children."
Muslims express similar sentiments. "There are more than a few people who have something against Muslims and Jews and they are taking advantage of this," said Aiman A. Mazyek, chairman of the Central Committee of Muslims in Germany. "They can hide behind this discussion. They can say what they always wanted to say."
A German pediatricians' association, as well as a children's aid group, are helping lead a petition drive calling for a two-year moratorium on circumcision. For religious Jews, such a moratorium would be catastrophic. The Bible tells them to circumcise a baby boy eight days after birth, unless there is a medical reason to wait.
But Jews in Europe, not just in Germany, say that it is difficult to convince people who are not religious that circumcision is regarded as a command from God, and that without it a young man cannot enter Jewish society.
"It's a secular society. People don't have much sense about religion or much knowledge of religion," said Ervin Kohn, a Jewish leader in Oslo, where a debate about circumcision is also under way. There are about 1,500 Jews in Norway, he said, out of a total population of 4.7 million.
"When people hear debate about circumcision they have trouble connecting it with religious freedom," Kohn said. "When I say that circumcision for us is an existential question, they don't always understand it."
The catalyst for the controversy and the complaints against Goldberg in Hof was a state court decision in Cologne in June that found that a doctor committed criminal bodily injury by performing a circumcision on a 4-year-old Muslim boy.
Under the German legal system, the decision had no binding effect on other judges or prosecutors, even in Cologne, said Jan F. Orth, a judge at the state court there who serves as its spokesman.
A panel of three judges, two of whom were non-lawyers analogous to citizen jurors, did not impose a punishment on the doctor. More than a month went by before the decision was picked up by the German news media. The case is not being appealed and will not go to a higher court, Orth said.
Still, the Cologne case prompted hospitals as far away as Zurich to suspend circumcisions, and it emboldened an anti-circumcision movement in Germany as well as in countries like Denmark that had gone little noticed until then.
Even though the court case involved a Muslim boy, the debate in Germany quickly pivoted to a discussion about Jewish religious practice — and then landed in Hof, a city of 45,000 that has been largely bypassed by the economic boom in the rest of Bavaria. Hof's population has been declining for decades, but the Jewish population has grown.
Gerhard Schmitt, the chief prosecutor in Hof, said he has not yet decided whether to start a formal investigation against Goldberg, much less file charges.
During 15 years in Hof, Goldberg said, he has never encountered anti-Semitism. A handful of neo-Nazis staged a march in May, but local citizens organized a much larger counterdemonstration.
Local Christian leaders have rallied around Goldberg. The Rev. Guenter Saalfrank, a minister who oversees protestant churches in Hof and the surrounding region, attributed the controversy to ignorance of Judaism and said it is unfortunate that the debate has revolved around the definition of criminal bodily injury.
"It narrows the issue," he said. "Circumcision is about much more than that. It has been done for thousands of years, a totally normal ritual."
There is not much demand for circumcision in Hof. But Goldberg said he has been called to places like Prague and Budapest to perform the ritual, and he estimates that he has done about 4,000 in a long career. He is puzzled by suggestions that circumcisions are harmful to babies.
"In Judaism, the health of the baby is more important than anything," Goldberg said. The harm, he added, would come if the baby was not circumcised. "A man who is not circumcised cannot understand the context of the Bible," he said. "It is very, very important."