“This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:10-14)
When Abraham was ninety years old, God came to him and asked him to sign a covenant in his flesh. This covenant, performed at eight days old by Jews for millennia, is one of the sacred commandments that is still maintained by most Jews across all streams of religious observance. It is a ritual that has been attacked by non-believers throughout history, and restricted by oppressors over time. Most recently, bans on parts or all of the ritual were initiated (though with limited or no success) in both Europe and the US. Now, rabbis in Europe are banding together to protect this holy rite.
Circumcision involves removing the foreskin of the infant male, preferably at eight days old. It is usually performed without any anesthetic, although sometimes a local desensitizing cream may be used. The ceremony is performed by trained and experienced individuals, called mohels, in the presence of the boy’s family, their friends and community. It marks the first stage of the child’s entry into the community and thus is a significant communal celebration.
In 2012, the New York City Board of Health voted to require mohels to acquire written consent from parents to perform one part of the circumcision ritual. Since the ritual requires the mohel to draw blood out of the wound through oral suction, the Board of Health wanted parents to acknowledge the health risks involved in doing so directly, without any sort of intermediary device such as a pipette. Several babies contracted herpes in a short span, one of them succumbing to the disease, and the Health Board linked the cases to the practice of direct suction. Although not an outright ban of the practice, the decision caused a significant uproar in the ultra-Orthodox community which insists on the direct suction.
The controversy was not limited to New York City, however. Within the Jewish community itself there are leaders who insist on using a barrier device to protect the health of both mohel and child. In April, a dispute between the Conference of European Rabbis and a Chabad rabbi from a rival group, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, broke out over the matter. The Chabad rabbi criticized his peers in an op-ed for their disapproval of direct suction.
However, the danger from without is greater than the danger from within. A Cologne court ruled last year that circumcision constituted “bodily harm,” paving the way to debate and partial bans of circumcision in several European countries. Although Germany ultimately entrenched in law the right of parents to perform ritual circumcision, it served as a wake-up call to the community.
Now, the Conference of European Rabbis has formed the Union of Mohelim in Europe in an effort to standardize circumcision practice across the continent and to protect the ritual by banding together. According to a statement released last week, the union seeks to “unite approved mohalim across Europe under a single banner, ensuring that all communities can be assured of the high level of training and regulation.”
The union will function as an independent legal body, run by a committee under the supervision of Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, President of the European Beth Din. The board includes members from four different countries, as well as a medical advisor to ensure it meets the highest medical standards. The union will compile a list of currently certified mohel across Europe, through consultation with local rabbinic authorities, and offer potential members opportunities to review halachic, medical and legal issues in order to become certified.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, referring to the recent ban on Kosher ritual slaughter of meat, said, “I am delighted that months of hard work have finally come to fruition and the group can formally take shape. Recent events in Poland have demonstrated how European Jewry, now more than ever, needs to show a united front when a crisis looms large.”
Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister of Vienna, President of the Union of Mohalim in Europe said, “The Union enables us to approve qualified European Mohelim and to promote best practice in an area where we know our opponents will seize upon any opportunity to challenge us. The ongoing debates about infant circumcision in Europe mean that this additional layer of protection could not come at a more important time.”