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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

European Attacks on Circumcision
and Resistance to Hanukah

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The highest court in North Rhine-Westphalia Germany, barred a Muslim mother from circumcising her six-year-old son, claiming the procedure will cause the boy psychological damage.

For the first time, a German court relied on the country's new circumcision law passed in 2012, after harsh criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups of a previous Cologne court ruling forbidding circumcision.

The German court also said that the mother did not take into account the wellbeing of the child; and did not consult with him before making the decision, as is stipulated in the 2012 law. The ruling was handed out at the end of August 2013.

An even bigger threat to circumcision comes from the Council of Europe, which defined the practice of circumcision as a “clear human rights violation.”

This definition is included in a report on circumcision, and female genital mutilation (which is a very widely recognized human rights violation), that was submitted recently for a vote by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, an international organization whose resolutions are influential but non binding.

“Circumcision applied to young boys clearly is a human rights violation against children,” reads the report, brought before the assembly for approval by Marlene Rupprecht, a lawmaker from Germany.

The vote on the report, which is titled “Children’s Right to Physical Integrity,” coincides with calls by some health officials and politicians in Scandinavia to ban non-medical circumcision of boys under 18.

In Scandinavia, home to some of the world’s most secular societies, three parties have officially come out in support of a ban on circumcision since the ruling in Germany, including one conservative anti- immigration party in Finland and another left-leaning party in Denmark.

As a rabbi, I know that all these governmental attacks on circumcision are just history repeating itself, as it frequently has over the last twenty two centuries, since the first Hanukah resistance to the first attempt to forbid circumcision.

Jews follow a lunar-solar calendar, and the first of the eight nights of Hanukah is early in 2013. It starts on 2013-NOV- 27, and it comes at a time when once again there are government officials trying to forbid the practice of circumcision.

In 169 BCE the Greek rulers of the Syrian Empire, decided to prohibit Jews from circumcising their sons, as part of government program to make Jews conform to Greek standards of civilized behavior. At the time, Greek pressure on Jews to 'fit in' culturally had some limited success with many wealthy Jews and among some of the upper levels of the priesthood in Jerusalem.

Then the Greek King ordered that a statue of himself be placed in the courtyard of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This led to a revolt which broke out in 168 BCE in the small village of Modin, led by a man called Judah, the Maccabee (hammerer) and his four brothers.

With trust in God, the Maccabee brothers (four of who were killed in battle over the next two decades) defeated the much larger Syrian armies, recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated (Hanukah) the desecrated Temple in an eight day festival.

Hanukah, the Festival of Freedom celebrating the duty to say 'NO' to the unjust demands of a dictatorial government, is still celebrated to this day in Jewish homes by reciting blessings, lighting candles, singing songs and retelling the ancient story in various forms.

This is the Hanukah story I will tell my grand daughters Aisha and Tali after we light the candles, on one of the eight nights of Hanukah (NOV-27 to DEC-04 in 2013).

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Why are there light eight lights on Hanukah?

Many people know about Judah Maccabbee, who led the battle against the Syrian Greeks to free Jerusalem and its Holy Temple from foreign control. But few have ever heard of Shira Maryam, a young girl who helped him win the battle for Jewish religious freedom and independence.

Shira Maryam lived in Jerusalem. Her family was a wealthy one, related to Menelaus, a very wealthy man who in 171 BCE bribed the Greek king to appoint him to be the High Priest in Jerusalem. (Second Book of Maccabbees 4:23-5)) Her parents, like many other wealthy Jewish people, preferred to speak Greek, rather than Hebrew.

Her parents also went to the Greek theater instead of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. Even worse, they bought a Greek statue for Shira, and gave it to her on her tenth birthday. This statue was an idol of one of the Greek Gods. Shira was a faithful believer in the one God of Abraham, and very proud to be Jewish. She did not want an idol of a Greek God in her room, or even It would be like having a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. She protested to her parents.

They pointed out how beautiful the statue was, and how well known the Greeks were for their sculpture. Finally they said, "You have to get along with the majority, and not stand out as being too different. Since the Greeks are in control, it is important to do what they do."

Shira didn't agree. She hid the statue in her closet. A few weeks later, she gave it to a non-Jewish friend.

When her baby brother was born, her parents decided they would not have a circumcision. They heard the King was going to forbid the barbaric Jewish custom of circumcision. They did not want to tell that to Shira so they said to her, "When he grows up, he will want to play sports in a Greek gymnasium. Everyone knows the athletes competing in the Greek gymnasium are naked. If he was circumcised all the Greeks would make fun of him because he is a Jew."

Shira insisted that her baby brother have a circumcision. "It is terrible to abandon the oldest commandment, first given to Prophet Abraham, just because you're worried that some stupid Greeks might make fun of someone. If they are prejudiced, we should fight them, not give in to them." Her parents finally agreed, and her baby brother was circumcised.

When Shira was eleven years old her parents gave her a very costly gift. In those days, all books were handwritten and very expensive, so Shira was very surprised when her parents gave her a copy of Homer, to help her with her school work.

But Shira was not impressed. She told them she would prefer to have a copy of the Torah to help her live a good Jewish life. Her parents finally gave in, and Shira received her own Torah, and a tutor came every day to teach her.

When Shira was twelve years old, Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabee, started a revolution against the Greek rulers. Shira's parents denounced Mattathias and his sons as fanatics. But Shira supported the rebels.

When Shira was fourteen years old she ran away from home to join Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who were fighting the Syrian Greeks. However, Judah told her that only men could join in the battle. But Shira stood up to Judah Maccabee too, and pointed out that Prophet Deborah had led a Jewish army against the enemies of the Jewish people, and that Judith had actually cut off the head of an enemy general.

Judah Maccabee admitted that this was true, and he was wrong in saying that women couldn't fight. However, he said, "You are still too young. Go back home. If we're still at war in another 4 or 5 years, you can join us.

"I can join you now ," said Shira Maryam, "I will be a spy and send you information about what is happening in Jerusalem." Judah Maccabee agreed to that, and Shira returned to Jerusalem.

A year later, just before her fifteenth birthday, Judah Maccabee and his army surrounded the walls of Jerusalem. However, they were not able to overcome the Greek soldiers who were defending the walls.

Shira asked her parents for a Shofar (a ram's horn sounded on the New Year festival) for a birthday present. She planned to blow the Shofar when she saw a good opportunity for Judah Maccabee and his army to attack.

But since her parents always liked non-Jewish things more than Jewish things, they decided to give her an pet octopus.

Shira was very angry. Then she got an idea. She trained the octopus to carry a burning torch in each of its tentacles. When the octopus could do this, she sent a message to Judah Maccabee. "Tomorrow night at midnight, launch an attack against the north wall of the city near the corner where I live. I will distract the guards. They will all be looking into the city, instead of out from the walls."

The next night, just before midnight, Shira put her octopus into a barrel, and carried it to a very large pool near the city wall, which was used as a water reservoir. She slipped the octopus into the water. She then took 8 spears that she had taken from the home of her uncle Menelaus, the pro Greek High Priest, and wrapped oily rags around the points.

Giving the eight spears to the octopus, one for each tentacle, she lit them. Then she got into the water and began to swim with the octopus at her side. She called out, "The water is on fire; the water is on fire."

All the guards on the city wall looked at the amazing sight. There were eight flames moving over the dark water in the reservoir. While they were all looking at the lights. Judah and his army attacked, and the wall was overcome.

I do not think this story of Shira Maryam actually happened way back then; but each time a young person of any religious tradition stands up proudly for his or her religion today, the miracle happens again and again.

Traditionally, Jews increase the number of candles by one on each of the eight nights of Hanukah; for “one must ascend in matters of holiness." Faith helps us grow stronger when we face challenges, and inspires others to also grow in faith. This is one of life’s’ great miracles.

Hope makes a difference. Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle. A Jew must always strive to go higher and higher in matters of light- i.e. Torah, Mitzvot and deeds of loving-kindness.

We use one candle to light all the other candles on the Hanukah candelabra to teach us that the impact of one person's actions are cumulative and widespread.

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Rabbi Maller's web site is at:

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Originally posting: 2013-NOV-26
Latest update: 2013-NOV-26
Author: Rabbi Allen S. Maller

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