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Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Political Attacks from the 2nd century BCE
to the present time against the Jewish and
Islamic practice of male circumcision.

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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. It was passed in 2012, after harsh criticism from both 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 well-being of the child, and that she did not consult with her six year old son 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 Jewish and Muslim ritual circumcision comes from the Council of Europe, which defined the practice of circumcision as a “clear human rights violation.”

That definition is included in a report on circumcision, and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The latter is a human rights violation and not a part of Muslim law.

The slanderous report 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 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 circumcision of boys under 18, unless required for medical reasons.

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

To understand why a government should feel it has a right to forbid parents from doing what they -- and the scholars of their historic religious community -- believe that God has commanded them to do, we must distinguish between custom and law.

In North Africa many tribes amputate the clitoris of young girls in order to diminish their enjoyment of sexual intercourse and thus reduce their temptation to commit adultery.

This activity, although wide spread in limited geographic areas, is opposed by the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars (ulema). It is not circumcision: it is genital mutilation. Calling it circumcision is a slander of both Islam and Judaism. A government may legitimately forbid this custom.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism all teach that circumcision was already practiced by Prophet Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims to this day.

Christians do not believe circumcision is still a required observance. But, even during Medieval times, Christian governments never prohibited ritual circumcision for Jews and Muslims living under their rule. Equally, Jews and Muslims never tried to force Christians to circumcise their children.

Only pagan governments like the Greeks and the Romans, or anti-religious secular governments like Communist Russia, have done this.

These governments are led by people who believe that their own humanistic, rational philosophy is on a much higher level than what has been taught by traditional religions, which they do not believe in.

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The Torah declares:

Genesis 17:7-12: "I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you..."

"And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God. God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised."

"You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old." 1

Allah ordered Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to follow the religion of Ibrahim (peace be upon him). Allah said:

Qur'an 16:123: "Then We inspired you: 'Follow the religion of Ibrahim, the upright in Faith'."

Part of the religion of Ibrahim is, as is evident from the verses cited above, is to practice circumcision.

Abraham was an old man when he circumcised himself, thus becoming a good example that one is never to old to do God's will. As a Hadith says: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Prophet Ibrahim circumcised himself when he was eighty years old and he circumcised himself with an axe." (Related by Bukhari, Muslim & Ahmad.)

Abraham's first born son Ishmael, was a young boy when he was circumcised, so Muslims do not have to circumcise their son's on an exact date. A Hadith states: When Ibn Abbas was asked "How old were you when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died?" He replied, "At that time I had been circumcised. At that time people did not circumcise boys till they attained the age of puberty (Baligh)." (Bukhari)

Prophet Muhammad himself selected the 7th day after birth to circumcise his own grandsons: Abdullah Ibn Jabir and Aisha both said: "The Prophet (peace be upon him) performed the Aqiqah of al-Hasan and al-Hussein (the prophets grandsons) circumcising them on the 7th. Day." (Related in al-Bayhaq & Tabarani)

Thus, for Jews circumcision is a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac and their descendants for future generations. For Muslims it is a sign of their close connection to Abraham which is also celebrated each year at the annual Hajj ceremonies.

For both Muslims and Jews it is a sign that one who submits to God's commandments and covenant cannot expect a life without some pain and suffering. When endured for the right reasons it always leads eventually to great spiritual benefits.

This is also the lesson of the Jewish Holiday of Hanukah because the Greek attempt to forbid circumcision was part of the reason for the revolt.

The first government attempt in history to prohibit circumcision happened in 169 BCE when 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.

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. He also ordered all Jews to stop circumcising their sons.

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 whom 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.

The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last.

Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs in Makka.

All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever. This is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.

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Rabbi Maller's web site is at

Links to many of his donated essays can be found in our Judaism menu.

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Webmaster's note:

  1. One might ask: why the 8th day? At about 7 days after birth, a newborn's prothrombin and Vitamin K -- two agents that together cause blood to coagulate -- reach adequate levels. So the 8th day is ideal timing to prevent a hemorrhage during a circumcision. See: Bert Thompson, "Biblical Accuracy and Circumcision on the 8th Day," at:


Originally posted: 2014-APR-16
Latest update: 2014-APR-16
Author: Rabbi Allen S. Maller

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