HOF, Germany -- The doctor, the mother and the child all dealt with the physical complications from a circumcision on November 4, 2010. But no one was prepared for what erupted this summer, nearly two years later.
A seemingly simple case led a court to classify religious circumcision as assault, hospitals nationwide to prohibit the practice, a debate in now largely secular Germany about the primitive nature of religion, and Jews and Muslims to band together to protect a time-honored rite both believe to be central to their faiths.
The German Parliament is considering a variety of responses, from a nationwide ban to religious protections. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the controversy makes her nation look ridiculous. But Austria, Finland and Norway are embroiled in similar debates.
Some commentators call this the most serious religiously motivated attack here since the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews.
Today, however, the concern began with Islam.
A 4-year-old patient of surgeon Omar Kezze, a Syrian Muslim who practices in Cologne, started bleeding several days after a circumcision. His mother rushed him to a hospital. The hospital, as required by law, reported the bleeding. German courts took the matter from there, acquitting Kezze of wrongdoing. But on appeal, the court condemned the practice of circumcision for religious reasons.
The July ruling doesn’t yet carry the weight of law, and the German public is evenly divided about whether it should, polls show. But it so worried German hospitals that their doctors could face assault charges if they performed the procedure that the hospitals stopped doing it altogether.
Then came the case of Rabbi David Goldberg, in the small town of Hof in Bavaria, the German state best known for parties, lederhosen and large mugs of beer.
Prosecutors there are weighing whether to file assault charges against the 64-year-old religious leader and mohel, a Hebrew term for a man who performs the Jewish rite of cutting the foreskin off an infant’s penis. He’s one of a handful in Germany.
The local prosecutor, Gerhard Schmitt, said charges against the rabbi would involve past circumcisions and were under review.
“This is a complex matter,” Schmitt said. “It could well take several weeks to decide.”
To Goldberg, it’s not so complicated. Suddenly, the ritual he’s proudly performed for 40 years in Germany, Israel and elsewhere could brand him a criminal. He thinks that the discussion alone is sinister enough.
“We have seen this before, from Germans,” the rabbi said.
At the very least, Fatih Eroglu, the chairman of Berlin’s Turkish-Islamic Union, said: “Doesn’t this again open the door to marginalization and discrimination through religious identity and religious symbols?”
Still, hundreds of doctors have signed petitions against the practice, saying it could bring physical pain and psychic torture to children.
Lawyers have followed suit, calling circumcision a human rights abuse because infants are too young to be consulted.
Dr. Maximilian Stehr, a pediatric urologist at the prestigious Kinderchirurgische Klinik in Munich, wants the debate to focus on the rights, and the pain, of the children. He said female circumcision was abhorred in much of the world, and that male babies deserved the same rights.