Being part of a greater reality
JEWISH tradition suggests that Moses was born aposthic. So, too,
were Jacob and David. They were born without a foreskin. Many of us
who were not in the fortunate position to have received this
blessing from on high had it done eight days after we were
Much to my teenage embarrassment, my wonderfully over-the-top
Jewish grandmother, Miriam Beckerman, would frequently announce to
her regular lunch guests that the mohel performed the
ceremony for me on her dining-room table.
In November 2010, a Muslim doctor in Germany carried out a
circumcision on a four-year-old boy at the request of his parents.
A few days later the boy started bleeding, was admitted to the
University hospital in Cologne, and the matter was reported to the
Last month, after a lengthy legal battle, a judge in Cologne
outlawed male circumcision as being against the best interests of
the child. Jewish and Muslim groups have been outraged. The fact
that German law would ban so central an aspect of Jewish identity
is surely as incendiary as it gets. Do these people have any sense
of history at all?
For the enemies of religion, circumcision is a barbaric practice
that constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of a child.
For others, it is a basic marker of identity. Faith is not just
something that goes on in your head. It is about being a part of
something wider than oneself.
We are not born simply as little rational agents-in-waiting; we
are not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to
choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships
that provide us with a cultural background against which things
come to make sense. "We" comes before "I". "We" constitutes our
horizon of significance. This is why most Jews who consider
themselves to be atheists would still consider themselves to be
Jewish. And circumcision is the way in which Jewish and Muslim men
are marked out as being involved in a reality greater than
This, however, is anathema to much modern liberal thought that
narrows things down to the absolute priority of personal autonomy
and individual choice. Liberalism constitutes the view from
nowhere. And this is the view that I fear I have from my parish in
Yes, there is some residual history and tradition to bind people
together. But the Nazi bombers obliterated much of the built past.
And what the Nazis missed, unfettered, free-market capitalism has
been working to destroy since. That proud south London "we" feels
as if it has been gradually replaced by thousands of lonely and
unconnected individuals, constantly searching for that elusive
promise of gold that is supposed to come with freedom and personal