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Being part of a greater reality

13 July 2012

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 born.

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 police.

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 themselves.

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 south London.

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 autonomy.

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