Religious freedom is, naturally, of great concern to Jews everywhere. That is why there has been much consternation about a German regional court ruling in May that said circumcision of boys for religious reasons causes bodily harm and is unlawful. A rabbi in northern Bavaria was criminally charged for performing a brit milah as part of his duties. But Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador to Israel, published an Opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post this week explaining that the “ruling has no binding force,” and noting that the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament in Germany, has called on the government to “draft legislation that ensures that the circumcision of boys is in principle permitted by law.” The ambassador noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have been clear in expressing their desire to see Jewish life in Germany thrive. “This means that Jews must be able to exercise their religious traditions without legal uncertainty,” Ambassador Michaelis wrote. “Religious freedom is one of the basic rights inscribed in our constitution.”
While the debate in Germany over circumcision plays itself out, we note with sadness that the issue of religious tolerance and understanding of Jewish beliefs is still an issue for Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who this week said it would be preferable for a Jew to pray alone, or not at all, on the High Holy Days rather than in a Reform congregation.
Rabbi Uri Regev, who is Reform and leads a group in Israel called Hiddush, calling for religious freedom in the country, characterized the chief rabbi’s remarks as “misguided” and “fundamentalist,” asserting that they “drive a wedge between Israel and the rest of the Jewish people.”
It is ironic that the theme of much of the liturgy of this season is the emphasis on the unity of the Jewish people, with our collective prayers on behalf of our fellow Jews. Surely a greater degree of empathy expressed by the chief rabbi for others who do not share his level of observance would go a long way toward convincing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel that the chief rabbinate is committed to their spiritual well-being rather than ensuring their status as second-class Jews.