Several years ago the highest court in North Rhine-Westphalia Germany, barred a Muslim mother from circumcising her 6-year-old son. Claiming the procedure will cause the boy psychological damage. The German court relied on the country’s circumcision law passed in 2012, after harsh criticism from both Jewish and Muslim groups of a previous court ruling forbidding circumcision.
The German court also said that the mother did not take into account the wellbeing of the child; and did not consult with her 6 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.
Past and Present Parallels
As a rabbi, I know that governmental attacks on circumcision are just history repeating itself, as it frequently has done over the last twenty two centuries. Since the first Hanukkah resistance to the first attempt by a government to forbid circumcision.
The first of the eight nights of Hanukkah is early this year (Jews follow a lunar-solar calendar) starting on the evening of December 7, 2023 but it comes at a time when once again there are government officials trying to forbid the practice of Jewish and Muslim ritual circumcision.
In 169 BCE the Greek rulers of the Syrian Empire, decided to prohibit Jews from circumcising their sons, as part of a 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 Jews to stop circumcising their sons.
This led to a revolt which broke out in 168 BCE in the small village of Modiin, 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 (Hanukkah) the desecrated Temple in an eight day festival.
Hanukkah, 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 Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his followers by the majority of the pagan Arabs in Makka.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukkah lights. A lamp, once it is lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God, can last longer than all the realists and negativists thought was possible.
Understanding Minor and Major Struggles
Why do Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain two versions of the story of Hanukkah while the Hebrew Bible doesn’t have even one? Because the Church Fathers believed that there were valuable spiritual lessons to be learned. Even from a history of military struggles.
All of us need to avoid negativity, especially at times of persecution and oppression; and the best way to do that is to retain our trust in God and our hope for the future.
In Arabic, the word Jihad is a noun meaning the activity of “striving and/or persevering.” According to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ there are two types of Jihad: minor and major. Once when Muslims were returning from a military expedition, which for him was a minor jihad. He ﷺ told the fighters that now they had to go through the major jihad.
When he ﷺ was asked what he meant by major jihad, he ﷺsaid it was the spiritual jihad. On another occasion, he ﷺ said the real mujahid is the one who declares jihad against his/her carnal soul. (Tirmidhi). Exercising self-control and using willpower and reason to overcome one’s anger is described by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as “the major jihad.” The message is clear: overcoming our own feelings of hatred and anger is much more difficult than overcoming our enemies.
In today’s world of fanaticism and extremism the words of Al-Ghazali, a 12th century Persian Muslim theologian, need to be repeated by all the world’s religious and political leaders: “Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see – Egoism, Arrogance, Conceit, Selfishness, Greed, Lust, Intolerance, Anger, Lying, Cheating, Gossiping and Slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then you will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.”