JERUSALEM — An Israeli rabbinical court has fined a woman hundreds of dollars for refusing to circumcise her son, officials said Thursday, in a landmark case that has sparked a new uproar over the role of religion in the Jewish state.
The case shines a spotlight on a long-running debate over religious coercion in Israel, where generations of leaders have struggled to find a balance between the country’s Jewish and democratic character.
Rabbinical courts in Israel have authority over certain Jewish family matters such as marriage, divorce, conversion and burial. Their decisions are binding for families that agree to take part in them, though their rulings can be appealed in the country’s secular court system. This particular case ended up in the rabbinical court as part of an ongoing divorce battle.
In the proceedings, the woman announced her refusal to circumcise the boy, saying she did not wish to harm him. The Israeli rabbinate’s high court ruled last week that the circumcision was for the child’s welfare and that the woman must pay the equivalent of nearly $150 each day she refuses to let the circumcision be performed.
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“The decision is not based only on religious law. It is for the welfare of a Jewish child in Israel not to be different from his peers in this matter,” said Shimon Yaakovi, legal adviser to the rabbinical court.
He said it was the first time a religious court in Israel has punished a parent for refusing to circumcise a child. A year ago, a civil court also ruled in favor of circumcision in a parental dispute.
There is no law requiring circumcision in Israel, but the vast majority of Jewish boys undergo the procedure at the age of eight days in line with Jewish law, which sees the ritual as upholding a covenant with God.
The mother, whose name was not released in court documents, has argued that the rabbinical court does not have authority over the matter. The Justice Ministry, which is representing the mother, said Thursday it likely would appeal the case to Israel’s Supreme Court.
There are no precise statistics on circumcisions in Israel. While most families have the procedure performed either out of religious belief or to preserve an ancient tradition, tens of thousands of children are not circumcised, activists say.
Ronit Tamir, an anti-circumcision activist, called the rabbinical court’s ruling “dangerous for democracy.”
“It turns the government into a theocracy,” she added.
Although most Israelis are secular, Israel’s founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the nation’s affairs. This has led to persistent tensions in Israeli society.
Jewish law defines a Jew as one who is born to a Jewish mother or who undergoes a demanding conversion process overseen by rabbinical authorities. People who do not meet these requirements, such as someone with only a Jewish father, can face difficulties with the religious authorities.
Civil marriage, for instance, is all but banned, forcing thousands of couples who either do not want a religious ceremony or don’t qualify for one to travel abroad each year to marry. Likewise, soldiers who die in battle but are not Jewish under religious law are buried in separate cemeteries.
More liberal streams of Judaism popular in the United States, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, have struggled for recognition in Israel and have little authority. At the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, liberal female worshippers have clashed with Orthodox activists who opposed their attempts to perform rituals traditionally reserved for males.
Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who leads Hiddush, a movement that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, said the circumcision dispute had no place in the rabbinical court. He said a circumcision should only take place with the consent of both parents.
He said attaching “legal sanctions” to an ancient religious commandment “will undermine popular respect for circumcisions.”
The ritual of circumcision has generated controversy in Europe. Last year, a German regional court said the procedure amounted to bodily harm, though it stopped short of banning it. Germany subsequently passed a law explicitly permitting male infant circumcision.
More recently, a European advisory council passed a nonbinding resolution calling circumcision “a violation of the physical integrity of children.” Israel condemned the move, saying circumcision is a tradition in both Judaism and Islam.