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The Boston Globe


Rabbinic court in Israel orders circumcision

Official role of religion under spotlight

JERUSALEM — An Israeli rabbinic court has fined a woman hundreds of dollars for refusing to circumcise her baby 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.

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The matter ended up in the rabbinic court as part of an ongoing divorce battle. In the context of 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 the circumcision be performed.

‘‘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. Rabbinic courts have authority over certain family matters like marriage, divorce, and child custody and welfare issues.

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 it probably would appeal the case to Israel’s Supreme Court.

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While most families perform the procedure 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 rabbinic court’s ruling ‘‘dangerous for democracy.’’

Allthough 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 rabbinic authorities. People who do not meet these requirements 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.

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