Iceland nearly banned circumcision this year. It all began last February when MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive party proposed a bill threatening a six year prison sentence for anyone who performs a circumcision on an individual under 18 years of age, without any medical necessity. When the news first broke, I have to admit, things looked grim. It looked like Iceland was going to be the first country to ban circumcision and that other European countries would quickly follow suit. At that time, I began to contemplate how I could get involved to stop this ghastly violation of religious freedom.
My first thought was to offer my services as a mohel to the people of Iceland. But if I were going to do that, I wondered how would I do it? Would I perform Britot in the basements of Iceland, secretly helping the Jewish community continue to exist? Maybe. But my rabbinic career began in the Beit Midrash of Rav Avi Weiss. If you’re not familiar with his work, let’s just say his activism is not a quiet one. So part of me felt that I needed to do Britot in the middle of the town square to publically call out the injustice of the injunction. Needless to say, with my wife and four little ones at home in Jerusalem, six years in an Icelandic prison was a frightening notion. Little did I know, this was not at all the way any of this was going to play out.
A few months ago I joined a rabbinic organization known as Torat Chayim. It’s composed of Orthodox rabbis from all over the globe, working together on a whole host of issues (in fact, the group is hosting a night of learning on June 18, 2018, if you’re in the Jerusalem area). Since I joined, I have kept the group abreast of the situation in Iceland and since some of the members are on the ground in Europe still fighting this battle today, I was able to be in touch with them directly.
What I omitted above was that even though things looked grim when the ban was proposed, it was only for a short time. The most inspiring part of this battle was who came to our aid. Without a doubt, the most vocal detractor of this bill was none other than the Catholic Church. The Church denounced the bill almost immediately and the pressure to throw it out did not subside until the moment it was finally scrapped last week. But in the middle of all of this, something interesting happened.
There was one priest in Iceland who was more vocal than all the others. His name is Father Jakob Rolland. Father Rolland went so far as to say what even Jewish organizations were hesitant to say, he called a spade a spade. He said that this bill was anti semitic. After the story ran quoting Father Rolland, a member of Torat Chayim messaged the group saying, “Should we send the Catholic Church a thank you note?” I responded, saying, “I’d say that at least fruit basket is in order.” But it was decided amongst the members that this was no joking matter and so we did just that– we wrote Father Rolland a thank you note. And even more amazing than that, he wrote us back.
In his message, which is well worth reading in full, Father Rolland told us:
“I was brought up in Alsace close to the German border. There the memories of the Second World War are still very vivid and the atrocities of the Nazi time still very present in the mind of so many people I grew up with. At walking distance from my parents’ home was a concentration camp where the V1 and V2 rockets were produced. Many people died in this camp. In no way I would ever accept that the horrors of this time should appear again. Beside of that, as a Christian, I do not only respect the Jewish religion but I believe with all my heart in the revelation of God to Abraham, to Moses and to the chosen People and I do not withdraw a single iota from what Jesus said: Salvation comes from the Jews. Antisemitism for me is a perversion of Christianity and has nothing to do with Jesus.”
Our thank you letter to Father Rolland was sent some time ago and since then he has kept in touch. Until last week, he would unsolicitedly give us updates as to the progress of the circumcision ban. In our last communique, he wrote:
Dear Rabbi Leiter.
Good news for you and for the Jews and the Muslims in Iceland and elsewhere: The bill on ban of circumcision proposed at the Icelandic Parliament has been turned down. Last night the Parliament concluded its work and the bill was not on the agenda. Actually it was not anymore on the agenda since our conference last April 17th. That means, the bill it is dead and buried. And it is very unlikely that it would ever pop up again at least under the present government and with the present Parliament.
I am happy for you, for the small Jewish community in Iceland, for the Muslim people and also for the Icelandic nation, which may keep its reputation of being a free country respectful for human rights and freedom of religion.
Give my best regards to your people, especially to those who signed your letter. I keep all of you and your families in my prayer. God bless you all.
Fr. Jakob Rolland, Reykjavík
I truly feel blessed to have a connection with such an amazing spiritual leader. I can only imagine what the world would be like if more relationships like this would be fostered. Unlike Father Rolland, I do not agree with Jesus, that the salvation comes from the Jews. Salvation will come when all groups, religious and otherwise, work together with the mutual love and respect that Father Rolland has displayed for all of us. May we all see that day soon in our lifetime.
Hayim Leiter is a rabbi and mohel for the greater Jerusalem area. He can be reached at saferhabrit.com