Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933

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Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, by Robin Judd. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. 283 pp. $45.00.

When writing about an aspect of the German-Jewish experience that does not have to do with victimization, one of the most difficult things to do is to escape what one author has called the "paper ghetto," that is, the perfunctory treatment of Jewish issues in separate sections or chapters of books devoted to mainstream German history. Robin Judd overcomes this difficulty by embedding her study of circumcision and kosher slaughtering from the 1840s to 1933 in the larger German story. Like all good history, hers spares us none of the subject's rich complications.

Arguments that began within the Jewish community concerning the defining nature of religiously prescribed rites soon became a matter of lively interest to non-Jews, the controversies surrounding ritual slaughter winning by far the greater attention. State and municipal authorities, the medical establishment, the animal rights movement, and antisémites intervened repeatedly in the debates centering on the two rituals that most clearly separated Jews from non-Jews. Judd corrects the commonly held view that opposition to circumcision and especially kosher slaughtering was always and everywhere simply an antisemitic pretext. She distinguishes degrees of antisemitism in anti-kosher slaughtering campaigns and does not assume its centrality or its significance where bans and partial bans were enacted before 1917. In the Weimar era, the Nazis commandeered the movement against circumcision and kosher butchering and intensified the antisemitic rhetoric that had always portrayed both practices as irrefutable evidence of Jewish cruelty and the futility of trying to integrate Jews into German life. During the imperial era, antisemitism often made its way into public discourse, but it seems only rarely to have swayed governmental action. There were many in the animal rights movement who thought the Jewish method of animal slaughter to be inhumane but who nevertheless distanced themselves from antisemitic arguments and even called for exempting Jews from the general reforms they advocated. The practices also became embroiled in a tangle of jurisdictional disputes at a time when state and local governments sought to extend their reach by regulating economic activity, safeguarding food supplies, and policing public hygiene. …