Hayim Leiter
Rabbi, mohel, misader kiddushin, beit din member

Circumcise another day

When I checked my phone early Friday morning, I found myself in the middle of a Facebook Messenger chat that had been going on for hours. The two other people, whom I’d never met, were talking about finding a mohel for a Bris. As it turned out, one of them, the mother of the baby, was reaching out to find a mohel to come to the Philippines for a Bris. It may seem crazy for someone in Manila to reach out to someone in Israel to be their mohel, but ours are not ordinary times.

The community in Manila usually imports a mohel from Hong Kong to officiate their Smachot. Due to the coronavirus travel restrictions, it was impossible for this mohel to come. The president of the Philippines, correctly, had imposed a travel ban on all flights coming from other Asian countries. So this family was ‘religiously’ stranded.

They reached out to anyone and everyone they knew to find a mohel. I was contacted by at least three different people in connection with this Bris. As Shabbat came in, things were still up in the air. The family was debating bringing me or someone else in from Australia. Subsequently, I had a lot of time to think about this over Shabbat.

I love traveling to do Britot, but it’s not without its challenges — time away from family, kashrut issues, sleep deprivation, and there are also the Britot I miss at home. Most of the time when I travel, it’s to locations in Europe, so I’m away for 24-48 hours. Since I have four little ones at home, my wife and I cannot yet turn these trips into vacations. The Philippines are easily 15 hours of travel time, so at it’s shortest I would have been away for four days. That would not have been easy on the family. And being a surfer, needing to return immediately and not surfing would have also been challenging.

With all of these factors I wondered if would I even go. But there was an even greater factor that required consideration. To date, there is only one confirmed death due to coronavirus in the region. So, it’s not like flying to Hong Kong to do a Bris. But presently, all travel feels a bit risky. The (hypothetical) question was: would I go straight into harm’s way to make sure a baby had his Bris on time?

There are many legal conversations about when we have to choose death over breaking a commandment. The general rule is when we’re in public (ten people or more), or when we’re forced to violate the three cardinal sins (murder, idolatry, and adultery) we must choose death as opposed to committing these acts. In these situations where an oppressive regime is attempting to quash Jewish life as we know it, we must fight back. We all know stories of Jews continuing to keep Mitzvot in secret in the former Soviet Union. But this case is a bit different. 

In traveling to the Philippines, even though I knew there was some risk involved, I pressed on without thinking. If this family asked me to go, then I would have gone. But now that they’ve chosen to employ the Australian mohel, and I’ve had time to think, I’m not so certain. I’d like to say that I’d throw caution to the wind and rush in to save the day, but I’m not sure it’s that easy. And the fact that I’m not completely sure makes me feel somewhat sick to my stomach. I want to be that guy who rushes into a fiery building and comes running out with the baby. But deep down, I know that’s just Hollywood heroics.

Viruses are indiscriminate and this one seeks to take lives. Performing a Bris in the Philipines is not like facing down an oppressive regime. It seems much more akin to saving someone from a burning building. Most people report having acted heroically without having had time to think. And in a sense, that’s how this situation began. I was making plans to do an ‘emergency’ Bris without considering the consequences. But what about my wife and children? Could I abandon them for my principles.

Now that the dust has settled, I’m left with a big question mark — would I put myself in life-threatening danger to do a Mitzvah? I’m still not certain, but I hope so. 

About the Author
Rav Hayim Leiter is a rabbi, mohel, wedding officiant, and member of a private Beit Din in Israel. He founded Magen HaBrit, an organization committed to protecting both our sacred ceremony of Brit Milah and the children who undergo it. He made Aliyah in 2009 and lives in Efrat with his wife and four children.
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