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

Losing our religion

When it comes to Brit Milah — historically speaking — we Jews are unstoppable. Both in the present and past, Brit Milah has been one of the most cherished and kept commandments, even against all odds. The Greeks couldn’t stop us, the Romans couldn’t stop us, neither could the Germans nor the Soviets. But the question is: Can the Health Ministry?

The present restrictions in Israel still allow up to 20 people to attend a funeral, 10 people to attend a Brit Milah and only immediate family at weddings. And through each new round of restrictions, these three have remained intact. Our leaders understand that if these rituals were banned it would mean the death of Jewish life.

But even though these life cycle events have been consistently preserved, this could easily change with the next press conference. If the spread of Coronavirus is not curbed, these activities may have to be prohibited temporarily. And as a mohel, I will have to decide if I’ll abide by the Health Ministry’s guidelines. 

It seems that the Rabbinut has already taken a stance on the issue. Both Chief Rabbis Lau and Yitzhak have issued a joint statement stressing the importance of Brit Milah and demanding its continued adherence, even in the face of the COVID-19. At the present moment, I agree with them. There is no need to halt the practice, provided that the strictest health precautions are followed. But what will happen if the Health Ministry changes its tune? What will the Rabbinut do?

If recent history is any indicator, the Rabbinut will continue its track record of being on the wrong side of history. Just last week, when all public prayer had already been banned, the Rabbinut called for public prayer and fasting. In their defense, they forbade public prayer just after the call had expired, but it was certainly a day late and a dollar short. How many lives will the rabbinic establishment put in danger before it’s too late? The Jerusalem Post reported that one-third of all B’nei Brak residents have tested positive for Coronavirus. The writing is clearly on the wall. 

As difficult as this is to say, I must admit that if the Health Ministry were to forbid Brit Milah, I, for one, will comply with their demands. And the truth is I’m not alone in this position. Rav Chaim Kanievsky ruled that anyone who violates the Health Ministry’s directives is considered a Rodef (one who is pursuing another to kill him). Rav Kaniesky’s position is far from a rabbinic innovation. The Talmud and subsequent Halacha clearly support delaying Brit Milah in life-threatening circumstances. For example, if a child is known to be genetically prone to Hemophilia, his circumcision is postponed until he is old enough and strong enough to survive the procedure.

However, the rabbinic value of choosing life over ritual actually substantially precedes the Talmudic period. The earliest example of delaying Brit Milah comes from the Torah itself. When the Children of Israel were in the desert for 40 years, none of the boys born were circumcised. This is evidenced in the Book of Joshua when just prior to entering the Land of Israel, there was a mass circumcision. The Biblical commentators cite that performing Brit Milah in the desert was too dangerous and therefore had to be put off until the end of the journey.

What’s clear from these cases is that we’ve always survived even when Brit Milah was impossible. And if we have to temporarily stop now, we will again survive. 

To be clear, I’m not advocating for a premature cessation of the practice. The liberal movements around the world are already opting out of the ritual without any government intervention, and this is unnecessarily preemptive. As I previously stated, there are precautions that must be taken to protect the baby and to ensure that the virus isn’t being spread, but there is no need to stop altogether. That being said, if the day comes that we have to stop, then so be it. 

To be additionally clear, our present reality is nothing like the previous historical cases quoted. The Health Ministry’s need to halt our rituals is not an oppressive regime trying to quash Jewish life, especially in Israel. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This is the government of the Jewish people doing everything it can to ensure our people’s survival against an insidious invisible foe. And I call on all mohalim in Israel and the Rabbinut to abide by the government’s ruling if, God forbid, it ever comes to that point. 

The rest of the world needs us to set the example because many countries are suffering a much worse fate than Israel faces. If we refuse to halt the practice and take a ‘holier than thou’ attitude it will not only cost lives in Israel, but it will also undoubtedly cost many more lives in the diaspora. This is the time to choose life, for all of us. 

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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