My last Brit Milah was a complicated one. The father was raised in Israel, born to Jewish parents, while the mother had undergone a Reform conversion in the States. When they finally found me, they had already been turned down by many mohalim. No one wanted to touch it. The couple was desperate to find someone to perform the Bris. I told them I’d be happy to do it but I couldn’t make any blessings. The problem was, under traditional law, this baby needed to be converted, while in the Reform community, he was 100% Jewish even if the mother hadn’t converted. This tension made me bow out when it came to making brachot.
But, in reality, there is no reason for this child not to be afforded a safe circumcision.
It pains me to see a secular family like this desperately struggling to provide their child with a Bris, while still others turn a cold shoulder to our age-old tradition. Even though a recent study showed that 98% of Israelis circumcise their sons, the secular questioning of Brit Milah is very real and alive, even in Israel. As a mohel, I interact with tons of people — whether it’s the families I work with, or people who approach me at a reception, or even my students who vent about their own struggles with the issue. I welcome them all, even if it’s the 5,000th time I’ve hashed out the problem. But the essential question is: are the assumptions and attacks of those who are questioning Brit Milah sound?
One argument I’ve heard from secular families and anti-Brit Milah groups is that circumcision is an assault on a minor with a weapon and therefore should be outlawed. This is fundamentally flawed. First of all, if we were never allowed to cause a child any pain, then we wouldn’t be able to vaccinate our children without their consent. Very few would agree to withhold such a medical necessity.
If vaccinations are an area we may agree upon, then I might ask: will anti-Milah groups spend alternate days at the mall protesting the ear piercing of baby girls? This is just as much an assault on a child with a sharp weapon. I’m sure that no such protests are taking place.
Another argument I’ve recently heard is that religious Jews should be allowed to do Brit Milah, but secular Jews should not. This is a crazy stance to take philosophically for several reasons. First of all, if you’re going to protest Milah, then protest Milah. Moral relativism within any given religion makes no sense. It barely makes sense between seperate groups of people. But to say that one cohesive group could hold different ethical beliefs is preposterous.
Still, I could understand why one might say that Jews, who are commanded, should circumcise and non-Jews should not. In fact, if it weren’t for medical reasons (which are rather compelling), I can see no reason why non-Jews should circumcise their children. But being a secular Jew does not make one not Jewish. And since a secular Jew is just as much a Jew as a religious one, he too is commanded to provide his son a Brit, irrespective of whether or not he keeps Shabbat, for example.
Some anti-Brit Milah groups are also misinforming their followers. They’re telling them that being uncircumcised does not affect one’s Jewish status. This is only true to an extent. One’s Brit Milah does not make one Jewish, but not having one does have halachic implications. The first is: someone with a foreskin may not eat the Paschal Offering. Of course, this offering was made yearly, and only when the Temple was in existence. But it is a religious concept, nonetheless.
The second point is that every day an adult Jew is uncircumcised, he is liable for the punishment of Karet. The nature of Karet is the subject of debate among the rabbis. Perhaps, a person dies before his or her time childless, or it could be that the individual is excommunicated from God in the afterlife. Either way, one thing is certain — this is the strongest punishment there is, and therefore one of the worst transgressions.
Now, this may seem like a ridiculous notion to bring up with secular Jews, but the truth is Judaism believes that being uncircumcised is something serious. Just because it doesn’t rescind one’s Jewish identity doesn’t mean it has no implications.
At heart, we are all attempting to make the best decisions for our children with no sense of what they may want. The people I’ve interacted with who are against Milah assume with great certainty that their child would not want a circumcision, if given the choice. But we can’t really know that. And not circumcising our sons only leaves the decision up to them, and Brit Milah as an adult is a much more painful and complicated procedure than when done as a child.
The only thing that’s perfectly clear at this point in history is that Judaism commands us to circumcise our sons and so allow them to become part of the eternal covenant that extends back to Avraham. What is also clear is that this is an honor that some want no part of, while still others feel compelled to fight to be part of.
Hayim Leiter lives in Jerusalem and is a Mohel and Rav at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and can be reached at www.saferhabrit.com