In the last few weeks, I’ve fathered three babies to three separate women, none of whom were my wife. Now, let me be clear – I have never committed adultery. At my last three Britot I legally stood in for the father during the ceremony. Two were cases of non-Jewish fathers and one was a case of a single mother. It truly was an honor to do this. But, from a Jewish perspective, how was I able to, and in what capacity was I the stand-in?
Our legal texts deal with the issue of what to do when there is no father present. The first issue is, who’s monetary obligation is the Bris? The legal work, Brit HaLevi, outlines the hierarchy of responsibility (in descending order):
The paternal grandfather
The father’s inheritors
The child’s legal guardian
The wise man of the city
Any Jewish person
The boy himself (when he comes of age)
The maternal grandfather
Unfortunately, this list stirs up more questions rather than providing answers. First of all, how do we determine who ‘the wise man of the city’ is? And more importantly, how would we make him pay for the Bris? Secondly, what does the Brit HaLevi mean by ‘any Jewish person’? Does this mean if I see an uncircumcised Jewish male in the JCC locker room, am I now obligated to pay for his circumcision? And lastly, why is the mother not listed at all? I, unfortunately, do not have answers to all these questions but the last issue is connected to the traditional understanding of a woman’s role in Brit Milah.
When it comes to a woman’s role here, some argue that since the mother did not have a Bris herself, she is not obligated to organize her son’s. The same question arises in regard to whether or not a woman can act as a mohelet (a female circumciser). Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, deals with this issue at length and comes to the conclusion that a woman can act as a mohelet. According to his reasoning, we could easily argue, in this day and age, that a woman bears the legal responsibility for her son’s Brit Milah.
The other legal question here is in regard to the religious service: who says the prayers? Usually, the father recites the majority of the liturgy, save for a small paragraph and the blessing over the actual cut, which the mohel says. But in this case there is no father.
Rav Moshe Isserles (known as the Remah) in his notes on the Shulchan Aruch writes:
יורה דעה רסה:ב
ואם אין אבי הבן אצל המילה יש מי שאומר שאדם אחר מברך ברכה זו דהרי הבית דין מצווין למולו ונוהגין שמי שתופס הנער מברך ברכה זו. וכן אם האב בכאן ואינו יודע לברך.
Yoreh De’ah, 265:2
If the father is not at the [Brit] Milah, there is one who rules that anyone else [can] make this blessing because the Beit Din [relgioius court] is commanded to circumcise him. And it is our custom that the one who is holding the baby [Sandak] makes this blessing. And the same applies if the father is there but does not know how to bless.
As for who can make the blessings at my last three Britot, the Remah leaves the door wide open – in a sense, anyone can say them. But in some ways, it may be better for the mohel to do so because he is also acting as the Beit Din. But all this is very technical. From my vantage point, it feels like you’re doing much more than just acting as the religious court.
When a mohel stands in for the father, something different occurs. It feels like you have more responsibility for the child and family. Don’t get me wrong, I treat each Bris like the most important of my career, but there’s an added emotional component here. After some of the Britot I’ve done for single mothers, we’ve stayed in contact and our families have become the closest of friends. And I believe it’s because this is more than just ‘filling in’.
Just as ‘any Jewish person’ becomes responsible for an uncircumcised male, our entire community ‘fills in’ when there is no father. And standing on the bimah, holding this eight-day-old child, you feel like the representative of that community which will, hopefully, embrace them for the duration of their lives. At that moment, you truly feel like the father.