The forbidden bris
“It’s forbidden to perform the Bris,” a voice said on the other end of the line. “We don’t know if the mother intends to convert,” said the man, who was a Chief Rabbi of a town here in Israel. “With all due respect,” I replied, “canceling the Bris the night before the event will ensure that she won’t convert.”
These events all began after I received an email from a rabbi in New York who asked me to perform a Bris for a couple struggling to find a mohel. In Israel, mohalim are a dime a dozen so it shouldn’t have been so complicated for them. But their case was not a simple one.
The father of the baby met his intended online. She is not Jewish and is from Europe. The two fell in love and, uncharacteristically, she moved to Israel so they could get married. But that was two and a half years ago.
When it comes to the politics, the conversion process in Israel is a burden that no one should have to bear. And as with all too many converts in this country, the baby’s mother is indefinitely caught in a bureaucratic trap. In order to stay in the country she had to change her visa to a B1 status. But in doing so the Rabbinut won’t open a file for her conversion. The result is that the couple had a civil marriage online through the auspices of the state of Utah but cannot have a religious ceremony until the mother converts. She’s been living with the father’s family, a religious home, for the duration of her stay, attempting to find a solution to this snafu.
“You know that even if the mother didn’t want to convert, I should still do the Brit Milah for their son,” I told the objecting rabbi on the phone. “I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he replied.
It’s true; there are sources delineating such action in this kind of case. It’s not only allowed but advised to do the Brit Milah because it could lead the father to repent and make it easier for his son to one day come into the fold.
“This is not the way someone with Yirat Shamayim (fear of heaven) should act. You’re going to confuse people and make them think he’s Jewish,” the rabbi pressed me. “He will be Jewish,” I replied. “The Bris will be done for the sake of conversion.” “Do you have two Talmidei Chachamim that will sit on a Beit Din with you for his conversion?” the rabbi asked.
That actually wasn’t my plan because it isn’t necessary. Two observant witnesses are all that are needed. But I was ready to call on two rabbinic colleagues to join me.
“That won’t be a problem,” I assured him.
I met my rabbinic colleagues the morning after the rabbi’s call at the family’s home. The Brit Milah was a beautiful event and was the first step in the baby’s journey to becoming Jewish. At the conclusion of the bris, I explained the parents’ options for the next step in the process.
“Are you going to take responsibility to make sure the family completes the conversion process for their son?” the rabbi asked.
The truth is, I always make myself available in any way I can to help families finish the conversion process, but as the mohel, some of this is out of my hands.
“I will make sure this baby is Jewish,” I assured the rabbi.
It’s a strange feeling, knowing that I’m responsible for this baby’s Judaism but it’s one that I take seriously. The baby will ideally finish his conversion through Giyur K’Halacha, a non-profit committed to helping people navigate the potholes of conversion in Israel, which will be recognized by the State of Israel. If that channel doesn’t work, he’ll do his immersion in the mikveh with the private Beit Din I sit on. Either way, in the eyes of heaven he will be Jewish.
The frustrating part is that no matter which path the family takes, I am almost certain that the dissenting rabbi will never view the baby as Jewish. It’s a sad reality we live in where so many of our religious leaders are so focused on fulfilling every minority halachic opinion that they lose sight of the fact that they are ruining people’s lives in the process.
What the Chief Rabbi in question doesn’t understand is that it is precisely because I have Yirat Shamayim that I help such Jews convert. Just as he fears that one day, Hashem could chastise him for mistakenly converting someone who is disingenuous, I am concerned with the exact opposite. I fear that one day I could be punished for pushing honest people away from our faith.
Thank God, I work with amazing rabbis who think as I do and understand that the doors to Judaism should not only be open but that when people enter through them, they should be met with a loving embrace.