It was almost midnight a few weeks ago when I received a text from a fellow mohel asking, “What is ‘inter-milah’? I need to explain to the mohalim in this listserve that you are not Conservative.” Feeling a bit lost, I responded, “I have no idea what ‘inter-milah’ is but I received my Smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rav Shlomo Riskin and Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg.”
Honestly, I felt under attack. I’d never had to produce my rabbinical credentials before. He sent me a link to a blog of mine from a few months before. It challenged a U.S. Conservative Rabbi for officiating at intermarriages. The blog was titled “Inter-marriage, ha!! Try inter-milah.” The group most likely was struggling with the word because English was not their first language.
The point of the blog, I explained, was that if liberal-minded clergy want to work with all different types of people then they should be mohalim. We can work with Jews, non-Jews, mixed marriages — you name it. He explained it to the group as best as he could. As the conversation came to a close I asked, what is this listserve? He explained that it’s a group of mohalim, consisting of mostly ultra-orthodox individuals. I replied, ‘Wait, a bunch of Haredim can’t sleep because of something I wrote? This may be the best news I’ve ever received.”
Now, you’d think that’s where the story might end, but it didn’t. The next day I received a text message from a person identifying himself only as Alex. He began the conversation very formally saying, “Your honor, can I ask you a question regarding circumcision?” so I wasn’t sure if this was an inquiry for my services as a mohel or a continuation of last night’s drama. And Alex told me just as much truth as he needed to in order to potentially trip me up.
Alex first asked me if it’s possible to do a Brit Milah without blood. Now that may seem like a crazy request, but the truth is it can be done and I could easily see why a concerned parent might ask for it. There is a special clamp, called a Mogen which causes complete hemostasis (i.e. no bleeding at all). In fact, I observed a mohel using one in the States. When he was finished, my head was so turned around, I remarked, “But you didn’t put on a bandage.” He replied, “There’s no bandage because there’s no bleeding.”
At the same time, Alex’s question immediately put me on the defensive. You see in Israel, the Rabbanut forbade the use of a Mogen because according to them Brit Milah requires bleeding. Answering in the affirmative would be unacceptable to the members of the listserve. I answered honestly, but in a calculated way, telling him I had no training in this method and that the Rabbanut does not allow it, so he’d be hardpressed to find anyone in Israel who will do it. Now at this point the nature of the call still wasn’t clear to me but that was about to change.
Alex then asked if it’s possible to circumcise a non-Jewish child and if by doing so this child becomes Jewish. First, I now knew that Alex was a member of this listserve. No parent would ask these two ‘hot button’ questions in such close succession. Second, the issue the members of the listserve were struggling with was my perceived liberal stance on conversion. In the ‘inter-milah’ blog I wrote that one could perform a circumcision for a baby whose parents are only Jewish on the father’s side and it didn’t have to be done for the sake of conversion. Some, like those on this listserve, would argue that performing a Bris like this is somehow giving your blessing to the couple’s mixed marriage and should be refrained from. But as this piece by Dr. Ari Greenspan outlines, there is a great deal of legal room for it. I explained the basics of conversion to Alex and the conversation abruptly ended. I still have no idea if Alex got what he was looking for and even if he did, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
Was this my last run-in with the mohalim of the listserve? Could they be bad-mouthing me somewhere on the internet? The ultra-Orthodox are not generally roaming the internet, but you never know. Coincidentally, as I was finishing up this blog, I received a call from a woman asking me the same question that Alex did: would I circumcise a baby whose father was Jewish and mother was not. I told her that I would because I believe it to be true and permitted according to Halacha. Was this some random woman here is Israel? Most likely. These issues even exist in the Holy Land. Could it have been someone that the listserve sent to test me again? That’s also a possibility.
With all of these unknowns it’s nice to have one thing that is certain: there are still good people in the world. I must commend my colleague who contacted me originally. In truth, he easily could have turned a blind eye. But instead, unsolicited, he went to bat for me. I hope the members of the listserve will learn a thing or two from him.
Hayim Leiter is a Mohel for the greater Jerusalem area and he also teaches at The Pardes Institute. You can contact him at ravhayim@gmail.