Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bris For Conversion

There are a few occasions that would warrant what is called in rabbinic terminology "Milah L'Shem Geirut" - מילה לשם גירות - circumcision for the sake of conversion.

1. When a Jewish couple adopts a non-Jewish baby and are committed to raising him according to their lifestyle.

2. When a couple converts to Judaism, and their children convert along with them. Any males who have not been circumcised - from father to adult children to babies - require such a circumcision.

3. When the baby's father is Jewish and his mother is not.

4. When the baby's mother had a questionable conversion. This case is a matter of debate among the
 different camps of Judaism. It boils down to conversion standards - when one camp has more intense and demanding standards of commitment to Judaism and observance, a conversion under the auspices of a less demanding rabbi or conversion program will not be accepted.

In America, case #2 will often feature males who have already been circumcised, just not for the sake of a bris. Assuming the circumcision itself is acceptable according to Jewish law (the glans of the male organ must be completely clear of skin from the shaft), no additional surgery is required. However, hatafat dam brit would be mandated.

Making the Conversion Real
There is a world of mohels and people who fall into categories 3 and 4 above.

There is a Talmudic opinion, held by some contemporary rabbis, that "it is good to be a Jew. It is a privilege to be a Jew." As such, they advocate that in cases where the parents indicate a desire for their child to either be Jewish or be raised as a Jew, then it is OK to proceed with the conversion and the circumcision.

I have not fallen into this camp for a few reasons:
a. While I believe it is good for a Jew to be a Jew and for a convert to choose Judaism, I don't believe it is good for someone who will be raised with little more than a Jewish consciousness (if that) to be turned into a Jew, if one is not born a Jew - which is defined as emerging from a Jewish mother.
b. In the US, intermarriage is a reality a mohel contends with on a daily basis. It is an odd equation: When the mother is Jewish, the baby is 100% Jewish. When only the father is Jewish, the baby is not considered Jewish by Orthodox and Conservative standards.

I have worked with many intermarried families - though only when the mother is the Jewish partner. I have always found the baby's father to be a wonderful man, in some cases even more into his son being Jewish than his wife is into her son's being Jewish.

However, there is enough grounds and empirical evidence to suggest that children of intermarriage are not automatically given a solid foundation in one particular religion. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but no major trend suggesting I am wrong.

What is most often heard is, "We'll give our child different options, so when he grows up he'll be able to choose for himself." This approach does not work at all. It only exacerbates confusion. (Some say "We're going to raise the child Jewish." This is, of course, admirable, though I wonder how practical when one parent is not Jewish.)

c. In many cases, the services of a mohel are sought to legitimate the child's Jewishness. I don't know how often the mohel is up front about the need to have the child converted, and what that means - an immersion in a ritual bath in the presence of a rabbinic court, plus an acceptance to be a Jew when the child turns 13 - which would heavily facilitated by a proper Jewish education. Too often, information is lost in translation, and the only person who benefits is the mohel who pockets a fee. (I don't think any fee is worth not being true to one's religion)

Please note - there is a difference between circumcising a non-Jew who is merely looking to be circumcised, as opposed to a non-Jewish child who has a Jewish father, where they think he is having a "Bris." There is much rabbinic support and halakhic (Jewish law) literature that is more supportive of a mohel being involved in the former case (non-Jewish baby with non-Jewish parents who is looking to be circumcised for a host of reasons that do not include the fulfillment of a mitzvah that is the bris) than the latter case - where the baby's father is looking for his non-Jewish child to have a bris, when the child really needs to go through a conversion process in order to be accepted by the Jewish establishment (Conservative and Orthodox, that is) as a Jew.

The Cases I Will Take

Of the cases listed above, I will accept the job in cases #1 and #2.  [Slightly modified towards the end of this posting and also explained in this posting]

When a couple adopts a baby, I wholly approve of participating in the circumcision for the sake of conversion - when they are serious about raising the child as a Jew, with proper rabbinic guidance and with a real gameplan for doing so, as demonstrated by how they live their lives and experience Judaism personally.

The ceremony is a little different from the standard mode of operation, simply because until the circumcision is done, there is no obligation/mitzvah/ commandment to perform the bris as the child is "not yet Jewish."

When a family converts together, hatafat dam brit is a simple procedure which I have done on converts of all ages.

If they have a relatively young baby who has not been circumcised, the ceremony would be just like that of the adopted baby. Once he is more than three months old, I recommend having the circumcision done in an operating room, ideally with an observant Jew as the surgeon, or at least with the mohel present (mohels can get into operating rooms as observers with enough advanced planning).

Bottom Line: Conversion is serious business, about which the Talmud says "If you don't know what you're doing, don't get involved." Because the specifics that go into converting a baby and making sure all is done right are complex, I stay away unless I am 100% convinced and satisfied that the conversion will be followed through and that I am participating in a real process that will bring about a committed Jew.
ps. A new grandmother called me today to say her son and daughter in law had a baby boy. Her son is Jewish, his wife is not. The woman told me "I know the child is not Jewish, and could have just as easily been circumcised in the hospital. But we want to do it the right way. It makes us feel good."

I don't know what to say. Since when do we circumcise babies because it makes us feel good? We do it because we have a commandment from God to do this to Jewish babies, who continue a legacy of Judaism that is passed from generation to generation that preserve Jewish continuity. I honestly feel for every grandmother who has called me to lament that her child "married out" - "What can I do?"

I agree - there is nothing you can do. The best we can do is teach ourselves, our children and our grandchildren once again why it is important to continue the Jewish story and for Jews to marry Jews, and to learn what it is that makes Judaism special. Until we succeed in doing that, we will continue to cry over the spilt milk that could have been prevented through proper education.

[Watch this wonderful video of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of UK, as he talks about Yom Kippur, and the biggest challenge facing Judaism today]

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