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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Circumcisions versus Brisses - Circumcising Jews, Half-Jews, Non-Jews

As far as I can tell, citizens of the world who circumcise their sons either do so as a medical procedure or as part of a religious ritual that is a right of passage.

I have met doctors who perform circumcisions all the time, and some who do them every now and then. Each one has a method which works for them to achieve the desired result. (Doctors are wonderful people, and they usually specialize in a particular field. As such, I would be wary of doctors who do not do them regularly, simply from word of mouth from other doctors who've told me their colleagues ought to stick to what they know - but that is for a different discussion.)

Mohels find themselves in a unique circumstance. Most mohels (certainly Orthodox mohels) are not physicians, and yet they have what many would consider a medical expertise in a very limited field. Does this make them obligated, under a sort of Hippocratic Oath, to perform circumcisions whenever called upon to do so?

Firstly, mohels are also specialists and should never extend beyond their training. There is circumcision, which is more or less routine, and there are surgeries which require a reconstruction of the penis. A mohel who is untrained should not undertake such a procedure, particularly if the best setting for it is an operating room with general anasthesia.

Secondly, circumcision, particularly on a newborn, is not, objectively, a "necessary" procedure, and in most cases is not life-saving. As to-circumcise or not-to-circumcise is a choice made by parents, mohels are under no obligation to accept the job if they do not want to. (Religious law might require them to in the event there is no one else available, particularly for a bris which must take place on the eighth day -- though obviously if it does not work out on the eighth day, it can be done at the next opportunity, ideally as soon as possible.)

So we come to our question: May a mohel circumcise non-Jewish babies, or is he only allowed to do brisses (as opposed to routine circumcisions)?

When the Mother is Jewish

In two out of four kinds of marriages or unions, Jew+Jew and non-Jewish male+Jewish female, the child that is born is considered a Jew according to Jewish law. Any circumcision done on this child is considered a bris. A child who is adopted to Jewish parents might also be circumcised under the rubrik of "bris," and depending on the mohel's comfort level with participating in a conversion (because the baby is partially "converted" through the circumcision, pending his being dunked in a mikveh), he can certainly partake in such a ceremony with the understanding that the circumcision plays a significant role in the conversion process.

When only the Father is Jewish

According to most interpretations of Jewish law, the maternal line alone transfers Judaism naturally on to a baby. If the mother is a non-Jew, so is her child.

This leads to a sticky situation in which a Jewish father might be looking to give his son a bris, but his child is under no obligation/requirement to receive one.

Mohels who accept such an assignment might do what is called a "milah l'shem geirus" - a circumcision for the sake of conversion - and will give the parents instructions for how to raise the child so the conversion could one day be finalized. According to Conservative and Orthodox tradition, the child's identification as a Jew pending the finalization of this conversion according to true conversion standards, remains more than questionable. The child is considered a non-Jew and will be subject to non-Jewish status when looking to partake in Jewish rituals. [This is not a knock on non-Jews. But a non-Jew does not have a bar mitzvah as he is not required to observe the Torah. When a non-Jew marries, he does not have to follow the wedding ceremony and practices that are incumbent on those of the Jewish faith.]

Whether the instructions for raising the child and completing the conversion are followed through or the mohel follows up on each child in question is, in most cases, not the reality. The mohel might pocket a fee and leave the family and child in limbo, with future Jewish identity remaining in question and unresolved. [This is why I make these stipulations before accepting a job of this kind]

When both parents are not Jewish

It should be understood that when neither parent is Jewish, the child is not Jewish, and will not be getting a "bris." But a circumcision? What is wrong with that?

As in everything else, there is a debate amongst rabbinic authorities whether it is within the realm of a mohel's job description to circumcise non-Jews, were they to request such a procedure.

I'll leave the analysis for another blog posting for now. Suffice it to say if the non-Jew wants a circumcision done for reasons such as asthetics, belief in the Bible, desire to do what the Bible says, an understanding of "health reasons" that leads one to decide to circumcise, there is ample evidence to suggest a mohel may provide such a service.

The Ultimate Disservice

Whether it is the case of the child of the Jewish father+non-Jewish mother, or the case of the couple who are clearly not Jewish, the one thing that must be made clear is the intent of the circumciser in the circumcision.

For the parents who are both not Jewish, they are most likely not asking for the circumcision to be a "bris" as well. They are not Jewish, have no obligation to do such, and are choosing this path simply based on their own convictions that this is best for their son.

But for the Jewish-father-only child, Jewish law does not take the undertaking of conversion lightly. If the child is "converted," becoming a Jew gives a person responsibilities he was not born to, did not ask for, and might be better off without. If the child decides to pursue Judaism later on, it will be on his own terms, and he will be no worse for wear (his circumcision can be taken care of, when he is a baby, a host of different ways - such as by way of a physician - without the mohel giving the impression that all is good and kosher, when, in fact, it is not).

I've written before about Hatafat Dam Brit. It is the procedure which turns a circumcision into a bris, according to Jewish law. Any person who is circumcised as a child, not under the guidance of a mohel and the guise of a bris, can easily get the circumcision "corrected" with a meaningful, yet painless procedure, done under the proper framwork, and at the appropriate time in the individual's personal Jewish journey.

Doing it at birth by a mohel "so he doesn't have to deal with it when he gets older" is nonsense.

Judaism is not a religion in which we do things either to make others "feel good" nor to "line our pockets with fees produced through ill-gotten means." If a child is not Jewish and the parents are not raising him as a Jew, they should not be given the impression that the child is Jewish and has a kosher bris.

Bris-wise (removing the circumcision details from the procedure), this is the biggest disservice that can be done for a child and his parents.

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