American Reform Responsa

54. Circumcision of Infants

(Vol. XCII, 1982, pp. 218-219)

QUESTION: During the last thirty or forty years most American children have been routinely circumcised in the hospital after birth. This was considered good preventive medicine and was recommended by most doctors. The medical profession has now changed its attitude on this matter. Some doctors no longer feel the operation is necessary and therefore do not routinely suggest it. It is clear that traditional Judaism demands circumcision for all males. What is the stand of Reform Judaism on this matter today? (L.O., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

ANSWER: The rite of circumcision is one of the most ancient practices of Judaism. This commandment was given to Abraham with the injunction that male children be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:11). The commandment is repeated later in the Torah (Lev. 12:3), and has remained throughout our history as one of the most important commandments. It already led to martyrdom in Maccabean times (I Macc. 1:48,60). The exact details of the circumcision itself have been provided in every Jewish code (Yad, Hil. Mila; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 260ff; Gates of Mitzvah, pp. 13ff). The ritual itself is incumbent upon the father, who may delegate a Mohel, a Jewish physician, or any qualified Jew. It must be performed on the eighth day after birth (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 262.1; Gates of Mitzvah, p. 14; see Responsa #55-58 below). This remains the accepted practice for Reform Jews.

There was considerable discussion in the middle of the last century among radical reformers about the need for circumcision. The question was raised in 1843 by the Frankfurt Reform Association, which encouraged its members to abandon the rite. The Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the city, Solomon Abraham Trier, did his best to dissuade the association and its members. He and others indicated that those who had not been circumcised would not and should not be considered as Jews (W.G. Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, pp. 206ff). The entire matter was debated at the Leipzig Synod in 1869 without any resolution and was referred to the Augsburg Synod, which in 1871 declared "the supreme importance of circumcision in Judaism," though those who had not been circumcised would continue to be considered as Jews. A similar resolution was passed by the Philadelphia Conference in 1869 (CCAR Yearbook, 1890, pp. 118-120). Subsequently there was considerable debate about the need for circumcision on the part of converts (CCAR Yearbook, 1892, pp. 66ff, and 1893, pp. 69ff). However, no one further questioned the necessity for infant circumcision. This is reflected in every subsequent manual or guide (Rabbi's Manual, p. 110; S.B. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, vol. 1, p. 113; see Responsa #55-58 below; Gates of Mitzvah, pp. 118ff).

Current medical fashions are irrelevant in this matter as we consider circumcision to be a religious rite, not a health measure. Unless ill health or serious medical problems prevent the circumcision of a male infant on the eighth day, he should be circumcised on that day. If such a child is not circumcised, he would nevertheless be considered a Jew (San. 44a; Hoffmann, Melamed Leho-il, Yoreh De-a, #79). It would be incumbent upon such an individual to be circumcised later in life (Kid. 29a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 261.1). We would encourage uncircumcised children to be circumcised later. Certainly parents would not want to inflict this much more serious and painful operation on their adult son when it can be done easily on the eighth day.

Circumcision remains for us an essential sign of the covenant. We have affirmed it since the days of Abraham, our Father, and continue to affirm it.

Walter Jacob, Chairman

Simeon Maslin

W. Gunther Plaut

Harry A. Roth

Rav A. Soloff

Sheldon Zimmerman

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.