(Vol. LXXVI, 1966, pp. 79ff)
QUESTION: If a boy is uncircumcised, may he be permitted to be Bar Mitzvah, and what is the practice in Reform synagogues in America in this matter?
ANSWER: It happens occasionally that an Orthodox rabbi will refuse Bar Mitzvah to the son of a woman who had been converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi. The reason for his refusal has some relationship to our question. Since this woman was not taken to the Mikveh, the Orthodox rabbi considers her conversion invalid. Therefore she is not a Jewess and her child is not a Jew. It is obvious that if a boy is not authentically a Jew, he cannot be Bar Mitzvah, because non-Jews are obligated only to the seven commandments of Noah.
The question therefore is: Is this uncircumcised boy about whom you ask a Jew, or is he not? There is no basis for saying that he is not a Jew. The Shulchan Aruch (in Yoreh De-a 261) says that it is the duty of a father to have his son circumcised. If the father fails to do so, it is the duty of the community (the Beit Din) to do it. If the Beit Din fails to do so, the duty reposes on the boy himself when he grows up; and if he does not have himself circumcised, then he has committed a sin and will be punished at the hands of heaven (chayav karet). Obviously, if he were not a Jew and uncircumcised, this commandment of circumcision would not be incumbent upon him. No one doubts that the boy is a Jew. Since he is a Jew, you have no right to keep him from Bar Mitzvah.
However, a Beit Din (i.e., a rabbi or a community) has the right to make special prohibitory laws in times of emergency (Lemigdar Milta). If, for example, there were in Paris at this time a growing habit of parents to refuse to have their children circumcised, you would have the right to protect the community in this emergency by refusing to allow this boy to be Bar Mitzvah. But if there is no such emergency, you have no such right. If I am not mistaken, a Hungarian community refused burial in the cemetery to uncircumcised men. It was at the time of a radical anti-Orthodox movement in Hungary.
This boy's not being circumcised may be nobody's fault. It may be that his brothers were hemophiliacs and therefore, according to law, he may be free from having to be circumcised altogether under certain drastic condition of sickness; or there may be some other reason. By the way, if the father is dead, the duty of circumcision is not incumbent upon the mother at all. So if he is the son of a widow, his mother has committed no sin.
It is your duty to persuade the family to have the boy circumcised; but whether they do or not, he is a Jew if his mother is Jewish, and he has the right to Bar Mitzvah. You ask about Reform practice in America. I do not know of any Reform congregation that would refuse such a boy Bar Mitzvah.
Solomon B. Freehof
Bar Mitzvah refers to any adult male Jew who is thirteen years of age and therefore obligated to fulfill the mitzvot. That this obligation begins at the age of thirteen is based on Rabbi Judah ben Tema's maxim (Avot 5.24), "A son of thirteen years of age is obligated to fulfill the commandments." The official act marking this event is for the boy to be called to the Torah. In traditional Judaism it also calls for the wearing of Tefilin during morning prayers on weekdays. The celebrations which are a part of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony today are of comparatively recent medieval origin and have no basis in religious law. Nothing indicates specifically that an uncircumcised boy or adult may not be called to the Torah.
Responsa Committee (1980)
W. Jacob, Responsum #64 below, "Status of an Uncircumcised Retarded Adult."
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.