QUESTION: A baby boy born to Jewish parents required a one week hospitalization due to a serious illness. The parents indicated that they wished to have the child circumcised but did not want a berit. The grandmother inquired about a berit. The physician who is a trained mohel subsequently circumcised the child. As he performed the medical procedure on the eighth day, he decided to recite the blessing for a berit milah, reasoning that a berit is a mitzvah central to Judaism and that in this case the recital of the blessing was known only to the individual and to God. Was this an appropriate act? (Stanley Berkowitz, Los Angeles CA)
ANSWER: As you have appropriately indicated in your letter the berit milah does not affect the Jewishness of this child who is the offspring of two Jewish parents and is Jewish by birth. The obligation of berit milah rests upon the father. It is the duty of the father, or in some instances of the mother, to circumcise the child or to delegate the responsibility to their agent (shaliah). Under some special circumstances a bet din may perform this task for the father. (For full references see W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #54).
We might argue that the berit milah performed by the physician/mohel benefits the child and one may benefit a person even without his consent. That is true only when the individual or those responsible for that person would consent if the situation became known. That is not the case here. We might also follow another line of reasoning which would state that berit milah is a mitzvah which is incumbent upon every Jew and which if not accomplished by the father may be enforced by a bet din (Kid 29a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 261.1) or by the entire Jewish community in the absence of a bet din (Arukh Hashulhan Yoreh Deah 261.2 and Shulhan Arukh 265.1 and commentaries). In other words, one could look upon this mohel as a delegate of the entire Jewish community upon whom the obligation of berit milah rests even without parental consent. This line of reasoning is the one used by the haredi group in Israel for all mitzvot. As they are obligatory upon all Jews they consider it their obligation to enforce the mitzvot with or without the consent of those for whom it is being done. We reject this line of reasoning and have always felt strongly that no form of religious coercion can be permitted.
The Jews have fought many battles against religious coercion. In the Middle Ages and in modern times we have struggled against baptisms carried out without the consent of parents by well intentioned Christian maids. In our own century we have fought against Sunday legislation, obligatory prayer in the schools, mandatory attendance at baccalaureate service, etc., so we can certainly not condone religious coercion in this instance either.
We would like to persuade the parents in this instance as well as many others to follow the mitzvot and encourage them to provide this minimal beginning of a religious life for their child.
The mohel/physician may feel strongly that berit milah is an absolute obligation. Therefore he has good grounds for refusing to do this circumcision unless it is to be done as a berit milah and it may be wise for him to take this road so that his own integrity is not violated.
Discussion with the family may change their attitude toward berit milah especially if they had only vague objections to the ritual. The ritual is fundamental to Jewish life and that should be explained fully. If they have strong objections we should honor them, although we believe the parents to be wrong. The physician should not have performed this berit milah.