QUESTION: A prospective male convert has asked about the requirement of tipat damfor conversion. He is circumcised and wants to know the origin of this custom and whether it is required for Reform conversion. (Morton Cohen, Montreal Quebec)
ANSWER: Let us begin by looking at the traditional sources. This question represents a controversy between Hillel and Shamai. Shamai indicated that it was necessary while Hillel stated that it was not (Tosefta Shab 9.7, Shab 135a). This controversy then continued in the later literature and was further complicated by the question whether the individual may have been born without a foreskin. This Mishnaic discussion, of course, has a Biblical basis as circumcision was part of the ritual of joining our people from early times onward as shown by the story of Shechem and Hamor (Gen 34: 13) . In addition, anyone who participated in the Pesah meal was required to be circumcised (Ex 12.45). Of course, this might have meant that no uncircumcised Jew was supposed to eat the pascal sacrifice (Rashi to Ex 12.45). All of these statements referred to circumcision not tipat dam, and circumcision was mandated in the Mishnah with some debate, and the debate continued into the Talmud (Moed 5.2; Pes 8.8; Yeb 46a ff). Circumcision became a general requirement in later Judaism and has been so indicated by all the codes (Yad Hil Milah 17; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268 1.1). Yet there were discussions in the responsa literature which indicate that it is not indispensable (Elijah Mizrahi Mayim Amukim #34) Leon de Modena Kol Sokhol p 59; Mordecai Eidelberg Hazon Lamoed#7). We may, therefore, say that the rite of circumcision for a proselyte although well established by the codes was vigorously debated in Mishnaic and Talmudic times and echoes of that debate continued in the later responsa literature.
Although there was virtually no discussion in the responsa literature of hatafat dam for proselytes the same considerations would be applied. There was some debate whether a court of three individuals must be present at all rites connected with the conversion. Tradition stipulated that it is only the final act of conversion which necessitates a bet din. The various steps along the way as circumcision or tipat dam and immersion in a miqveh would not require it (Yeb 45a ff; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 268.3). The Shulhan Arukh indicated that there is absolutely no doubt bediavad.
The whole question of proselytes and any ritual necessary for their acceptance was debated at the end of the last century by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #68). The final decision mandated that no rites were necessary for acceptance and that was followed well into the last half of the twentieth century. During the last decades, however, the custom of immersion in a miqveh has become widespread and is practiced in a large number of Reform congregations. Mandatory circumcision or tipat damis less wide spread. We may wish to encourage it, always with the stipulation that the ritual is subsidiary to the learning process and the spiritual element of conversion.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.