Three boys in my congregation who are not circumcised are progressing toward Bar Mitzvah. In one case the boy’s father is Jewish and his mother recently became a Jew by Choice. During that process I discussed having their son circumcised and going through mikveh at the same time as his mother. The boy’s father is adamantly opposed to circumcision (even though he himself is circumcised) and his wife acquiesces to his wishes. There is a significant history of serious mental illness in the father’s family and the father has been living on disability for many years as a result.
The second case involves twin boys. This family recently joined the congregation. The father is Jewish and completely non-observant. The mother is not Jewish and told me she plans to become Jewish. She immediately told me that, if the boys must be circumcised, she will not do it. She considers circumcision to be “genital mutilation.”
Historically, the Reform movement has not regarded circumcision as an absolute requirement for male proselytes. Has this policy changed in recent times, given that we have embraced greater sensitivity toward traditional gerut practices? Do we still allow non-circumcised boys to be called to the Torah for Bar Mitzvah? (Rabbi Martin Lawson, San Diego, CA)
In one sense, this question invites a clear and simple answer. The rabbi is mara de’atra, the religious and halakhic authority for his or her congregation, and the decision as to the ritual requirements for conversion customarily falls within the rabbi’s jurisdiction and prerogative. The rabbi is not obligated to rescind or to modify those requirements in the face of reluctance or opposition on the part of prospective Jews-by-choice. Indeed, there is every reason for the rabbi not to do so, for basic, fundamental principles such as this should not be made an object for negotiation. This stance, we emphasize, does not reflect a desire to dissuade prospective Jews-by-choice from joining our community but rather our assertion of the Judaic integrity of our position on these questions. Gerim cannot expect to become part our community while simultaneously demanding that we change, just for them, our normal requirements for entry. Indeed, the rabbi who is prepared to compromise on these requirements in response to opposition by prospective gerim undermines the very concept of “rabbinical prerogative” itself, suggesting that we rabbis do not insist upon or believe in our own justified authority. Such compromise, in addition, would invite a backlash from those Jews-by-choice who did comply with the entry requirements and with the authority of the rabbis who administered them.
In a deeper sense, though, this she’elah is not about the authority of the rabbi. Our sho’el knows that it is his prerogative to insist upon circumcision for male proselytes. He asks, rather, whether he should insist upon it, particularly in cases such as those he describes, where the parents of the child to be converted “adamantly” oppose the procedure. In order to arrive at an answer, we shall have to consider three distinct issues. First, we will explore the history of the Reform movement’s position on milat gerim, the traditional requirement that male proselytes to Judaism be circumcised. Second, we will discuss these cases in light of the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) concerning “patrilineal descent,” that is, the possibility that the boys in question might already be considered as Jews without the necessity of a formal conversion and therefore of circumcision. Finally, we must talk about the procedure of circumcision itself, particularly in light of the antipathy that these parents openly express toward it. Should that antipathy influence the rabbi’s response to them? Is it a sufficient reason for him to modify his position and to allow the conversions without milat gerim?
1. The CCAR on Milat Gerim. Jewish tradition prescribes several initiatory rites for the Jew by choice. Male proselytes are circumcised, and both males and females immerse in a mikveh or another suitable body of water.  Gerim who were circumcised prior to their decision to become Jewish undergo the ritual of hatafat dam berit, in which a drop of blood is taken so as to declare, symbolically, that their circumcisions are now considered to have taken place for the purpose of conversion (leshem gerut). The Rabbis understood these rituals as a reenactment of the process through which the ancient Israelites prepared themselves to receive the Torah at Sinai. That is to say, given that the ancestors of all Jews by birth entered the covenant through an experience of “conversion,” today’s Jew by choice must have that same experience in order to become, truly, one of us. The traditional conversion rites are still the universal practice among the Jewish people, including Reform and Liberal Jews outside the United States. The Reform rabbinate in the United States, however, speaking by way of a resolution of the CCAR, declared in 1893 that it is “lawful and proper for any officiating rabbi, assisted by no less than two associates, to accept into the sacred covenant of Israel and declare fully affiliated to the congregation (davar shebikdusha) any honorable and intelligent person, who desires such affiliation, without any initiatory rite, ceremony, or observance whatever.” All that was required of the prospective convert is that he or she pledge “to worship the One, Sole, and Eternal God, and none besides Him,” “to be consciously governed... by God’s laws,” and “to adhere... to the sacred cause and mission of Israel, as marked out in Holy Writ.” This resolution constituted a truly radical break with Jewish law and tradition. For the first time in history, a rabbinical organization had formally stated its readiness to accept a male proselyte without benefit of milat gerim and either a male or female proselyte without benefit of immersion (tevilah). The special committee that brought forth this resolution, perhaps seeking to mitigate its revolutionary nature, produced a lengthy scholarly essay that argued that Jewish law does not in fact require circumcision and immersion of prospective proselytes or that, at least, it does not regard those rites as legally indispensable for formal admission into the Jewish community. This claim, to put it mildly, is controversial; this Committee, in a lengthy essay of its own, has found the scholarship on which the claim is based to be faulty, inaccurate, and unreliable. Nonetheless, even if the 1893 scholarly essay fails to prove its case, the 1893 resolution has never been repealed, and it remains on the books as the official position of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
That resolution speaks specifically of adult proselytes, those who are legally competent to declare their readiness to adhere to Judaism. The Conference did not address the question of conversion of minor children until 1947, when a special Committee on Mixed Marriage and Intermarriage presented its report to the CCAR. In a section entitled “Gentile Children,” the report recommends that “the declaration of the parents to raise (infant children) as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion,” while children of school age are regarded as Jews simply if their parents enroll them in Jewish religious instruction. The traditional rites of milah and tevilah are thus suspended for children as they are for adults, and for much the same reason: “with us where not the ritual elements of conversion but only the ethical and intellectual are considered prerequisite, how are we able to convert young children or even infants?”
Taken together, the 1893 resolution and the 1947 report portray conversion as primarily an experience of mind and heart, a transformation of religious consciousness, the reasoned decision to accept the faith of Israel and the Jewish way of life, as opposed to a legal act (ma`aseh beit din) attested by formal rites and ceremony. During the past several decades, however, our thinking on this subject has undergone a deep transformation of its own. We in no way disagree with our classical Reform forebears that conversion essentially involves the “ethical and intellectual” elements of which the report speaks. The tradition, too, which compares the ger to a newborn infant, sees conversion as a revolution in the spirit and in the aspirations of the Jew by choice. We have, however, come to a positive reappraisal of the value of the traditional rites. As our sho’el correctly puts it, “we have embraced greater sensitivity toward traditional gerut practices.” We recognize “that there are social, psychological, and religious values associated with the traditional initiatory rites, and therefore recommend that the rabbi acquaint prospective converts with the halachic background and rationale for berit mila, hatafat dam berit, and tevila and offer them the opportunity to observe these rites.” The above statement, accepted as “(t)he position of the CCAR since 1979,” parallels the stance taken by this Committee in a number of responsa issued over the past quarter century and more. That position conveys a positive attitude toward the traditional rites, which become the preferred option for prospective gerim. While rabbis are certainly not forbidden to accept proselytes without milah and tevilah, we have argued that such a policy be reserved for special cases in which those rituals would constitute an undue impediment to conversions that, all other factors considered, ought to take place.
This recovery on our part of the traditional conversion rites, in turn, expresses a different (if not entirely different) understanding of the phenomenon of conversion from that held by our Reform predecessors. As we have put it in a recent responsum: “Conversion in this view is no longer exclusively a matter of personal religious transformation but, as well, the ritual process that signifies one’s entry into the Jewish people, an act of identification with the history and traditions of Israel.” Conversion, in addition to being a matter of the mind and the spirit, is also a process of law, the means by which one becomes a “naturalized citizen” of the Jewish polity, and it therefore ought to be attested by the sort of public and formal rites by which any community ratifies its welcoming of a new member. The responsum on this basis found that the 1947 Report on Mixed Marriage and Intermarriage, “which held that adopted children need not undergo conversion, no longer defines our attitudes on these questions” and recommended that adopted children who are not Jews by virtue of birth be entered into the Jewish community by way of conversion. The same conclusion would seem to apply in this case. If we can say that none of the boys mentioned in our she’elah is a Jew by birth - an assumption we shall explore in the following section of this teshuvah - then they should be formally converted to Judaism prior to the time of Bar Mitzvah. And if as a rule the rabbi requires milat gerim for male proselytes, then he is within his rights to apply those requirements in this case. Such lies within his prerogative, and the CCAR’s more recent position offers him its full support and endorsement.
2. Are These Children Already Jews? It is possible, on the other hand, that these boys are indeed Jews by birth under the terms of the CCAR’s 1983 resolution concerning the Jewish status of the children of mixed marriages:
The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parents and child, to Jewish life.
Depending on circumstances, mitzvot leading toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity will include entry into the covenant, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).
The resolution does not confer Jewish status automatically upon every child of a mixed marriage. It holds, rather, that children of mixed unions are potentially Jews by virtue of birth (“the presumption of Jewish descent”) and that this possibility must be affirmed (“established”) by the child’s participation in various life-cycle rituals (“appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification”). These rituals testify that “both parents and child” are committed to Jewish life and that the parents intend to raise their child with “a positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” The resolution’s second paragraph lists a number of these rituals, but it does not require that the child participate in all of them in order to qualify as a Jew by birth. As a footnote to the resolution puts it: “According to the age or setting, parents should consult a rabbi to determine the specific mitzvot which are necessary.” The critical issue is not the sheer number of rituals but the state of affairs to which they purportedly testify: have the child and the parents made a clear, “positive and exclusive” commitment to Jewish life? If so, then the child may be accepted as a Jew under terms of the resolution even if he or she did not participate in all of the rituals mentioned in its second paragraph.
In light of the above, let us consider whether the boys mentioned in our she’elah might be recognized as Jews by birth without need for conversion. With respect to the twin boys in the second case, and based upon the information that the she’elah provides, the answer would seem to be “no.” We are told that the family “recently joined the congregation,” that the Jewish father is “completely non-observant,” and that the Gentile mother refuses to become Jewish or to permit her sons to be converted if the boys must be circumcised. The parents, to be sure, have registered their sons in religious school, and this would count as an “appropriate...formal act of identification.” We wonder, however, whether these boys and their family have participated in any sort of Jewish life until now. Given their parents’ conflicted feelings (to put it mildly) regarding Judaism, we find it difficult to imagine that the decision to send the boys to religious school truly testifies that “both parents and child(ren)” are committed to Jewish life or that the boys’ upbringing has led them “toward a positive and exclusive Jewish identity.” We stress again that we speak on the basis of the evidence we have been provided. Ultimately, the rabbi is charged with the decision concerning the children’s Jewishness, and he must make that decision in accordance with his own best judgment of the facts of the case. From where we sit, however, we would argue that this family does not fall within the intent of the 1983 resolution, so that the boys would need to be converted to Judaism prior to their becoming Bar Mitzvah.
The boy mentioned in the first case, on the other hand, may indeed qualify as a Jew by birth. His mother has recently converted to Judaism, and we have no indication that his father, unlike the father of the twin boys in the second case, is indifferent to Jewish life and observance. We might thus conclude that the parents have indicated their desire to raise their son with “a positive and exclusive Jewish identity,” and this suggests we might accept the boy as a Jew under the terms of the 1983 resolution without need for conversion.
Should the fact that this boy is not circumcised make a difference in our answer? We could reply that since the 1983 resolution does not explicitly mention circumcision as one of its “appropriate and timely” mitzvot (it uses instead the term “entry into the covenant”), it does not require milah for male children of mixed marriages. Yet given that our Conference has explicitly declared circumcision to be a mitzvah, it is quite arguable that “entry into the covenant” does imply milah. Furthermore, let us keep in mind that the 1983 resolution deals not with gerim (for whom circumcision is no longer required, under the terms of the 1893 statement on conversion) but with children who, despite their mixed parentage, are defined as born Jewish. To say that the resolution does not require circumcision is to say that the CCAR contemplated the existence of a class of born-Jewish boys who need not be circumcised, which would contradict our stated position that berit milah is a mitzvah. This is a confusing situation, and the fact that each Reform rabbi in the United States is currently free to interpret the requirements of the 1983 resolution in either direction simply adds to the general disarray over our standards concerning Jewish identity. Accordingly, the members of this Committee urge the Conference to revisit the 1983 resolution so as to establish a clear and firm standard for our movement.
3. The Parents’ Antipathy Toward Berit Milah. There is one more factor that may influence our answer to this she’elah. Not only are these boys not circumcised, but their parents raise strong and substantive objections to the ritual of circumcision itself. Should the rabbi for that reason refuse to convert the boys? We certainly do not seek to punish people for expressing their heartfelt opinions. Free and open debate (machloket) is a hallmark of historical Jewish religious culture as well as an essential aspect of our conception of liberal Judaism. Yet by acceding to these parents’ demands and relaxing his usual standards for conversion, the rabbi risks giving the impression that he accepts their opposition to circumcision as a legitimate Reform Jewish belief.
The rabbi, we believe, must avoid giving that impression. It is one thing for these parents to feel anxiety over the prospect of their sons’ circumcision (and see below). But when they condemn circumcision on grounds of principle – that it is medically harmful, or immoral, or an act of “genital mutilation” - our duty is to remind them, gently but firmly, that we categorically reject all such arguments. Our devotion to the mitzvah of berit milah, which our Committee has termed “an essential and fundamental commandment,” is unequivocal, and we maintain that stance in the face of the criticisms that are all too frequently raised against circumcision. As rabbis and teachers of Judaism, we must be prepared to respond to such criticisms, especially given that some of our congregants, like the parents in these cases, have been influenced by them. The Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism and the National Organization of American Mohalim together constitute an invaluable resource for this purpose, and much useful information is available at their website (http://beritmila.org). Our goal here is not to duplicate their educational work but simply to indicate, in summary form, the directions that our response ought to take.
A. Medical Objections. Opponents of circumcision often attack the procedure on medical grounds, contending that circumcision affords few if any hygienic benefits and that whatever benefits it does provide are outweighed by the risks entailed in the surgery. Medical societies currently do not endorse this negative view, but they tend to regard the “risk versus benefits” scale as more or less balanced and therefore do not recommend the routine circumcision of all newborn males. On the other hand, these findings remain the subject of deep controversy. Research indicates that the rate of procedure-related complications arising from circumcision ranges from two to five per 1000 cases, with most of the problems described as non-serious: i.e., short-term in duration and easily treatable. In particular, the oft-heard claim that circumcision leads to psychological trauma or to a decrease in adult male sexual satisfaction is either refuted or called into question by a number of studies. As for the pain of the circumcision procedure, local anesthesia can be applied as a remedy. Some authorities, moreover, hold that the benefits far exceed the dangers. The World Health Organization, for example, has concluded that “(b)ased on the existing evidence, experts (have) recommended that male circumcision now be recognized as an additional important intervention to reduce the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men.” In addition, circumcision has been associated with a number of health benefits, such as lower rates of urinary tract infection, penile cancer, sexually transmitted infections, and of cervical cancer among sexual partners of circumcised men. In short, the collected data challenges the portrayal of circumcision as medically non-beneficial and potentially dangerous.
It falls outside our expertise, of course, to judge the cogency of the medical evidence. More to the point, we regard the debate over the medical necessity for circumcision as largely irrelevant. To us, as Reform Jews and rabbis, the issue is not the surgical procedure called “circumcision” but the mitzvah of berit milah, through which we reenact the covenant of Abraham. Even were it proven - and, we emphasize, it has not been proven - that circumcision afforded no hygienic benefits whatsoever, we would maintain this rite out of our identification with the religious experience of our people. Yet it is vital that rabbis direct those parents who may be influenced by anti-circumcision claims to sources of information that will help put the situation into its proper balance. Circumcision is hardly a “dangerous” procedure, and it may even provide some medical benefits to those who undergo it as well as to their sexual partners.
B. Ethical Objections. The parents in our cases raise a different sort of objection against circumcision. They denounce the procedure on ethical rather than medical grounds, namely that the removal of a child’s foreskin constitutes a moral wrong perpetrated against him. Our response to the ethical objection should be directed toward at least the following two versions of it.
We do not, therefore, accept the medical or ethical objections against circumcision. The rabbi who requires milah for the purpose of conversion should not alter that policy in the face of these arguments.
We stress that the above applies only when parents raise principled arguments against circumcision, that is, when they attack the procedure as harmful or immoral. Such arguments, precisely because they call into question the very institution of milah, must be rejected, and the rabbi must do nothing to suggest that he or she agrees with them. Suppose, however, that the parents’ concern was not the mitzvah of circumcision per se but the potentially traumatic effects that circumcision might have upon their sons, who are old enough to be frightened of the procedure but not old enough to understand its Jewish religious significance. That sort of “objection,” targeted not at milah itself but at its application in a particular case, might well lead to a different response on our part. In a previous responsum we suggested a Jewish legal theory that would argue for accepting the conversion of an eight-year-old boy without circumcision. In general, we think that the 1893 resolution of the Conference which officially annulled the requirement of milat gerim applies quite well to the conversion of preteen boys, even for those of our colleagues who make milah a normal part of their conversion procedure.
Conclusion. Let us summarize our approach to the two cases presented in our she’elah.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.