A Question of Jewish Law

February 2, 2011

To Include Or Exclude?

Filed under: Life Cycle — chaimweiner @ 4:01 pm

Question: Can a child who has not been circumcised have a Bar Mitzvah?

Answer: There is no doubt that, according to Jewish law, status is automatically conferred from mother to child, and that a child is considered Jewish solely by virtue of his or her birth. A Brit does not make a child Jewish, and the lack of Brit Milah has no impact on a child’s status. Not fulfilling the Mitzvah of Brit is no different from not keeping kosher or not observing Shabbat. There is no inherent Halachic reason why an uncircumcised person should not be called to the Torah or be allowed a Bar Mitzvah or a Jewish wedding or any other Jewish activity. He is the same as anyone else who fails to keep aspects of Jewish law and who is not excluded from being called to the Torah.

However, based on their understanding of the circumstances, Rabbis do have the authority to introduce bans based on the Halachic concept of Lemigdar Milta – literally, ‘to erect a fence around the matter’. The Talmud [BT, Yevamot 90b] looks at the story of the prophet Elijah, who built an altar and offered sacrifices on Mount Carmel. This is strictly forbidden in Torah law, but the Talmud concludes that Elijah was allowed to do this in order to prevent the worshipping of idols in the community. This is proof that it is permitted to introduce practices to maintain and strengthen core principles of the Torah.

Following this principle a community may decide to regulate its practice – for example by limiting who can be called to the Torah or have access to other religious services, in order to defend the religious standards of the community. Historically, there have been many communities that have prevented uncircumcised men from reading from the Torah or getting married.  This was the practice of many Orthodox communities in Germany in the 19th century following the guidance of S. R. Hirsch and E. Hildisheimer. [See Rashan 67]

Although the Brit is a Mitzvah like all others, historically it has had a particular significance. From Hellenistic times there have been attempts to ban circumcision and Jews have given their lives to preserve their right to maintain the practice. Communities have understood that the neglect of  this Mitzvah has more serious implications for Jewish identity than the neglect of other Mitzvot. Consequently, the Brit is one of the most widely observed of Jewish practices.

Erecting a communal fence only makes sense if it is likely to achieve its purpose. Rabbis and community leaders need to judge whether introducing such a ban is worthwhile. To be effective, synagogues need to work together so that they do not undermine each other.

In an open society, where people have a choice of which community (if any) they choose to join, it is unlikely that coercive tactics will lead to an increase in observance. In most cases, communal bans only push people away from the Jewish community. Therefore, today most communities follow the basic letter of the law – and allow Bar Mitzvahs and weddings to all.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on R. DZ Hoffman, Melamed Leho’il, YD (Section 2) 79

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6 Comments »

  1. . There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity

    * Jews Against Circumcision http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D. http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish-shalom.html

    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D. http://www.jewishcircumcision.org

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    http://intactnews.org/node/105/1311886372/jewish-voices-current-judaic-movement-end-circumcision-part-1

    The Kindest Un-Cut Feminism, Judaism, and My Son’s Foreskin by Professor Michael S. Kimmel

    http://www.cirp.org/pages/cultural/kimmel1/

    Jewish Intactivist Miriam Pollack has some great commentary on Foreskin Man in this recent interview.

    http://www.beyondthebris.com/2011/07/defying-convention-interview-with_27.html

    Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors
    http://intactnews.org/node/103/1311885181/jews-speak-out-favor-banning-circumcision-minors ..

    Comment by A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision — August 5, 2011 @ 4:05 am | Reply

  2. Thank you for your comment and for the opportunity to state my views on circumcision.

    My personal experience, both as someone circumcised as a child and the father of 4 boys – is that too much is made of the damaging effects of circumcision. For the most part, it is a minor operation that involves limited discomfort for a limited time. The amount of pain and discomfort was nothing compared to the decision I made a few years later to allow my son undergo surgery to rectify a breathing problem that could have posed a risk for him in the future. It is my responsibility to take care of my son’s physical wellbeing – even when this involves difficult and risky decisions. So too, I am responsible for his spiritual wellbeing. As a parent, I view the Brit Milah as a small price to pay for the opportunity to bring my son into the wonderful rich heritage of the Jewish people. Parents make decisions like this for their children all the time.

    There are those who say that one should wait for their sons to grow up and decide for themselves whether they want to be circumcised or not. I view this as short-sighted and cruel. What would you say of a parent who chose not to speak to their child until he or she was old enough to decide for themselves what language they wanted as a mother tongue? There is no doubt that such a decision would cause irreparable damage to the child’s development. Parents cannot avoid making decisions for their children both directly and indirectly; language, culture, values and religion are just a few examples. Not circumcising is just as much a choice as circumcising – not doing it causes a different type of damage and there is a different price to pay.

    I have worked with many converts who are circumcised as adults. This is certainly much more difficult than a child’s circumcision. Parents who delay a child’s circumcision are doing their sons no favour. Over the years I have come across very few adult Jewish men who are angry with their parents for having them circumcised. I have come across just as many uncircumcised men who are bitterly angry with their parents for not doing their duty when they were infants.

    In short:
    1) As parents we make decisions for our children.
    2) Not circumcising a child is as much as a choice as doing so – and creates a serious barrier to the child’s integration into the Jewish people.
    3) The minor discomfort around a circumcision is well worth the joy of being part of the Jewish tradition.
    4) All choices carry risks.

    Rabbi Chaim Weiner

    Comment by chaimweiner — August 7, 2011 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  3. What is the halachic position on converting a child to Judaism who is not circumcised, and whose parents do not intend to circumcise, although they plan to raise the child as a Jew in all other ways?

    Comment by Joshua — October 7, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

    • I am not aware of any halachic precedent for enabling a conversion without circumcision. Where as a child born Jewish remain Jewish whether circumcised or not – a non-Jewish male cannot enter the covenant without a circumcision. That is not to say that raising a child as a Jew is all other ways wont’ make it easier for him to formally convert at a later age, if he decided to do so.

      Comment by chaimweiner — October 9, 2011 @ 8:31 am | Reply

  4. Good Morning Rabbi Chaim Weiner,

    Dear Rabbi Chaim Weiner,

    In Sefer Bereshit chapter 17 verse 11 it is cleary stated that to enter in the alliance that a jewish new born, or a convert should pass through a brit Mila. וּנְמַלְתֶּם, אֵת בְּשַׂר עָרְלַתְכֶם; וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית, בֵּינִ For me it would be an honor and would not conceive it otherwise.

    If circoncision is performed before the eighth day after birth it is because at that time the baby has the highest level of coagulation and will therefore heal rapidly, one more reason for not do it at later stage. Then I definitely agree with Joshua, not doing it will imply psycological problems to integrate within the community, furthermore the Brit Mila is something quite hygenic for the child’s health and beneficiary to him.

    Also we have to consider a lot of cultural practice which wont be able to be done as: It is a fact that the mother who transmits her jewish identity to her kids, but what role plays the father in regard to his son ?, well during the circoncision this is left to the Mohel, the Father and the sandag. This completes the belonging to Judaism inscribing his son in his alliance with God. It is a way for the father to recognize the legitimacy of his son. From then on the father will be implied in the education of his son.

    Also some of the cultural practices such as that of the mappoth still alive among ashkenaz jews would not be maintained.

    The important think to consider is that any jew can come back at a time he wishes back to his religion.

    kind regards,

    Georges Baudrand ( Cahen )

    Comment by Georges baudrand — November 16, 2011 @ 8:10 am | Reply

  5. [...] to fight against those who didn’t circumcise their sons. For a discussion of this issue see this post by Rabbi Chaim Weiner and this responsum by Rabbi Solomon [...]

    Pingback by Foreskin Fact Checker Needed « Menachem Mendel — June 28, 2012 @ 12:46 pm | Reply


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