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