Like Father Like Son
My phone rang as I was walking out of my daughter’s school. An unidentified number. Most people hesitate to answer such a call, but that’s not my reality. A call from a number like that is most likely a Bris. This particular call was slightly out of the ordinary.
The father spoke in a overly respectful manner, “Sir, we had a baby yesterday morning.” “Mazal Tov. That’s such great news.” I replied. We continued exchanging the normal details necessary to set up a Brit Milah, but then the father said something irregular. “My wife and son are in the process of conversion.” Had he stopped there there would have been nothing of note. He continued, “The rabbi we’re working with told us to inform the mohel not to say any blessings and the baby will do HaTafat Dam Brit later (HDB is taking a prick of blood in place of cutting, for someone who was born without a foreskin or who had a circumcision in a questionable manner).”
The question here is: can one do a circumcision for a family that is only Jewish on the father’s side, not for the sake of conversion (whether or not they are in the process of conversion)?
At first glance, it seems like everyone would permit such a thing. But I know first hand that there is a large segment of Orthodoxy that is not in favor of circumcisions of this variety.
I once wrote an article which discussed this very issue. The piece was a response to a Conservative rabbi who announced that he was now doing intermarriage. I pointed out that if liberal clergy really want to work with all types of families, then they should become mohalim. We work with Jews, non-Jews, mixed families, even when the mother isn’t Jewish and it’s not for the sake of conversion.
Subsequently, an organization of ultra-orthodox mohalim was in touch with me to make it clear that they did not agree with what I wrote. It’s my belief that this group thinks that working with mixed families legitimizes a halachically questionable union. But is that enough of a reason to refrain from doing this circumcision?
The truth is, there are halachic authorities that permit a mohel to perform circumcisions under these circumstances. The most prominent of these is the Tzvi Latzadik, one of the commentators printed in the Shulchan Aruch. The Tzvi Latzadik not only permits this type of circumcision, but he demands that we do them. He says we have to pave the way for this child to follow in his father’s footsteps and find his way to Judaism. And if we don’t, we’re in effect pushing him away with our own hands.
The Tzvi Latzadik clearly felt a real need to help people find their way to Judaism and he lived in 19th century Europe. How much more so would he feel this need in our present political situation in Israel, where so many conversions are being retroactively nullified. Not to mention, if we don’t circumcise a child in infancy, the fear of the procedure alone may keep him from converting.
It’s clear from the instructions of the rabbi officiating this family’s conversion that he, like myself, believe that the position of the Tzvi Latzadik is authoritative. And lucky for this family there are rabbis and mohelim in our community who are willing to think openly about these issues and help them find their way to Judaism. Because the last thing we need are more roadblocks to our tradition.
This first appeared in the Times of Israel