Rav Hayim Leiter
The Unkindest Cut
God, I really hope no one looks at me this way.
“The Mohel” written and directed by Charles Wahl, which made the rounds of film festivals last year, has just been released on Youtube (link above). From a cinematic perspective, it’s an expert short film. Some aspects were spot on, others were widely off the mark.
The film is an accurate depiction of organizing a Bris. The emotional rollercoaster new parents experience is on display for all to see. The viewer is pulled into the parents’ drama; and does a credible job explicating the dramatic tension between the religious mohel and mostly secular parents. But as someone who regularly works with all types of families, I found the film’s overall effect to be distasteful.
The mohel character comes off as a total cliche. He speaks in the sing-songy tone of the classic Hollywood Jew. He is a short, old, hunched-over, kippah-wearing rabbi. And, of course, he’s borderline obsessed with his recompense. He jokes at inopportune times and publicly embarrasses the child’s mother when he won’t shake her hand.
The drama’s climax comes as the mohel is taking his leave. Outside the house, he accosts the baby’s father, telling him he is a disappointment to his mother and that his home is not Jewish. And if that weren’t enough, the mohel claims that both the mother and baby are not Jewish and, for that reason, he won’t give the baby his Brit Milah certificate (something mostly given for conversions and has little to no legal import). The mohel ends this string of distressing criticisms with a reminder of his payment.
Let’s begin with the blatant inaccuracies. The first glaring one is the handshake –– or lack thereof. It is true that many observant Jews are Shomer Nagiah, which means they do not physically interact with people of the opposite sex beyond their family members. But a major principle in Judaism is not embarrassing others. If a woman were to extend her hand, as the mother character does in the film, a rabbi should and would most likely shake her hand to alleviate the situation.
When it comes to payment, most mohalim are nothing like this rabbi, especially when traveling is involved. Many mohalim, like my teachers, won’t even accept payment for the mitzvah. They advise the family to donate whatever they deem proper to charity. But even for mohalim (like myself), who make their living from Brit Milah, we do not demand a wage, especially for traveling Britot.
When I do an international Brit, the family orders the plane ticket and secures lodging for me. I’m not even involved in the process, except to send them my passport details. And since the cost of travel is such a significant expense, I don’t expect any compensation for my services. And that’s actually what Jewish law demands of us.
The most problematic part of the film is the confrontation between the father and the mohel. I don’t believe any religious Jew would say the things he said. Even from a practical standpoint, it makes no sense. If the rabbi’s goal is for this family to become more observant, everything he says and does pushes them away. Attacking a person’s lifestyle after one of the most meaningful lifecycle events would never bring people closer to Judaism. Additionally, it makes no sense to say that this young couple doesn’t have a Jewish home when they just brought Jewish ritual into that space. But worst of all, the mohel did barely anything to help this family. If he really believed the baby wasn’t Jewish, he should have spoken to the family about this beforehand.
Just like the mohel in this film, this week I’m traveling to Cyprus for a Bris. The case is similar to the one in this story: the father is Jewish but the mother is not. Yet unlike the film’s mohel, I’m going to help this family come into the fold. Instead of performing the ritual and then wagging my finger at the parents, I’m going to start the process of conversion for the baby. Unlike Wahl’s depiction, I was upfront about the issues the family faces from the first moment we spoke and they were thankful for that.
This is how most religious leaders behave. We are not interested in propping ourselves up as the better person –– and then getting paid for it. We’re focused on balancing Jewish law in the real world and helping the community at large. It is true that sometimes these values lead to conflict, but that’s no one’s goal.
Thankfully, “The Mohel” is a work of fiction, albeit with possible autobiographical overtones. To those who have yet to organize a Bris, please know that there are many intelligent, caring, and welcoming mohalim –– who are also expert at what they do. If you’re in search of one, here’s a great place to start.
This first appeared here